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The role of griots in the survival of people, arts and culture

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By definition, “a griot is a member of a heredi-tary caste among the peoples of West Africa whose function is to keep an oral history of the tribe or village and to entertain with stories, poems, songs, dances, etc. A griot is therefore an oral historian. Griots existed in pre-literate African societies. They had to memorise important aspects of the history of their people which they arranged in verses, recited often, and transmitted from generation to generation through the understudying of older griots by younger ones.

The griot as a traditional institution, must have evolved among West African ancestors as a result of the realisation that knowledge of the history of a people by the people is crucial for their survival. It is an ancient wisdom that people who do not know how they originated, what happened to them in the past, and where they are coming from, will certainly not know where they are headed.

As history is known to repeat itself, people who lack knowledge of themselves are likely to repeat the same mistakes their forebears made in the past. “If you’re foolish enough not to know who killed your father,” they say, “the same person may end up killing you.” That is why those who wish to clip your wings, enslave, and destroy you strive so hard to either falsify your history in order to lead you astray, or prevent you from knowing the truth.

It was both the search for the history of his people and his classical encounter with the griot from Juffure in Gambia that inspired Alex Haley to write the classic novel, Roots, subtitled the epic drama of one man’s search for his origins.   

Kunta Kinte, the great grandfather of Alex Haley, never relented in telling his offspring how he was kidnapped from the bush in Africa where he had gone to chop wood to make drum for himself; of how they sold him to some white men who shipped him and many other Africans across the sea and brought them to America as slaves. Alex Haley’s great grandfather had insisted that his name was Kunta Kinte, not Toby – the name the first slave master who bought him gave him.

Kinte had also repeated some peculiar words like Kamby Bolongo, which means Gambia River. This story and those words were passed from one generation of this slave family in the United States to another until Alex Haley heard them and became obsessed with them and decided to investigate their authenticity.

After tearing into pieces the libraries and other sources of information in USA, the search took Alex to the Gambia, the root of Kinta Kunte. In the process of speaking with some people in the capital city of Gambia, Alex suddenly ‘struck gold’: “Then they told me something of which I had never dreamed: of very old men, called ‘griots’, still to be found in the older backcountry villages, men who were in effect living, walking archives of oral history,” he said.

“A senior griot would be a man usually in his late sixties or early seventies; below him would be progressively younger griots – and apprenticing boys, so a boy would be exposed to those griots’ particular line of narrative for forty or fifty years before he could qualify as a senior griot, who tell on special occasions the centuries-old histories of villages, of clans, of families, of great heroes. Throughout the whole of black Africa, such oral chronicles had been handed down since the time of the ancient forefathers, I was informed, and there were certain legendary griots who could narrate faucets of African history literally for as long as three days without ever repeating themselves.”

At several points in his research, Alex Haley broke down in tears when the facts of the crime the white men committed against his ancestors in Africa dawned on him. Through Alex Haley’s work and the oral history transmitted across generations by his ‘griotic’ great grandfather, black Americans in the United States gained strength and subsequently power via a clearer understanding of who they are and exactly what happened to them in the remote past. All of us writers who are obsessed with the history of our people today are griots in our own respects, even more than griots, by virtue of what education and technology have bestowed on us; and we have full chests of duties to transmit this history from generation to generation!

In those days, as today, (oral) literature, music, poetry, and visual arts are repositories of people’s histories and ways of life. The difference is that today, literacy and the evolvement of the art of writing have replaced griots with writers. There is now sophisticated ways of documenting history (books and printings, films, sound recording, the Internet, etc.), thanks to education and technology.

When General Yakubu Gowon, who presided over the Asaba massacre, in the so-called apology told Asaba people to “forgive and forget,” what did he mean? Did what he meant include that Asaba people should forget their history which can never be complete without the genocide? Or did he mean that the people should isolate that bitter part of their history and cause their collective mind to suffer a general amnesia over the massacre – vivid, red, and flowing as the blood of innocent Asaba people had been on the hands of the Nigerian Army?

Like technology, there is no morality in history. Facts, they say, are sacred. You cannot say: Please leave out this aspect of these people’s life in narrating their history because it is such an ugly part which does not speak well of them or someone else who acted upon the people. Another good thing about history is that it will ultimately judge you – for good or for bad, regardless of how hard you work to cover it up or falsify it. We often speak of the long arm of the law. I believe the arm of history is longer than the arm of the law. It eventually catches up with the villains of this earth, and uplifts the people from their bondage, as long as the modern griots are dedicated and continue to recite the history; and the young ones remain focused, attentive and cultivate the habit of reading authentic HISTORY.


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