The fascination of the word: an old missionary talking with a young missionary

I was sitting on the porch of the house, admiring the warm sun slowly descending on the horizon. Wrapped up in my thoughts, a newly-arrived young missionary approached me, and he sat next to me and we both watched the warm sunset. Then, all of a sudden, he asked me what is important for a young missionary who has just started his journey. I looked at him with affection and sympathy and my mind went back to a time fifty years ago when, as a young missionary like him, I arrived in Africa.

I told him that, first of all, the missionary has to learn the local language. This first step is of the utmost importance for his future ministry. Then he will be asked to do a lot of listening, because African culture is essentially oral. This means that the art of listening becomes the first phase of evangelisation.

I tried to explain to him that oral tradition is one of the greatest riches of Africa. It is woven into the fabric of society in which everything converges into one. Religion, social customs and culture are harmonized and become a living reality. Even though today there are modern instruments like computers and the internet, oral tradition remains the foundation of cultural acknowledgement.

Understood as the norm which determines the conduct of the individual in society, oral tradition is neither dead nor fixed, but alive. It is maintained and transmitted by individuals who continually elaborate and modify it. Consequently, it is as alive as the people themselves. As an African proverb says, “If you tell tradition to leave, it will be you who leave, leaving tradition behind you”. In my fifty years in Africa, I have seen the great variety of ways by which oral tradition is passed on from one generation to the next.

Another important element is the Proverbs. If you speak with proverbs, people understand that you know the language. They are one of the most widespread means of communicating traditional customs and beliefs. They perform the function of publicly resolving, allegorically, the many individual and collective conflicts latent in the society.

They are always to the point, based on concrete human existence and the circumstances of the people. For example: “It is at the end of the old rope that the new rope is tied”, or “Wisdom is like the trunk of the baobab tree: one person alone cannot embrace it.”

Another literary type of African oral tradition is story-telling. It contributes to change and to the creation of tomorrow’s society.

Stories are often told in sessions that can last for hours. A suitable atmosphere is always necessary. Story-telling therefore starts in the evening, after eating and bathing, when everyone is in a receptive mood. Darkness, of course, adds to the fascination.

The stories are oral texts with their own styles varying from person to person, and with their own images, structures and, of course, repetitions.

The narrator speaks to all present, but his words are also directed towards a particular person called the rhythmic agent, who takes up and responds to the narrator’s words. Often the agent repeats the tale, sentence by sentence, acting like an echo, or an “amplifier”, through which the story reaches a greater number of people.

Many stories have songs incorporated in them, sung by the narrator and repeated by the people. At times the listeners may interrupt the storyteller to include a traditional song which the story may have inspired. But, as in many other societies, the “minstrel” also has an important place in the transmission of oral traditions, singing his stories, accompanying himself with any of a number of musical instruments that give a variety of colour and life to the stories. When there is a suitable number of people present and when, above all, a suitable atmosphere has been created, the narrative session begins. Each teller may choose his instruments, although his activity is carried out more during the daylight hours.