traditions are Beneficial

How Oral traditions are Beneficial and Challenging

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How Oral traditions are Beneficial and Challenging


Written documents are often seen as significant sources of history. Documents such as diaries, letters, and old shopping lists can tell a lot about how a person lived, their thoughts, and feelings regarding what was happening around them. Oral tradition refers to the information that is passed down from one generation to the next through word of mouth without being written down, including law, traditions, and literature (Jansen, 2017). Some examples of oral tradition include proverbs, customs, legends, and folktales. For a long time, Africa was deemed a barbaric continent because it did not have widespread writing. Additionally, people thought that something could only be taught if it was written down. This begs the question of how people learned about societies without written records and with very few illiterate people. The cultures that did not store their history in writing instead told their children stories about what transpired, and this way, culture was passed down from generation to generation. This way, history was kept alive. Worth noting, today historians recognize the role of oral traditions in preserving history. Various investigations conducted on studies found evidence indicating oral history as a source of African history. Oral traditions are useful because they help people know what happened in their societies, help people understand cultural beliefs, solve problems, and handle stressful situations, but they are challenging because of inaccurate transmission, unreliability, and language barrier.

Benefits of Using Oral Traditions

Oral Traditions Help People Know What Happened in Their Societies

To begin with, one of the benefits of oral traditions is that they help people know what transpired in their society long before their existence. At the time, in Africa, written communication was rare, and hence oral communication was the only way to preserve history. Oral traditions are critical in explaining events, including when and why events happened the way they did to people or a community. Stories, in particular helped in passing along key messages to future generations about a community. The stories are beneficial because they give explanations for events in life that even the members of the community themselves cannot explain. For example, fictional stories can explain how leopards came to have spots or a serious matter such as what happens when a person dies.

Oral Traditions Help People Understand People’s Beliefs

Another reason why oral traditions are significant in that they help people understand the cultural beliefs that African held and how they came to have those beliefs. By explaining occurrences and events, they help people understand why their predecessors believed what they did. Additionally, oral traditions also help people understand their feelings about the environment in which they live. Through oral traditions, people understand why a community named mountains, rivers, and other landmarks the way they did. Oral traditions also explain why people carried out practices such as rainmaking dances. Additionally, oral traditions also extend to explaining medical practices. For example, among communities such as Black, Afrikaans, and San people learned how to treat wounds and illnesses from what they observed or learned from their elders. This kind of learning was called apprenticeship. Among the Black and San cultures, medicine men were the ones who had knowledge about treating illnesses but among Afrikaans, medicine men were known as boererate, and anybody could use them.

Oral Traditions Help People Solve Problems and Handle Stressful Situations

Another reason why oral traditions are beneficial is that they help people resolve problems and overcome stressful situations. Particularly tall tales help resolve problems and are commonly used among children to boost their creativity. Tall tales are a type of oral story in which the hero is a supernatural being who possesses unusual strength and is large in size. In tall tales, the hero believes they are ordinary beings, uses ordinary language, and often exaggerates details (Vansina, 1985). Exaggeration is what defines a tall tale as it is often very difficult to believe. Noteworthy, since tall tales are developed using a person’s imagination, it encourages creativity. Tall tales can be silly or funny. They are also filled with descriptive language, metaphors, and similes. These metaphors and similes can be used to refer to a problem indirectly.

Challenges of Oral Traditions

Inaccurate Transmission

Oral traditions grapple with the challenge of inaccurate transmission. The fact that oral traditions rely on word of mouth to pass information from one person to the next and one generation to the next leaves room for mistakes. When a culture does not have a culture language or has very limited writing tools means that somewhere along the way, the information is likely to be distorted. For example, South Africa is a country rich in oral traditions. The stories from South African are numerous and they reference the various cultures existing in the country. For many years, these stories were passed from one generation to the next through word of mouth. Most of them have since been preserved. Before being written and being preserved, each story has its own version. This leads to one tale having several versions because as the narrator tells the story, they are likely to distort it. The fact that the story is told repeatedly and by different people means that some sections were likely to have changed. There is a possibility that the narrator may have omitted an important detail, added new information or simply switched information up in a bid to make it easy for the audience to understand. Despite this, the main stories in oral tradition remain the same and give people important clues concerning the past.


Another challenge associated with oral traditions is their unreliability. One cannot tell if and which account of a story is true and which one is false. As a result, one cannot tell which account of history is accurate, making it unreliable. This is evidenced by the stories narrated to young children growing up, including stories about the lions, the hare and others. This makes it hard to tell which tale if imaginary and which one is true.

Language Barrier

One major challenge associated with oral traditions has to do with language barriers. Oral traditions are passed from one person to the next using word of mouth. If the people are not familiar with the language, telling a story about African history can be challenging. For instance, a person may be having valuable information they want to talk about, but the language may get in the way of telling the story. If all parties involved do not understand the language, the process of communication is limited.


In closing, oral traditions use the word of mouth to pass history from one person to another and one generation to the next. Oral traditions are beneficial but, at the same time, are filled with challenges. Oral traditions are beneficial because they help people understand their cultural beliefs, understand what happened to their societies and resolve problems and overcome tough situations. On the other hand, challenges associated with oral tradition have to do with unreliability, language barrier and inaccurate transmission. Since oral traditions rely on word of mouth to transfer information, the narrator likely distorts the information. All in all despite oral traditions having their downsides, they remain beneficial in transmitting African history from one generation to the next.


Jansen, J. (2017). Sunjata: A New Prose Version.

Vansina, J. M. (1985). Oral tradition as history. Univ of Wisconsin

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