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Accepted paper:

"'Making the archival watch dog bark': The UNESCO archive of African oral tradition"


Casper Andersen (University of Aarhus)

Paper long abstract:

In 1985, in the UNESCO The Courier, the Kenyan historian Ali Mazrui emphasized the importance of oral traditions for the study of African history. As long as written archives were considered the exclusive basis for historical research, the African continent would remain marginalized and largely silent about its past. Mazrui likened the situation to the Sherlock Holmes story in which the identity of the intruder is revealed negatively by the watch dog that did not bark (thus revealing that the culprit was the person the dog knew beforehand). The dog's silence was the devastating piece of evidence. Similarly, in African history - because written sources had been regarded as the only archive for history, the (apparent) silence of the continent had been taken as devastating evidence that Africa had no history and no internally driven development. At crucial moments the African archival dog had not barked - but only because until recently Africa's oral traditions had not been properly archived. It was, Mazrui concluded, the ongoing task of UNESCO to establish and vindicate this archive and, thus, make the dog bark. This paper discusses UNESCO's gigantean program for building a continent-wide archive of African oral traditions, which became institutionalized in 1968 with the Centre for Research and Documentation of Oral Traditions in Niamey in Niger. Concerned with preserving oral traditions of the past the program was, nonetheless, obsessed with making a truly modern archive. UNESCO developed scientific typologies to cover all African oral traditions. The program employed the newest recording technologies and used fixed scripts that would allow for the making of a standardized archive. Mass media and new communication technologies were enrolled to ensure a wide distribution of the archived oral traditions as a number of national broadcasting corporations aired in radio and televised to the large urbanized African audiences plays and performances based on the UNESCO archive of oral traditions. I argue that the archive project displayed a tension between on the one hand a commitment to promote and vindicate African ways of knowing about the past and on the other a high modernist drive to build a scientific archive that would resonate in international scientific circles. The UNESCO program to make the African archival watch dog bark, therefore, offers a fresh perspective on longstanding tensions between Afrocentric agendas and universalist aspirations in African history.

panel D19
Disciplinary trends in Africa: history (double panel)