Sunday, April 24, 2005


Closer to Orality

I was surfing through the web today, perusing through other people's English 337 e-journals, when I came across something interesting. Dustin has on his website some "audio posts". Click on these posts and you will hear literary passages being read to you. How intriguing. It's ironic, really. For in this class of oral traditions, where we discuss memory and attempt to retreat back to the oral world in some way, most of our e-journals are entirely typographic. Dustin's audio-entries, however, display some characteristics of what Ong would secondary orality. The entries are based upon the literate world, but are presented in oral form.

The nature of Dustin's audio posts immediately made me think of Faith. In her presentation last week, Faith explained that her paper posits that books on tape are the modern link to our oral past. Hummm...

Saturday, April 23, 2005


Term papers

Today was our first day presenting our term papers. It seems that people came up with some pretty interesting and varied topics -- from an Ongist analysis of cultures in The Lord of the Rings to a discussion of modern-day orality as books on tape.

My term paper is entitled, "Language Transcription and Cultural Identity". It's about the cultural transition when a society moves from being oral to being literate. Specifically, I examined the role of the alphabet used in the transcription of oral stories in Guinea. As would be expected with this transition, Guineans lose an aspect of their oral tradition as they become a literate culture. However, perhaps part of their cultural identity may be maintained if their stories are transcribed using an alphabet that matches their language. Below is the complete paper... (Note: for some reason, I can't get the spacing to show up correctly on the published version of this blog, no matter how hard I try, so the paragraph divisions are weird. My apologies to the reader.)

Language Transcription and Cultural Identity
Sunlight from the open shutters flood the room as I sit at a wobbly wooden desk in the back, observing a unique class learning their lessons. The students in this classroom are not elementary schoolchildren, as the setting would suggest. In fact, they are adults -- parents of the children that normally fill these rows of table-benches. These dedicated members of the parent organization have come for their weekly lesson in literacy, taught by a USAID-sponsored Guinean teacher, Mamadou Fofana. While Guinean schoolchildren are instructed in the country's official governmental language, French, Mr. Fofana teaches in Pulaar, the language spoken almost universally in this part of the country. Pulaar is a language rich in oral tradition and history, yet it has no real written form. The written Pulaar that these students are learning is based on the Roman alphabet -- a sort of forced fit to the puzzle of literacy in this largely oral culture. Sounds from the Peuhl language don't really match up with Roman letters, even after a few extras (what my Peace Corps trainers referred to as "D-bizarre and B-bizarre") have been added. But without an alphabet of their own, one that accurately represents the unique sounds of their mother tongue, Mr. Fofana and his students are almost obligated to use an existing alphabet -- either Roman or Arabic -- if Pulaar and the stories that its oral tradition carries are to survive in this increasingly literate world.
In another part of this West African nation, some members of the Malinké ethnic group of Haute-Guinée have begun to recognize the importance of an indigenous alphabet. In 1949, Souleymane Kanté created an alphabet specific to the Malinké (a.k.a. Mande) language. His aim was to increase literacy among his people as well to provide the means to accurately record Malinké oral history and traditional knowledge (Oyler Reinventing). Though it is unlikely that this alphabet, called N'ko, will ever be as widely used as the Roman and Arabic alphabets, this written form of Malinké has experienced an unexpected popularity, creating a unity among Malinké speakers that crosses political borders. As oral cultures make the transition from orality to literacy, indigenous alphabets such as N'ko may help to maintain cultural identity by allowing for a more accurate expression of native languages.
Like many of its neighbors, Guinea, a country situated on the western coast of the African continent, became a colony of France in the late1800s. French rule brought many changes to the West African nation -- political, technological, and cultural. Along with forced labor, and the exploitation of Guinea's rich natural resources, colonial rulers also imposed their language on the Guinean people (Hudgens and Trillo 479). French was deemed the official tongue in school and in the government. In an effort to "civilize" the Guinean people, colonial rulers aimed to replace local languages almost entirely with their own (Hudgens and Trillo 479).
While the imposed cultural dominance of the French may suggest that oral stories were lost and forgotten, this is not the case. As Emmanuel Obeichina explains, "The superimposition of alphabetic writing upon the oral cultures of Africa in the nineteenth century did not extinguish the oral traditions upon which African cultures and literatures had long been established." In fact, the result of this new, introduced literacy was that many oral stories were recorded and archived (Obeichina). But did transcripts in French, a language so far from their original tongue, really do the oral traditions of Guinea justice?
Souleymane Kanté thought not. In 1944, he took the critical statement of a Lebanese journalist, who claimed that African languages could never be written down and were thus inferior, as a challenge (Oyler Reinventing). With his creation of the N'ko alphabet, Kanté aimed to increase literacy among his Malinké counterparts, making Western knowledge available to them with translations in their own language. In addition, he sought to preserve Malinké cultural heritage, including oral stories and knowledge such as that from traditional healers. (Oyler Reinventing). His took inspiration from a Malinké proverb: "If one takes the roof of one villager's house to cover the house of another villager and it does not fit, then one must build a roof that will fit" (personal interview 59 in Oyler Reinventing).
After Guinea gained its independence in 1958, the new ruler, Sekou Touré, came to agree with Kanté that learning in maternal languages may be the most efficient way to teach the nation's people. However, in instituting his "National Language Program" from 1968-1984, whereby schoolchildren were taught in local languages rather than in French, Touré did not go so far as to adopt N'ko as a standard alphabet for the Malinké language (Oyler Cultural Rev.).
Despite this setback, Kanté continued to promote N'ko on his own. Even without government funding or support, he attracted a large following that continues to this day. As Dianne Oyler points out, "Adults and children voluntarily learned the alphabet because it became culturally important to them." (Cultural Rev.). Kanté and his supporters translated document after document into Malinké using N'ko, making such texts as the Qu'ran accessible to the Malinké lay audience. In addition, N'ko allowed Malinké scholars to transcribe traditional stories and oral knowledge using an alphabet consistent with their own language, thus making the written versions more accurate and complete (Oyler Cultural Rev.)
The widespread embrace of N'ko in Guinea and beyond created a sort of cultural unity among speakers of Malinké and related languages. As Deborah Oyler posits, "Being literate in N'ko has become an important part of the current cultural Mande revival because the possession of N'ko means the repossession of the area's cultural integrity." (Cultural Rev.).
T he composition process of oral literature may be now be slightly different because of the introduction of this new culturally sensitive alphabet (Oyler Reinventing) and the influences of the chirographic world. However, N'Ko has preserved Malinké cultural heritage in a way that no other alphabet could. Oral stories and traditional knowledge can now be transcribed in a linguistically appropriate way, helping to maintain their accuracy and cultural nuances.
Few traditional African languages are as fortunate as Malinké to have an alphabet all their own. Regrettably, this means that local languages are being written as Roman or Arabic scripts. And as I witnessed that sunny morning in the classroom of adults, part of the language, and thus part of the culture, is lost even in these determined efforts to preserve it and educate its people. Alphabets like N'ko, which have been created with a specific native language in mind, mean that oral stories are translated more fully and accurately. It is with these truer representations of oral traditions that the cultural identities of oral peoples may be retained.
Works Cited
Hudgens, Jim, and Richard Trillo. West Africa: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides, Ltd, 1999.
Obiechina, Emmanuel. “Narrative proverbs in the African novel.” Research in African Literatures 64(4): 123-141. MSU Libraries. Gen’l Reference Ctr Gold. Montana State U Libraries, Bozeman, MT. 9 Apr. 2005
Oyler, Diane. “Re-inventing oral tradition: the modern epic of Souleymane Kante. (transcribing African stories in N’ko language).” Research in African Literatures 33(i1): 75-95. MSU Libraries. Gen’l Reference Ctr Gold. Montana State U Libraries, Bozeman, MT. 9 Apr. 2005
Oyler, Dianne. A Cultural Revolution in Africa: The Role of Literacy in the Republic of Guinea since Independence. 10 Apr. 2005. <>

Sunday, April 17, 2005



One of the cool things about this e-journal is the ability to hypertext things. I am in the process of writing my term paper about a Guinean alphabet, N'ko, and have found some interesting websites on the subject, listed below. N'ko is an alphabet created in 1949 specifically for the Malinke language -- a language that has been, until recently, completely oral. Its creator, Souleymane Kante, wanted to prove that his language could be written down (contrary to the claim made by a snooty Lebanese journalist) and to promote literacy among his people. Kante realized that neither the Arabic nor the Roman alphabets were a good fit for writing Malinke because their letters did not fit the unique sounds of his language. In creating N'ko, Kante himself has become an epic hero.'koliteracy&guinea.html

Hotel Rwanda

I saw an incredible movie this weekend. And though this entry is not entirely related to oral traditions, I was so affected that I thought it merited an e-journal entry. This is a movie that everyone should see. It was tough to watch, sickening at times. I spent half the movie crying in anguish and in anger.

One of the parts of the movie that hurt the most was when an American journalist was talking to a Rwandan man about the horrifying footage that he shot that day. The Rwandan thanked the journalist because with footage like that, it was certain that international forces would intervene, that someone would come and help them. The journalist replied that people in the States would watch the terror on their TV screens and think to themselves how horrible it was. Then they would go on eating their dinners. That's exactly what we did. Almost one million Rwandans were murdered during the genocide.

Saturday, April 16, 2005


"African time"

Towards the beginning of my two year tour with the Peace Corps in Guinea, I organized a girls soccer match at the village middle school. The teams were slated to practice at 4:00 pm on a Tuesday. I've never been a very punctual person, but I figured that since I was the coach, I should be a good example -- I made it over to the field with five minutes to spare. I was the first one there, so I found a shady spot to wait. I waited... and I waited... After about 45 minutes had passed, I gave up and trudged back up the hill towards my tin-roofed shack. Had I misunderstood? I saw the principal of the school on my way up the hill and stopped him, "Monsieur Diawara, jiwobe araali tew, ko hondun waadi?". ("Mr. Diawara, the girls haven't come for practice yet. Is something wrong?"). The principal laughed. "Saffi," he told me, "there are only three times in Africa -- morning, afternoon, and evening." The girls had told me 4:00 meaning "evening". That could mean that they would show up anytime between then and around 8. And sure enough, practice was held later that evening. The girls all knew when to show up, of course...

Many people have asked me about the pace of life in Guinea. It is slower. It is a live-in-the-moment kind of culture. Instead of focusing so much on the future, Guineans live almost completely in the present. They do what they want to do right now, even if that means being late to the next event. The next event will wait.

As Western influences grow stronger in African nations like Guinea, native peoples do everything they can to be more like Americans. Guineans are obsessed with the movie,"Titanic". They listen to the likes of J. Lo and Emenem. They wear baseball caps and tennis shoes if they can afford them. And likewise, many of them wear wristwatches. When I leaned over to my friend Boubacar one day and asked for the time, pointing to the watch on his wrist, he confessed that his watch didn't actually keep time. It's just for decoration. It seems like our sort of industrialized concept of time just hasn't taken hold in Guinea. And I think that is a beautiful thing.

When I go to bed at night back here in the states, turning out the light is like turning off my senses. From that moment on, I try to block out any more stimuli -- the cars on the street, the lights outside my window -- lest they disrupt my slumber. But in Guinea, I took the time to listen. Blowing out my candle at night was not the end of my senses for the day. Outside my window, crickets rubbed their wings and bullfrogs croaked in a cacophonous song. My neighbor's goats shifted their weight. During the rainy season, drops pelted my tin roof in a boisterous effort for my attention. It was its own sort of polyphony.

Thursday, April 14, 2005



Today, the second day of group presentations, one of the groups challenged us to break free of univocal thinking and to feel the polyphony of oral tradition. I was most impressed by this creative approach of this group, who had us all wear blindfolds for the duration of their presentation. Taking away one of our senses, the sense that is so closely linked to the chirographic world, allowed our other senses to take over. The group worked hard at non-visual sensory stimulation, bringing in smells such as Lysol(?) and pipe tobacco as well as auditory clues like clanking glasses, flicking lighters, and vocal inflexion.

At first it was difficult for me to give in to this new, blind, world. I tried to focus on one voice, to pick out the vocal timbre of someone whose voice I recognized. I tried to hone in on one conversation, to block out the other "noise". But the longer we sat there and listened, the more clear it became that opposing conversations were not noise but part of the polyphonic song. And though it did become cacophonous at times, that seemed to add to the antagonistic tone that is characteristic of the oral tradition.

It is interesting to me that in this American world where we pride ourselves in our ability to multitask, we are forgetting to really stop and listen to the world. We are involved in a million different activities and push ourselves to fit more and more into the day. This go-go-go mentality is causing us to lose touch with our traditions, with nature, and with ourselves.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


Group Presentations

Today was the first day of group presentations, starting with Kane's chapters on Maps, Boundaries, and Dreams. Each group presentation was unique and fascinating in its own way. Jeremiah and the Maps people intrigued us with their oral map treasure hunt while the Dreams group wowed us with special effects and a dramatic renactment of a Celtic myth. It's interesting to see how all of these chapters from Kane come together.

I belong to the Boundaries group, which also presented today. Each of us acted in the myth-turned into theatrical production (thanks to Allison for writing it out), and each of us presented a sub-section of the chapter. (Note: the notes from my sub-section are posted on my class notes blog). I would like to thank and congratulate all my fellow group members for this presentation. I was really impressed that everyone pulled their weight and contributed to this project -- it doesn't always turn out that way.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005


Memory Presentations

We were reminded today in class that our last memory feats will be performed on April 19 -- a memorized list of 50 items of our choice. I have decided to kill two birds with one stone on this one and memorize something that I have to memorize for another class: Parts of the brain. My memory theater this time will be inside the body instead of a room, as I think it may be easy to remember brain anatomy using the actual brain as a map. We'll see how it goes...

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?