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The Failure of Oral

A case of African beliefs & customs


Copyright © 2018 Divine Verkijika

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 1727448189
ISBN-13: 978-1727448184

To knowledge, tolerance, understanding and application


Acknowledgments i
1 Foreword Pg 3
2 Introduction Pg 4
3 The failure of oral tradition Pg 6
4 The role of African Literature Pg 10
5 The Chief Priest as custodian of the gods Pg 13
6 Elders, Ancestors, Proverbs & Sacrifice Pg 15
7 Conclusion Pg 17

Special thanks to my anonymous sources,

Who despite understanding the delicate nature of this publication,
decided to provide us useful data and insights into the workings of
African Tradition that lead to the inspiration of this piece of work.


"If the genuine intellectual is to be the principled non-conformist, or

as I have baptized him, the gadfly and goad of society risking the
frown of the great and the tyrant's stroke, he must acquire a will of
granite, must possess or cultivate a more than normal caliber of
courage; for without fearlessness, without the readiness to die, to lose
all if need be, no intellectual, however high his talent, will ever keep
any impact on his community whatsoever"

Dr Bernard Fonlon
The Genuine Intellectual

In this work, I have decided to follow the advice of Dr Fonlon, to

risk the frown of the great and the tyrant's stroke by walking through
the valleys of the shadows of the practitioners of traditional African
Religion, to do profound research and bring out insights that I
believe may be able to change the way Africans see themselves and
the way the rest of the world looks at Africa, as well as help us
understand our current situation, and thus hasten our developmental
process which relatively is very slow.

This work is just as important to Africa as it is to the rest of world,

for Africa is part of the global village and our Karma is interwoven &


Oral tradition is the collection of information through word of
mouth from generation to generation and this has been the main
vehicle for transmitting information in preliterate societies.

Thus it is of paramount importance to evaluate the role of oral

tradition in the evolution of Africa, and to bring out interpretations
which can shape or lead to the shaping of the future of Africa,
something which has always been undermined by European
dominated sources.

While western spiritual and philosophical schools of thought are well

studied and documented. There often seems to be a certain
confusion as to what the true African philosophical viewpoint is or if
at all there is one.

This confusion, further empowered by the excitement of a new

found religion, helped to nourish the misbelieve both amongst a great
deal of Africans and the West, that all traditional African beliefs are
primitive, archaic and even bad for mankind in favor of almost
everything from the west, leading to the emasculation of the African
man and creating fertile grounds for western imperialism, slavery and
colonization which also brought about their own problems to add to
the already existing complex equation (fragile African states).
However major benefits of colonization, such as literacy and


exchange of knowledge and information, have helped us to bring a

new page to our history, and can also permit us to solve both past
and future problems brought about by oral tradition notwithstanding
the challenges brought about by this new system

However I'm not here to throw stones, but to look at the pros and
cons of the course of evolution in Africa, and also with my basic
understanding of the mindset of the traditional African man, shed a
light as to what I believe to be the cause of the problem, and how
using the failure of oral tradition theory combined with fragments of
available traditional African artifacts in all their forms, and resources,
we can be able to interpret and consequently find solutions to the
problems we face and surely defeat the plague of slow development
we find ourselves in.



While the science of communicating through Writing was adopted in

the East and In the West, Black Africa isn't proud of having any such
experience at least not until later on in history relative to others. As
such this made black African societies to record history and
information using techniques such as rituals, festivals, proverbs
and etc often embedded in their lifestyle, culture and traditions,
hence history and information was transmitted through oral tradition.

While in small communities oral tradition was not a major issue as

the quantity of information gathered was small and oral means of
transmission was easy. But as communities grew bigger and some
villages merged together to form tribes, the nature and quantity of
information transmitted became complex, such as business
accounting and especially the ability to accurately keep and follow-up
agreements (contracts) that bound communities together especially
after long periods of time and generations after the original
generation that held such agreements.

Failure to keep up to this agreements either by subsequent complete

or partial forgetfulness, wrong interpretations, alterations, or
disagreements on the original terms of such agreements or by other
factors of human nature led to multiple conflicts at different levels
(still present today) which then weakened the original fabric (societal
foundation) of traditional Africa, giving way for external forces like
slavery and colonialism to easily thrive and add to the pile of complex


conflicts but most sorrowfully some of these conflicts haven’t been

resolved and their negative effects still continue to plague us as well
as being exploited by businessmen in the name political leaders and
even genuine leaders wanting to solve such issues meet
unprecedented challenges, primarily because of their ignorance as to
the origin of the conflicts, and especially because in African
Traditional Society, Law and religion are interwoven, making issues
such as simple as land disputes to be sacred and untouchable in the
eyes of tradition keepers hence putting us in a stalemate or somewhat
very slow development.

Unfortunately, the saddest of all, is the stalemate caused by the

wealth of scientific, artistic, and social knowledge and information
that has been heavily lost because of the failure of the tradition of
oral tradition. Inventions and innovations of modern science are
possible today because of the theories and inventions of past
centuries that were documented, and accumulated and evolved over
time. However in Africa, because of the tradition of oral tradition,
such knowledge will die, immediately as its creator or promoter died,
or a few generations later, even if it survived, it will be heavily altered
by forgetfulness or error or worse still those taking advantage of it
for economic or political reasons who eventually still face the same
challenges of oral tradition, making the situation more complex. In
fact it is very common in Africa, to see people hold and practice
traditional beliefs and customs, not because they understand them,
but simply because it was the ways of their forefathers, irrespective of
whether these forefathers were in error, or in the business of public
manipulation for private gain.

For example, imagine the complex laws that we have to draw in

modern day as marriage agreements, or business mergers and country

Now imagine how this would survive if they were only orally agreed


upon, and their being kept was based on the goodwill and ability of
each party to remember the agreement and to discipline himself and
his clan generations after generations to respect such rituals, festivals.

Matter of fact, I can go even further to defend my thesis that,

powerful ancient religions that have survived till today, like the
Jewish faith, and its subsidiaries like Christianity and Islam despite
their somewhat debatable beliefs and practice systems have
succeeded to remain alive, due to the ability of their creators or
propagators to document and preserve their basic principles such as
the Bible and the Quran.

For example in the case of Moses, because paper and other modern
forms of storing and propagating data were not available, he was
forced to summarize all his beliefs into ten commandments which
could easily be engraved in stone, and he and his followers managed
to protect and preserve these stones, till better means of transmission
were available. Also it is easier to memorize and orally transmit
without major alterations 10 basic sentences as compared to more
complex theories, facts, agreements and believes. This may explain
why despite the relative stable and long lasting nature of these
religions, the places (countries) where the religions were originated,
harnessed or propagated, have undergone or still face some conflicts
and challenges of oral traditional origin that have led to the complete
or partial death or some form of reshaping of their territorial,
political, economic, scientific, artistic and social landscape, because
such data was more complex to store and propagate over time.

Because of the chaos caused by the failure of the Traditional African

States and a general misunderstanding by both Africans and
Europeans of what the true philosophy of the African man was and
where origin of the African problem lies, Africa was forced to
experience and continues to suffer from the effects of such a painful


Lucky enough, from the fossils of whatever is left of these traditions

and customs and also because of the ability of more and more
Africans to research and document African stories and history, we
are able to interpret this little piece on African Spiritual Philosophy
which I believe can go a long way to clarify certain issues, restore the
dignity of the African man and permit us to heal the wounds of the
past and concentrate on our evolution.

I also invite more scholars to source for, research, document and use
available means to interpret and benefit from the rich history,
tradition and customs of Africa


Across Several African Tribes from West to East, to South, the

customs are very similar in principle and just vary based on available
natural resources. For example amongst the Igbo people in Nigeria,
the Ofo (act of communal and ancestral covenant) is put on special
wood because of its ability to last long, while in my native Nso Tribe
in Cameroon, it is done by placing stones at a given location of a
chief’s compound and jealously guarded.

Because of limited resources and thanks to this similarities across

tribes but especially thanks to the fact that we currently have several
written accounts and literary works that can guide us with some of
these customs, I will like to use the novel "Arrow of God" by Chinua
Achebe as reference to bring about as to my own perspective,
clarifications to a few misunderstandings held by both Europeans
and sadly Africans about African cosmology and metaphysics.

While doing so, I plead not to claim to be a master of African

Cosmology or claim a unified theory of African metaphysics but
invite you to look at it with an open mind and I welcome every
debate that will permit the discovery of the mystery and truths of
Africa unfold.


The question many might like to ask is; why have you chosen “Arrow
of God”? When many critical works exist on this text.

First, Arrow of God is certainly the high point of African Literature.

For in this novel we are plunged into the secret and sacred workings
of the metaphysics of Africa. In this novel, Chinua Achebe dwells
essentially on the spiritual life of the traditional African man and the
reader who is not versed with the laws of African Metaphysics and
cosmology will completely be lost.

I am dissatisfied with much of the critics’ reception that has been

given to this book because much of what has been said of this novel
is far from what the author presented.

Also the bulk of the critical commentary on this novel has been made
by western literary critics who are not fully aware of the intricacies
and subtleties inherent in our traditions, especially because these
critics do not understand our language as Achebe himself puts it.
And Language here does not mean words, but a man’s entire world
view. And this same argument holds for critics from the continent of
Africa far from treating the work as it is presented on the printed
page, attempt to impose hideous machinations.

In Arrow of God, we are treated to a cultivated aesthetic in which a

whole community is caught up in the web of tragedy because it
refused to heed to the advice and come to the support of Ulu, its
communal deity, represented by its chief priest, Ezeulu.

Therefore, when in a land dispute between the Umuaro and Okpweri,

communities, Umuaro goes to war in defiance of Ulu (their god) who
through his chief priest Ezelulu, makes it clear that he will not fight
an “unjust war”. Unjust because Okpweri people were the rightful
landlords of the disputed land.

“How could such a people disregard the god who founded their
town and protected it? Ezeulu saw it as the ruin of the world (p15 –


Arrow of God)

Worse still, the people of Umuaro remain arrogantly silent when the
Whiteman summons Ezeulu (the Chief priest) to Okpweri – a thing
which defies their custom,

“It is against custom for the priest of Ulu to travel far from his hut.”
(p144 - Arrow of God)

But Umuaro has grown wise in its own conceit and follies and must
meet catastrophe after catastrophe before it can see that an alliance
with falsehood will never do them any good.

In Arrow of God, Ezelulu is the only witness of truth and is prepared

to incur the wrath of the whole Umuaro community. In fact it is
Ezelulu’s stated position right at the beginning of the novel that a
priest of Ulu should never dine at the table of falsehood.

“But how could a man who held the holy staff of Ulu know that a
thing was a lie and speak (p7 - Arrow of God).


A chief priest never wanders away from his shrine because as

custodian of the spiritual welfare of the society, he is constantly
needed for all daily as well as emergency spiritual activities that help
the citizens and the community to live in harmony and staying away
from his hut even for a short while may put the community in a
stalemate. (As it indeed happens in “Arrow of God”)

In traditional African societies, as cautionary motives, because of the

possibility for community to falter, the office of the Chief Priest is
always employed, to preserve history and record communal
agreements, and to remind the community of all such agreements.

The process of selecting a chief priest may vary from place to place,
but often includes some form of strict apprenticeship, and such
persons take oaths to represent nothing but the truth and as such are
given responsibility to take care of the spiritual welfare of the
community (Sacrifices, rituals, festivals and sometimes healings).


African traditionalists are often accused by monotheistic religions of

worshipping many gods. This accusation grows in strength especially
as in most African cultures and languages, the idols that are
supposedly worshiped by these peoples are referred to as gods.
However, the African traditionalist is indeed a monotheist, and
believes in one universal creator.

Because of inability to record and store agreements in writing, and

understanding the importance of such agreements, especially those
involving communities, and the heavy negative effects of broken
agreements, The traditional African man considers pacts and
agreements to be so holy, and sacred that he gives them the status of
demigods. Demigods, so as to emphasize the value of truth, honesty
and integrity, and also because he, like his counterparts in the east,
believes that a broken contract, will haunt and catch the defaulter
(karma). But they also believe in the all forgiving god and repentance,
and the chief priest is assigned in most cases, to carryout ablutions.

Hence such pacts mostly made by ancestors and represented by idols,

stones, hills etc and the regular glamorous rituals performed on them
(miss viewed as worship) help to serve as communal reminders and
must be kept sacred by the chief priest to keep the society from

From tribe to tribe, rites and rituals vary and are used to transfer
varying information or as a form of education, striving to give its
participants an intensive experience that can remain in the minds for
long. (Because oral tradition is not reliable).


Elders: In African Tradition, elders are often considered sacred, in

fact there is an African proverb that says "what an old man can see
sitting down, a young man cannot see even if he climbs on a tree".

We may ask, why this sacred considering for the elderly? And based
on the theory of the failure of oral tradition, we can say, because
history and especially truth and agreements were never recorded in
ancient Africa, the old and elderly acted as living testimonies and
whenever conflict arose the community turned to them for fact
checking. Hence this old people had to hold high ethical standards
and deserve some respect for the important role they played to keep
the community abreast with its truth.

Ancestors: Each modern community stands because of its legal

constitution or in ancient days its social contract which in every
society is drawn up and kept by ancestors. In Africa Ancestors are
seen as creators and keepers of such pacts, agreements and
constitutions. If you forget your ancestors, you most likely will forget
the pact they had taken in the past that of course is relevant to your
life. If your grand fathers lands were given to him by the king in
exchange for loyalty, and your grandfather died, your father took
over, and died and you take over. Forgetting to remember your
grandfather, may lead you to go against his pact with the King. As


such Africans consider ancestors to be sacred. First the ancestors

embody a whole wealth of values that have kept each community
alive and strong and the ancestors serve as reminders of how far we
have come and how much further we need to go.

In fact, in the Nso tribe, in Cameroon, some rituals often include

calling of names of Ancestors, while pouring wine on the communal
idols, which can easily be misunderstood for worshiping these

Proverbs: In African tradition, proverbs are used for economical

purpose (brevity) which is very important, considering the fact that
information is orally transmitted, but especially because they serve as
documents of social experience. In some cases, they act as legal
precedents and of course lend dignity to the conversation by creating
mood and atmosphere

Animal Sacrifice: Perhaps one of the biggest misconceptions

towards African tradition is the use of Animal Sacrifice

If those who condemned animal sacrifice were all ethical vegetarians,

it would make sense. So definitely it’s not the killing that bothers
them but in fact that these killings are supposedly offered to some
god whom the rejecters of this practice may term, an evil god or
worse still a non-existing god.

The fact is, most African Rites, or Rituals are time consuming and in
most cases need the presence of a good number of witnesses
(important since information is orally transferred). And it is
customary for the beneficiary of such rites or rituals to provide food
for the priest and for the witnesses. The glamour that may go on in
the process of slaughtering the animal per ritual is the utmost
discretion of the practitioner and can also be used to transmit
information. In some cases, the animal can be dumped, as a symbol
or message.


Just like in “Arrow of God”, where Ezeulu refuses to compromise

the truth, no matter its consequences. Because of the African man's
fundamental believe in the concept of Karma and his inability to set
up complex community systems, The true traditional African man is
highly principled and depends on his ability to stay faithful to his
values even if it means paying the ultimate price.

Just like other religions and spiritual schools of thought, which are
heavily influenced by the politics and business of both the past and
present, each having some baggage either in the production or
distribution process, which followers of contrary believes will find
questionable, African spirituality too especially as practiced in
modern day is far from perfect and this write-up is not a
recommendation or approval of any leader of such religious practices
or believes but a piece of work with mission to spark thought and
expand perspectives.

Plenty of the numerous conflicts and problems in Africa today,

however simple they may seem, are a complex build up over time of
the failure of this culture of oral tradition. And this weakness has
been exploited in several ways for political, and socioeconomic


For example, in simple cases, while bride price is fundamentally a

symbol of union, a family may chose to exploit a potential son in-law
by levying very high bride price.

Secondly, In case of conflicts such as land disputes, some elders may

alter the truth and sellout in exchange of benefits from one party. Or
even just use their position as holders of the history to exercise
control over the people and exploit their vulnerability especially as in
the minds of these people, the elders are sacred.

The modern African man and his western friend who don't
understand such intricacies, and can't discern between when they are
being exploited Vs. communal truth (the gods) may tend in error to
reject all of what African tradition offers and by so doing, violate
contracts and agreements (the gods) which otherwise might have
been appeased or amended for the sake of communal peace. Such
people in the eyes of the genuine traditional African man are seen as
ingrate, dishonest and dishonorable and will therefore expect some
form of karmic consequences on those who disregard the gods. (The
communal agreements)

This is neither an invitation into nor confirmation of the existence of

spirits, or spiritual powers or any of such supernatural phenomenon
as may be propagated by any practitioner of African Traditional

There is much more embedded across the different fabrics of the

African people, which can bring extra meaning into our lives and
hopefully contribute to the worlds heritage and development, and I
hope this piece acts as a humble contribution.


Divine Verkijika, also known as “Dyllann” is a Cameroonian Artiste,

Author, & Community Organizer