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Oral History: A Look back to the Future

For many of us our knowledge of our ancestors is limited to names, number of children and perhaps their city of birth, but what about the details of their lives, the parts that made them truly unique, the experiences that shaped them into knowing elders?

Many cultures still honor and practice the ancient art of oral tradition. It was once vital to survival and is resurfacing among many researches to give more detailed facts and meaning to periods in history. The spoken word can often express a felt experience in a way that cannot be denoted in the pages of a book.  Even the development of the Bible began in this way.  According to Dr. L. Michael White, "[…]Jesus died around 30; for 40 years, there's no written gospel of his life[…]it appears that in between the death of Jesus and the writing of the first gospel, Mark, that[…]they're passing on the tradition of what happened to Jesus, what he stood for and what he did, orally, by telling it and retelling it."

What is Oral History?

The Oral History Association explains that oral history, “is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities and participants in past events.” This practice is not just for professional researchers, but for everyone, including our young future leaders. Imagine the lessons that could be learned and the number of missteps that could be avoided if we passed down the wealth of wisdom from one generation to the next.

Oral History Projects

In 2016, Washington University’s African and African-American Studies Department (AFAS) embarked on an extensive project, The AFAS Oral History Project in which they interviewed Kenyan expatriates living in St. Louis, Missouri in an effort to preserve their history; in particular, those with applicable knowledge of the 1960’s. It was during this decade, that Kenya gained its independence (1963) from Great Britain and became a republic (1964). Both are celebrated as holidays on December 12th, Jamhuri Day, meaning republic in Swahili.


Power of Collective Memories

According to the AFAS, “until the western conquest of Africa in the late nineteenth century, most Africans societies relied on memories, transmitted orally, to preserve and recollect their past.” This is true for many cultures, including Aboriginal societies in North America. Stephen J. Augustine, Hereditary Chief and Keptin of the Mi’kmaq Grand Council gives a vivid account of the practice of oral tradition in his society sharing that, “this is the part which is exciting because when each Elder arrived [in the circle] they brought with them a piece of the knowledge puzzle. They had to reach back to the teachings of their parents, grandparents and even great-grandparents. These teachings were shared in the circle and these constituted a reconnaissance of collective memory and knowledge. In the end the Elders left with a knowledge that was built by the collectivity.”

This collectivity became key in the AFAS project, finding that, “oral history both corrected the records of the colonial era [in Kenya] and filled in the institutional gaps resulting from post-colonial African governments’ inability and unwillingness to continue the bureaucratic record keeping traditions of their predecessors.” This is essential to understanding the importance and reverence that should be given to the lived experiences of everyday people. It is the everyday person that can provide nuances that are often missed in the traditional western style of recording history. For instance, a law passed is important, but how that law affects the lives of the people in a community is what is significant.

Oral History: The Nuances

Dr. Martha Norkunas, Professor of Oral and Public History at Middle Tennessee State University, in conjunction with her graduate students conducted over 180 interviews between 2004 – 2014 with African-Americans living in the Texas and Tennessee areas. Their study focused on racialized space, what Dr. Norkunas describes as, “the obligation to move through public space in particular ways, dictated by law and social custom (2015, p.11).” In the United States, we have, in relatively recent years, moved from a legally segregated country to a legally integrated country, but how is this reflected in the lives of everyday people?

During Norkunas’ study, an interview was conducted with Mattie Rose from Tennessee in 2009.  Rose recalls how she felt during early desegregation, “[…] when it started to change, I had [...] to deal with getting used to that more than just what I had grown on up with, when all of a sudden, black people were in places that they hadn’t been before (p.16).” Much like how the world saw President Barack Obama, the first U.S. African-American president, living in the white house with his family in 2004 and now this year in 2020 the country has elected its first female and first person of color vice-president, Kamala Harris.  These are monumental changes, particularly in the eyes of those who have grown up seeing and experiencing the country in a much different way.

Magdalene Nkwain, a member of the Kom tribe of Cameroon, sat down with Bevy and Dave and lovingly recalled stories told by her grandmother of life before British colonization. “As my grandmother used to tell me, they had kind of a freedom life, they were not afraid of anything until the British colonization came [which brought] a lot of diversity of life. When they were young they used to just dress with (um-wa-shee) leaves of trees, that’s their grandparents [who] dressed with leaves of trees and most of them were farmers, taking coffee and their cocoa as their cash crop… and doing hunting to earn their living (November 18, 2020)." Cameroon today is a much different place where farming still exists, but education is more strongly emphasized. Without the practice of oral traditions many stories like Nkwain’s would be lost. As in Cameroon, many traditions and customs were practiced for centuries prior to colonization that served a purpose for their way of life.

Honoring the Past

In a 2016 interview with AFAS, Joseph Ndegwa, who was born in 1938 to the Kikuyu tribe in central Kenya, speaks about the effects of colonization. The Kikuyu tribe was a farming community that worked in concert with the land and climate. Ndegwa explains that, “people did not have land at the same place, you used to have land in high hills, in the valleys, because during the dry season, the garden which is in the valley, you grow vegetables and so on. In the rainy season, you plant maize and beans on the upper hills. So, we used to have land in different areas, depending on the situation…” 

This way of farming was principal to their survival and misunderstood by the British who colonized the country in 1920. The colonization brought many legal changes, one being the demarcation of land in the 1950s, which defines property boundaries, parcel shapes, and plot locations (Libecap & Lueck, 2011, p. 427).  A process in which many Kenyans loss land and moreover, their way of providing for their families was upended.

“… [The British] did not consider the culture of the people,” Ndegwa states recalling demarcation. Kenyans had their own way of life, organized in a way that worked for them.  “[…] before that, we just knew our boundaries […] you could have about ten or five portions of land in different areas, but what matters is the boundaries and the witness of the people,” Ndegwa explains, “[…] we, the people, the people came and demarked, put the marks for the [land], […] that’s all. We did not have titles; the title deeds came later on.”

These testimonies highlight the importance of not only the practice of oral history, but the need for cross-cultural appreciation and understanding. Held ideas about cultures different from one’s own is not just a concept of the past, but one that is prevalent today despite the far reach of information sharing through technology. These ideas are only affirmed or corrected through education. The AFAS notes that, “a new generation of historians [have] placed oral history and tradition on equal footing with conventional archival records.”  To make it plain, oral tradition is indispensable; one cannot tell history without the input of those who have lived it.

Creating Oral History Traditions

These stories from grand to simple are in many ways universal despite their differing cultural origins, with lingering impacts that can only be captured in qualitative research like oral history. A friend told me that she recently learned that one of her great aunts was an activist and that even further back, her ancestry line connects her to female warriors in Africa. Guess what my friend does for a living?  Activism. 

It is amazing the ways in which our lives and purpose reflect our ancestors; how at times they are like an unseen hand guiding us in one direction or another. At Bevy and Dave, we encourage you to start an oral history tradition with your children today, so that your family’s legacy and history are preserved and passed onto future generations. We never know how even the simplest piece of knowledge from the past could immensely impact the future. If you need help getting started, here is a list of resources for young people of all ages:

8 Steps to Oral History



Augustine, S. J. (2008). Preface: Oral Histories and Oral Tradition. In    Renée Hulan and Renate Eigenbrod (Ed.), Aboriginal Oral Traditions: Theory, Practice, Ethics (p-2-3). Fernwood Publishing.

African Oral History Collection WUA00486, Washington University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

British Kenya (1920-1963), University of Central Arkansas Political Science.

Hanson, E. Oral Traditions. Indigenous Foundations.

Jamhuri Day, Britannica.

Kenya: After 50 years, land they can call their own. (July 6, 2009). The New Humanitarian.

Libecap, G.D., Lueck D. (2011). The Demarcation of Land and the Role of Coordinating Property Institutions. Journal of Political Economy Vol. 119, No. 3 (June 2011), pp. 426-467. The University of Chicago Press.

Norkunas, M. (2015). Narrating the Racialization of Space in Austin, Texas and Nashville, Tennessee. Colloquia Humanistica 4 (2015), p.11-25. Jolanta Sujecka and Maciej Falski (Ed.). Institute of Slavic Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.11649/ch.2015.002.

Oral History: Defined. Oral History Association.

White, L.M. (April, 1998). Importance of the Oral Tradition. PBS.