By Yunus S Saliu
The National Centre for Arts and Culture’s Oral History Archives has been rated to be a rich depository that cannot be overlooked.
Making this statement during his paper presentation at the Oral History symposium tagged Gambian Cultural Heritage Going Digital organized by the National Centre for Arts and Culture (NCAC) and German partners, The University of Hamburg and the Gerda Henkel Foundation was Dr Assan Sarr of Ohio University.
Speaking on one of the important topics at the symposium, Dr. Assan Sarr disclosed that before the advent of colonial rule, the people living along the banks of The Gambia River produced less of the materials historians traditionally consider as evidence.
“Apart from the Muslim scholars most of the region’s inhabitants were not literate and therefore did not produce written documents. Writing the pre-colonial histories of these ‘distant people’ require alternative achieves or historical sources beyond the records about them left behind by European outsiders,” Dr. Sarr pointed out.
Dr. Assan who was speaking on the topic ‘Decolonizing Knowledge: History, Pre-colonial Worldviews and Critical Oral History in The Gambia’ at this symposium tagged – Gambian Cultural Heritage Going Digital, in his paper explained that this means attention to local sources, which are primarily oral (in nature), “as our own Alice Bellagamba, Joseph Miller and Jan Vansina and many others have noted, since the late 1950s and 1960s, African oral histories in shaping accurate and meaningful knowledge about the West African past has received a complex and, in some cases, contradictory treatment in much of the recent literature (Green 2018).”
He quickly disclosed that critics of African oral histories offer a long list of problems associated with relying on these sources when writing about pre-colonial African history, and many of these criticisms are compelling –“by their very nature, Tom Spear writes, oral traditions are restricted to generalized and often floating periods within the recent past.”
That is, he said, narratives condense what were likely complex interactions into neat and clear stories that often emphasize group conflicts, cohesion, and or cooperation.
So, “if African historians want to take the study of Africa seriously, they must never ignore African sources of knowledge and for those who study Gambian history NCAC’s Oral History Archives is a rich depository that can’t be overlooked,” the Ohio University Dr highlighted.
However, he stated that a careful examination of the oral sources suggests that lower Gambians had a more nuanced understanding of settlement, land use, and/or politics “this appears to me that they did not believe that land was vacant because it was unsettled.” And “the land, which was left vacant, was not just untouched; it was because people believed that some invincible spirits owned or occupied it.
According to him, “As one Alhaji Darboe told Donald Wright in 1974, ‘in those days (referring to an undefined past) beginning with Sika and going as far Essau, it was all covered with trees there was no bare land.”