The world is quickly changing. African villages are changing even more quickly.
Back from “home” where I went to see my Mom in my village, Kouansi in Cameroon, I was hit again by a big shock: another new change in my community. I witnessed a long line of women and young boys and girls lined up in front of the village bar. What are kids, and especially women, doing around the bar, a place historically reserved for adult men, I wondered. The answer: They were taking turns waiting for their mobile phones to be charged.
The rate was about the equivalent of a nickel per hour per phone.
The village bar is the gathering place where men hang out after farm work. In addition to the bar, this village downtown is the sole public place where there is electricity. It is recognized by the school — which serves as the Catholic Church sanctuary on Sunday. It is also characterized by the store where no one enters. You order your product and a servant delivers it to you through the sole window in an exchange with cash. “Downtown Kouansi” is also the traditional marketplace where women sell their goods along the dirt road.
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Friends, this was not the Kouansi I knew when I was growing up.
Historically, when you think of an African village life, imagine a self-contained, self-sufficient community, one where the responsibilities and rewards of daily life belong to all of its members.
Behaviors and actions were based on local values. One of the most important values in African communities is still today the respect for age. The belief is profound that the older people get, the wiser they become. You may have heard the widespread African dictum that states: “An African elder who dies is like a library that burns down,” because they thus disappear with the depository of the history, traditions and cultures that they have accumulated throughout their lives
Prior to gaining their independence from the European colonizers starting in the ’60s, Africans relied on storytelling. Written literature was nonexistent. As a result, African people depended upon oral tradition to teach traditional customs, the heritage, values and morals pertaining to life. Oral tradition was the spoken word only: The information was transmitted from mouth to ear, and from one generation to the next.
It was the time when children and adults gathered around a burning fire under the village baobab tree to sing and exchange riddles and jokes. The audience actively participated with questions, comments, praises, and discussions, and was expected to respond at various times in the story. They all played Yan-koloba, thus sealing the community solidarity.
In Kouansi, storytelling was always led by the oldest of the elders or by the Griot (pronounced Gree-oh). The Griot was the cultural leader of the village. He was historian and keeper of traditions going back to numerous generations. He was also a talented musician, entertainer and messeger. More than anyone, he knew the past and the present and in some cases, could predict the future.
Oral tradition has been the means of expression and preservation of African cultures. For centuries, written communication was non-existent. Historians and anthropologists conclude that Africans have been primarily vocal people throughout their history. Therefore, the human voice was the vehicle through which knowledge was transmitted across generations.
That is changing. Oral tradition will soon be history in the current generation. The proliferation of mobile phones as well apps allows young Africans to connect more outside of their communities than in, thus listening less to elders’ wisdom. My village will never be the same again.