Among all the peoples of the world, it has been found that those persons who do not write have the most highly developed memory.
To give an idea of what the African memory is capable of: most children leaving the Koranic schools knew the entire Koran by heart and could recite it all, in Arabic and in the desired psalmody, without understanding what it meant!
I have given the example of genealogists able to retain an unbelievable mass of data, but one could also adduce the example of certain illiterate businessmen (I still know many such), handling deals that m a y involve tens of millions of francs, lending to many persons as they travel about, and keeping in their head the most accurate account of all these movements of merchandise and money without the slightest written note and without making the slightest mistake.
One peculiarity of the African memory is its restoring the recorded event or story in its entirety, like a film that unreels from beginning to end, and restoring it in the present. It is a matter not of remembering, but of bringing up into the present a past event in which everyone participates — the person who is reciting and his audience. The whole art of the storyteller lies in that. No one is a storyteller unless he can report a thing as it happened ‘live’ in such a way that his hearers, like himself, become n ew living, active witnesses of it. Now every African is to some extent a storyteller. When a stranger arrives in a village he bows and says: ‘I am your stranger.’ They reply: ‘This house is open to you. Enter in peace.’ Then they say: ‘Give us news.’ Then he relates his whole history from the time he left home: what he has seen and heard, what has happened to him, and so on, and that in such a way that his hearers are with him on his travels and relive them with him. That is why the tense of a story is always in the present.
In general African memory records the whole scene: the setting, the characters, their words, even their clothing to the smallest detail. In the Tukulor war stories we know what embroidered bubu the great hero Oumarel Dondo wore in a given battle, w h o his groom was and what became of him, what the name of his horse was and what became of him, and so on. All these details give colour to the story and help make the scene come alive.
That is why the traditionalist cannot summarize, or can only do so with great difficulty. If he is asked to summarize a scene, for him that is the same thing as making it disappear. Now by tradition he has no right to do that. Every detail has its importance for the truth of the picture. He tells the story in its entirety or not at all.
He will answer such a request with: ‘If you haven’t time to listen to me , I’ll tell the story some other day.’ In the same way, he is not afraid of repeating himself. No one gets tired of hearing the same story told over in the same words, as he has perhaps told it many times over already. Each time the whole film unreels again. The event is there, restored. The past becomes the present.
Life is not to be summarized.
Amadou Hampâté Bâ (January or February 1901– May 15, 1991) was a Malian Writer and Ethnologist. From GHA Vol.I. Methodology and African Prehistory. Chapter 8, ‘The Living Tradition’.