Orality: The Tradition of Saving Memories and Telling Stories
We always think of orality as the sound that comes out of the mouth, what is vocalized, the voice. The voice is one of the elements of this cultural practice. Orality is present in the entire body and outside it. In the gestures we make, in the objects we touch and traditions we carry on. Each sound and each gesture record, in bodies and in objects, the memory of that moment. Mistakenly, we limit orality to traditional societies (indigenous or African), in their ritualistic practices. In these societies, orality is the force with which the body expresses itself in the widest sense: in speaking, dancing, the way of walking, etc.
For a long time, people without a tradition of writing were judged to be “people without culture.” However, this frail and unfounded concept was rejected long ago. Researchers and scholars already know that orality can be as reliable as writing when dealing with facts about the past in oral societies. According to Hampâté Bâ, in his classic text “The Living Tradition,” the “first archives or libraries in the world were men’s brains. Before putting their thoughts down on paper, writers or scholars engaged in inner dialogues with themselves.” This is why in oral African societies, “not only the function of memory is more developed, but also the relationship between man and word is stronger. Where there is no writing, man is linked to the words he utters. He is committed by them. He is his words and the words provide a testimonial of what he is. The very cohesion of society lies in the value and respect for words.”
Before writing, Western societies also used orality as an essential means of transmitting rules, teachings and customs from one generation to another. In some cultures, anyone can pass on stories; in others, only specialized storytellers performed this task, as is the case in Western Africa, with the Griot figure.
Our country was formed by people who had a strong oral culture, mainly those with indigenous and African roots. Some of these practices still continue in more traditional descendant communities, as well as in resignified traditions, such as Bumba-Meu-Boi, a lively folk dance, and Cordel literature, in which the acts of writing and reciting are combined.
Little by little, in modern societies, the practice of telling stories has given way to reading them. But reading “aloud” is also a practice of orality. Reading does not need to be an individual action. When access to books was difficult, and literacy was the privilege of few, it was also a unifying and collective element, to entertain and inform. Not only within the family, by candlelight, lantern or candelabra, but also in recitals in “living” rooms and city gazebos.
Do you remember your storyteller? Parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, teachers, brothers and sisters… Those who took you to a fantasy world, preparing you for the real world. Today, we know how much these moments deeply influenced our lives, not only due to the stories that are still within us, but also because of the relationship we establish with these storytellers. And this practice still remains very fresh in our memory, because it is an important link with the past. A tradition sometimes perpetuated. Sometimes abandoned.
By: Viviane Lima de Morais, a Bunge Memory Center historian