Griots and Oral Traditions in Africa

Essential Question

Why are griots so important to West African Civilizations?


West Africans had no written language so the history of Ancient and Medieval Africa often comes from archaeology and oral history. Oral history is an account of past events that are passed down, generation to generation, by word of mouth. Griots were professional storytellers and oral historians in West Africa. They served as the living memory of West African history. They were also the teachers to all and advised their rulers on how to rule justly. In addition to oral history that used poetry, folk tales, and proverbs to teach and entertain.


Some of the griot poems are epics or long poems about kingdoms and heroes. Many of these epic poems are collected in the Dausi (DAW-zee) and the Sundiata. The Dausi tells the history of Ghana. Intertwined with historical events, though, are myths and legends. For example, Sundiata is about the history of an empire, Mali. It is the story of Sundiata, Mali's legendary first ruler. According to the epic, when Sundiata was still a boy, a conqueror captured Mali and killed Sundiata's father and 11 brothers. He didn't kill Sundiata because the boy was sick and didn't seem like a threat. However, Sundiata grew up to be an expert hunter and warrior. Eventually he overthrew the conqueror and became king.


Discussion Questions

  • How does this story inform us about the roles of griots?

  • According to the story, what traits make a good king?

  • What can we learn about West African civilizations from this epics?

Folk Tales

When you were a child, what was your favorite bedtime story or most-loved cartoon? Some books or cartoons, like Anansi the Spider: A Tale From The Ashanti, are based on folktales. A folktale is a story that's part of a particular people's oral tradition that's passed down from generation to generation. For example, the Ashanti people were from Ghana, a country in West Africa. Anansi the Spider: A Tale From The Ashanti is based on an African folktale, an anonymous, timeless story circulated orally among African people, meant to hand down knowledge and wisdom from parent to child. In this lesson, we'll look at the characteristics of African folktales and the lessons they pass down

West African Folk Tale: Anansi

Discussion Questions

  • What lesson or wisedom does this folk talke try to teach?


In addition to stories, the griots recited proverbs, or short sayings of wisdom or truth. They used proverbs to teach lessons to the people. For example, one West African proverb warns, "Talking doesn't fill the basket in the farm." This proverb reminds people that they must work to accomplish things. They can't just talk about what they want to do. Another proverb advises, "A hippopotamus can be made invisible in dark water." It warns people to remain alert. Just as it can be hard to see animals in a deep pool, people don't always see the problems they will face.

Activity 1: West African Proverbs

Read the following West African Proverbs and match the proverbs with its meaning using the assigned letter.

West African Proverbs

Discussion Questions

  • How did West Africans who did not have a written language pass on their history?

  • What does the proverb "Until lions have their own history, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter," suggest about oral historians?

  • What can we learn about West African civilizations from epics and folk tales?

Activity 2: What roles did Griots play in West African Civilization? Why were they important?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities

Sundiata: Lion King of Mali