African Oral Narratives: Providing Access to African Language Materials in the African Online Digital Library


The African Oral Narratives project of Michigan State University and multiple partners at African institutions and U.S. universities will make accessible rich and diverse collections of oral narratives from West, Northeast, East, and Southern Africa. These audio, and sometimes video materials, are in 16 languages — Akan (Twi), Wolof, Bamanakan (Mandinka), Igbo, Fula (Pulaar), Farefare, Amharic, Oromo, Swahili, Zigula, Chewa, and six of South Africa’s 11 official languages – Zulu, Sepedi, Sesotho, Tswana, Afrikaans, and English. Oral narratives are important both for diverse scholarly analysis and for advanced instruction in African languages and area studies.  Such sources are particularly valuable as African voices that offer an alternative to the dominant colonial histories of Africa.

This project has five principle objectives:

  1. The project will make freely available on the Web a substantial repository of oral narrative collections from different regions of Africa.  It will publish online more than 20 thematic collections containing hundreds of carefully-selected oral narratives with accompanying photographs, transcripts, and translations on subjects as diverse as gender histories, land tenure, and socio-economic and political change.  The scholars who collected the materials will provide intellectual framing of each collection.
  2. Partnerships that have been developed with scholars in Africa and at U.S. universities to carry out this project will be collegial, reciprocal, transparent, and mutually-beneficial to all partners.  Project partners include the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana; Department of History, Addis Ababa University; Department of History, University of Malawi; the South African History Archive (Johannesburg); United Nations Multimedia Research Unit (New York), as well as scholars at Indiana University, Oakland University (Detroit), and MSU who are working in Ghana, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Gambia, and Tanzania.  These equitable partnerships will provide sustainability for this project to continue collecting and providing access to additional valuable oral narratives after the grant.
  3. The collections will provide free, public access to materials in many African languages that are useful to language teachers and students.  Addressing the Invitational Priority of this competition, the project will make available foreign information sources in eight of the 15 African languages on the U.S. Department of Education’s Less Commonly Taught Languages (LCTLs) list: Akan, Wolof, Mandinka, Igbo, Amharic, Oromo, Swahili, and Zulu.
  4. The oral narratives will be accessible for interactive use, not only passive listening.  The project will develop a suite of web-based tools that allow scholars, teachers, and students to segment and annotate content in the repository.  These new tools will empower users to work with and analyze digital media, as well as share and discuss findings with a community of users thereby creating alternative contexts and new insights for research projects and classrooms.
  5. The African Oral Narratives website will become a significant repository with a critical mass of oral narrative resources about Africa and in African languages to which scholars will be able to add new collections.  The materials in this project are purposely selected for diversity of types of oral narrative collected by scholars in different disciplines, breadth of geographical coverage, and number of African languages in order to engage a wide range of scholars and attract new contributors.

View the full grant proposal here.