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  • Some Implications of Literacy in Uganda
  • Michael Twaddle


During the last fifty years, several debates have waxed and waned regarding the implications of literacy for African history. Among social scientists in general and social anthropologists in particular, Jack Goody and Ian Watt’s survey of “The Consequences of Literacy” (1963)1 for hitherto pre-literate or partially literate and now modernizing societies, drew attention to one suggested transformation: “The importance of writing lies in its creating a new medium of communication. (...) Its essential service is to objectify speech, to provide language with a material correlative, a set of visible signs. In this material form speech can be transmitted over space and preserved over time; what people say and think can be rescued from the transitoriness of oral communication.”2 The consequences, in Goody and Watt’s view, were immensely important: “In oral societies the cultural tradition is transmitted almost entirely by face-to-face communication; and changes in its content are accompanied by the homeostatic process of forgetting or transforming those parts of the tradition that cease to be either necessary or relevant. Literate societies, on the other hand, cannot discard, absorb or transmute the past in the same way. Instead, their members are faced with permanently recorded versions of the past and its beliefs; and because the past is thus set apart from the present, historical enquiry becomes possible. This in turn encourages scepticism; and scepticism, not only about the legendary past, but about received ideas about the universe as a whole.”3 [End Page 227]

Goody and Watt’s study did not receive universal approval from other social scientists from the beginning. Kathleen Gough argued to start with, on the basis of Chinese and Indian evidence, that: “Difficulties arise because it is hard to disentangle the implications of literacy from those of other techniques (for example, plough agriculture, rapid transport or power industries), or of other institutions (for example, specialized priesthoods or powerful governments) commonly found in advanced societies.”4 Literacy was therefore an enabling factor, rather than a causal one. Furthermore, as another scholar pointed out: “The suggestion is no longer that a culture has acquired such technological skills as literacy because it is intellectually superior, as earlier racist theories had argued. Rather, it is (...) that a culture is intellectually superior because it has acquired that capacity,” through the technology of literacy. However, all forms of literacy are “ideologically charged,” and “any version of literacy practice [will have] been constructed out of specific social conditions and in relation to specific political and economic structures.”5 These are all important points and they will be stressed throughout this paper.

Among historians of Africa, one major debate about the significance of literacy has concerned the place of oral traditions and testimonies in researching and writing about the aspirations and experiences of Africans and African societies in time-perspective; and the extent to which oral sources can be treated as historical documents and analysed as much as possible like written sources of evidence. In this debate David Henige has played a leading role, backing up and extending Jan Vansina’s earlier advice to African historians that whatever oral sources we manage to track down should be recorded carefully, annotated scrupulously, and treated as much as possible in the ways that documents from the past have been studied and understood by historians at least since the late nineteenth century.6 David Henige’s writings have aroused a number of reactions from other students of African history, hostile as well as friendly, and later in this paper I shall be alluding to two of these critics as regards historical writing on Uganda. I shall also be drawing attention to one of the more surprising ways (to me, at least) in which David Henige’s advice to any interviewer of elderly [End Page 228] informants on historical subjects to record of the details of their replies, circumstances and other persons present as fully as possible, influenced my own researches into Ugandan nineteenth-century history as regards slavery. But, first, albeit briefly, some of the ways in which literacy practice in Uganda has been “constructed out of specific social conditions” and “in relation...


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