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Archiving Nigerian History: Traditional To Technological Database

From time immemorial, the Nigerian cultural heritage, history and arts have been preserved and kept in ancient traditional folders passed down from one generation to the other. Tales and exploits of ancient kings, rulers and old ways of life have been preserved for thousands of years, well-detailed and articulate with an almost outstanding scientific method.

Archiving the Nigerian cultural history has been a problem since the 20th century. Millions of historical archives are either lost or locked away in foreign museums with limited or no access by the original owners. On the other hand, Nigerian museums managed by either the federal or state government have little or nothing in their possession. Historians and cultural advocates agitate for the release of some of the rare artefacts locked away in foreign museums. But the question is if these materials are released, are there any proper maintenance systems for them here in Nigeria?

Through oral tradition, our history was passed down from one generation to the other. Unfortunately, this is fading out as we embrace technological advancement without any method of transferring the ancient secrets to a new generation.

Ori Olokun from Ile Ife. Photo: Cambridge

Family history and secrets are preserved in a special unique chant by the Yorubas called “Oriki”, a precise and smooth way of highlighting the history of a particular family and tales of battles, conquest and traditional way of life. Beautiful and enchanting as it is, you can tell a lot about a family by its “Oriki”. The Yoruba hunters derive joy, pride and energy in their “Ijala” a traditional ode sung to praise hunters, especially when they are going to hunt.

Other traditional oral means of historic preservation within the Yorubas include the ‘Ewe’, ‘Alo’ and the outstanding ‘Odu ifa’, the literary corpus with 256 verses, each having sub-verses of almost 100 or more chapters. Every Alaafin of Oyo or Ifa priest must prove their worth by memorising all the 256 verses by heart.

One cannot overlook how developed and unique the ‘Nsibidi’ writing communications pattern and other different oral mediums of preserving history and culture like the ‘Mbem’ in the South East and parts of the South-South are.

Nsibidi symbols. Photo: Akanka

Way before the advent of the white men on the shores of Africa, people in the Northern part of what later became Nigeria defined their history in a rather sophisticated way through writings and oral tales of warriors crossing the Sahara Desert and magical tales of love and culture with the ‘tsatso’.

The great Benin Kingdom was also able to preserve a rich history with the bronze carving and beautiful artworks. Before the introduction of foreign means of identification, the Yorubas could tell a stranger from a friend with native traditional markings on their faces called ‘ila”, which could get you a pass or arrested in an enemy’s land.

Oral literature, poetry, artworks, carvings, facial markings, clothing, dance and culinary ways are many of thousands of ways tradition, history and heritage have been kept in the purest forms for thousands of years. With the original gatekeepers of these mediums dying, are we sure of surviving the next 80 years with our heritage intact? We are gradually losing every form of preservation and data collection left.

Cast brass plaques from Benin City at British Museum. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

What do we tell the generation to come? That we have failed in preserving our history and heritage? With advanced technology and database structure at our disposal, the time to safeguard our heritage is now!

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