While writing systems developed early in places like Egypt and Ethiopia, most people in Africa did not write down their languages until the colonial period. Nsibidi is the only known, entirely original written script developed in Africa.

How is it possible to communicate information over long distances and through many generations without written records? One way this was successfully done, and is still done throughout the African continent today, is through the use of performance and art.


In West Africa, a praise singer called a griot was responsible for memorizing and remembering long and complicated histories about famous people and historical events. The griot travelled from town to town, and villagers would gather to hear him recite their history. In turn, he would teach these oral narratives to a young apprentice, who would later carry on the traditions. In Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso, griots are still valuable historians.

Oral histories are also handed down from elders to the younger generations. It is important to know about past events and geneaologies not only to remember your family history, but to understand things like claims to land, social and political origins, and clan relationships.


In some African cultures we also find communication through music, body adornment, or decorations on everyday objects. For example, women have a unique way of speaking without using words. A West African women can deliver messages to her husband, co-wives, family and friends by the cloth she wears, her hairstyle and jewelry, and small figurines of brass that she can display.

Explore this drum to learn more about how it is used to communicate ideas!

© Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University,
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester and Dallas Museum of Art
For more information please contact odyssey@emory.edu.
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