Why are There no African Manuals?

I remember asking my mother when I was about thirteen, to teach me how to knit and she told me, “I’m not going to sit here and teach you how to knit, just watch me.” Later my sisters and I wanted her to teach us how to make traditional mats or how to sew or how to plait our hair and she always said the same thing, “Where are you when I’m doing these things?”

It has me wondering lately, if in our African traditions there ever was such a thing as a set of instructions handed out to do things a certain way. Of course with our oral tradition of handing down knowledge, there was no writing going on. In contrast to the “great grandmother’s pie recipe” that some other cultures had down from generation to generation, we have none of that. We have learnt by seeing and doing. With food, there is never a two teaspoons of salt and two tablespoons of ginger, it is always “Estimate with your eyes how much is enough for this.”
In fact it seems like a sign of laziness when you keep asking how much salt and how much water you should put in a dish you are cooking. You should have observed in the first place and you must know when teaching is taking place. Nobody calls you to the classroom table and says LEARN. You should know that whenever mummy is in the kitchen “stirring bushera”, it is school time.

There are YOUTUBE tutorials now for everything. But when I tried to learn how to flat twist my twist, I found it difficult to follow the girls who taught us by naming the hair strands and pointing out the directions of the hair and the hold of the fingers. I learnt much more easily when I just watched a video of someone doing a flat twist over and over again. And then I realised that it might not be a very African thing to teach somethings with words. There are many practical things that I found that I ‘just know’ without recalling when I ever learned how.

It seems to me that the adage that “If you want to hide something from an African put it in a book” comes from a somewhat misunderstood concept of learning or teaching by different groups of people. I think it is good to read, and good to have manuals but the practicals too were/ are an interesting and potentially easier learning tactic for some.

But it is true that the mind becomes blurry and most times writing is a better storage for knowledge, which is why most of our knowledge about who we were or who we are, is fluttering away like dreams once you awake. We do not like manuals, we do not write recipes, we do not write our folktales, our proverbs or riddles.

Yes, there are African writers who have immortalised our folk stories into books, but so many other things quickly disappear as the generations turn over to new beings, who have little to no strings attached to the past.

2 Comments

  1. Interesting article and very relatable. We have the same issue in Sudan, the practice of handing down things orally, and now that the older generations who had heard these stories and lived them are dying out, our history is dying with them.
    We really must build up the habit of documentation in any form.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*