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Columbia University

Publication Date

Spring 2011

Program Name

South Africa: Social and Political Transformation


Kwesukesukela, or “a long time ago,” there was a beautiful woman who lived by the ocean with her husband and two small children. The woman’s name was Mazanendaba. Although she lived a life full of happiness, Mazanendaba came to realize with time that something important was missing: there were no stories. No stories for mothers and grandmothers to tell their children. No stories to inspire joy and ease sorrow. No stories to enrich the mind and nurture the soul. Determined to find stories in a world without any, Mazanendaba left her beloved home in search of a new story to tell. Along the way, she met a hasty rabbit, an indignant baboon, a shy snake, a wise elephant, a proud eagle, and with time, a kind dolphin. He took her to an underworld kingdom where Mazanendaba was given a magical shell that held hundreds and thousands of stories. From that point onward, whenever a story needed to be told, Mazendaba simply held the shell to her ear and out would pour as many stories as she could ever hope for. These stories were passed down through the generations, until a South African storyteller told me. Now I am telling you.

The story of Mazenendaba is an enchanting and heartening tale drawn from the rich oral tradition of Africa. Since oral tradition is dependent on transmission through word of mouth, it is subject to constant change and as some would believe, struggling to survive. This research paper will examine efforts at the preservation of oral literature among heritage organizations in contemporary South Africa. It will first situate oral literature within the realm of cultural material and describe various methods of preservation by institutions and individuals. The research will then focus specifically on the Ulwazi Programme, an effort by the eThekwini Municipality to collect and catalogue indigenous knowledge among the local communities of Durban. It will describe the inner workings of the organization, highlight its digitisation and oral research efforts, and gauge attitudes towards its agenda and recent progress. Conclusions will be drawn about how effectively Ulwazi realizes its mandate and the feelings of the source community towards heritage preservation. Finally, the paper will draw upon the insights of local communities to identify their relationship with oral tradition and ascertain whether the call of Mazanendaba, all those years ago, was heeded.


African History | African Languages and Societies | African Studies | Arts and Humanities | Community-Based Research | Family, Life Course, and Society


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