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]African communication system is a course under communication. Therefore, it is important to start this course by examining the concepts of communication and African communication systems. It also examines the reasons for studying African Communication systems.


At the end of this unit, students should be able to:

  1. define and explain what communication means 
  2. identify the functions of communication
  3. explain the functions of communication 
  4. define African communication systems 
  5. explain the interplay between culture and African communication systems
  6. outline the reasons for studying African communication system
  7. discuss the gains of African communication systems. 


3.1What is Communication?

Communication is a process by which a sender passes information to the decoder or receiver. It involves contacting, relaying and transferring of ideas, news, secrets, messages, orders and information from people, groups and communities to others. Communication in general terms can be described as the act of sending and receiving messages from a source through a medium. MacBride et al (1981) define communication not just as the exchange of news and messages but as an individual and collective activity embracing all transmissions and sharing of ideas, facts and data. So, communication may be looked at as a system or process. However, this definition does not highlight the feedback component and thus has not fully described the process of communication. According to Okunna (1999:6): Communication is a complex process. Because the communication process is an exchange or sharing of information or a message, it requires certain basic component. These include the source from whom the message originates; the medium through which the message is conveyed; the audience who receives the message; and the feedback which is the reaction of the receiver to the message.

3.2 What Are the Functions of Communication?

Welcome to this sub-section which is a continuation of our discussion of communication, but from a different angle. Now that we know what ‘communication’ means, it is important to also know the functions. That is, what exactly does communication do in any society? This sub-section focuses on the functions of communication.

Every society has evolved ways of transmitting information from one person to another and Africa is not an exception. Again, in Africa, the traditional communication systems apart from transmitting information which includes the news function and other announcements, entertains, persuades, and also is used for social exchanges (Doob, 1966). MacBride et al (1981) identified some specific functions of communication as:

h) cultural promotion and
i) entertainment

Information: the collection, storage, processing and dissemination of news, data, pictures etc required for everyday life. Socialisation: the provision of a common fund of knowledge which enables people to operate as effective members of the society in which they live.

Motivation: the fostering of individual or community activities, geared to the pursuit of agreed goals.
Education: the transmission of knowledge so as to foster intellectual development, character formation and acquisition of skills.

Cultural promotion: the dissemination of cultural and artistic products for the purpose of preserving the heritage of the past.

Entertainment: the diffusion through signs, symbols, sounds and images for personal and collective recreation and enjoyment.

3.3 What is African Communication Systems?

Olulade (1998) stated that traditional communication as used in Africa is an admixture of social conventions and practice that have become sharpened and blended into veritable communication modes and systems which have almost become standard practices for society. It is a complex system of communication, which pervades all aspects of rural African life. According to Denga (1988) cited in Mede (1998), it has varied characteristics which include dynamism and the fact of its being a multi-media and multi-channel system. It is perhaps the most important way by which the ruralites communicate among themselves and with others. So, despite the advent of the modern day media in Africa, the use of traditional cues and materials is still very much common and adaptable, acceptable and recognisable by the people.

3.4 Uniqueness of African Communication Systems

Below are some of the uniqueness of African communication systems.

  1. It is understood by members of a community 
  2. It readily appeals and connects with the people’s language, culture, belief, myth, legend and customs which enhances effectiveness of communication (relates to values, norms, ethos and culture of Africans) 
  3. Uses symbols, values and indigenous institutions, which enhance 
  4. messages’ effectiveness Projects African historical past (traditions) 
  5. Derived from the culture, beliefs, and the way of life of Africans 
  6. Rooted among the local people and respected by the people, especially the ruralites 
  7. Embedded in the culture of the people, which is the driving force 
  8. Relies on indigenous technology, employes values and symbols that the people identify with From a general point of view, African Communication systems is seen as a traditional or indigenous mode of communication and it is indigenous. Indigenous communication is steeped in traditional culture. So, what is culture?

3.5 What is Culture?

Culture is necessary for a healthy society. It is usually established from enlightenment, acquired through education, observation and exposure to an environment. Culture is the belief, custom, tradition, practices and social behaviour of a particular nation and its people. In anthropology, culture is further defined as the patterns of behaviour and thinking that people living in a social group learn, create and share. Culture distinguishes one human group from another. People’s culture includes their rules of behaviour, language, rituals, arts, style of dress, religion and economic systems. So, culture is the totality of the way of life of a people through which they associate and relate with their environment. Tradition can be said to be the norms and values of each individual group under a particular ethnic group or tribe. Culture is dynamic i.e. changes with time while tradition is a bit stagnant. For example, strictly traditional marriage has changed over time to include the church and court marriage (James and Soola, 1990). Culture and tradition are interwoven, but culture is highly influenced by the environment and vice versa. Culture is strongly linked with time – changes with time. So, for our purpose, African communication systems can be described as that form of communication that has its root in the African environment. It is original in the African locality and to the natives. It has been referred to variously as traditional and indigenous communication by various authors. Wilson (1987) in his own definition, stated that traditional communication is “a continuous process of information dissemination, entertainment and education used in societies which have not been seriously dislocated by Western culture or any other external influence”. Wilson also stressed that the ownership of the traditional communication media lies with the society.

3.6 The Neglect of African Communication Systems 

African communication systems are an integral part of the socio-cultural heritage of Africans. However, according to Ibagere (1994:81-82), …Civilisation, which has brought about modernisation, has compelled the African to cannibalise some of [the traditional modes of communication]. The direction of modernisation which has tilted strongly in favour of Westernisation has dislocated almost all the modes in the urban areas and supplanted them with the modern mass media. Thus, the socio-economic terrain has made it impossible to relate to these cannibalised modes, especially in the urban areas. For example, it is now virtually impossible to use smoke as a means of attracting attention in African cities, because it could be interpreted differently…because the context in which urban dwellers relate to themselves …is quite different from that of the rural society which is still relevant to the people’s experiences as mode of communication. These traditional modes of communication have, therefore, continued to exist by the grace of the slow pace of development, especially in communication which has impeded the spread of the modern mass media (in term of hardware and software) to the rural areas, where these modes are the only means of sustaining the information needs of the people.
Africa is a vast continent that is made up of diverse peoples. These peoples existed for centuries before their contacts with the colonial masters. Each had its own unique language and cultural patterns. Within each cultural setting, however, there existed well established systems for sharing information, opinion formation and cultural values. Buttressing this position, Rogers cited in Opubor (1975) stated that “a far flung network of communication existed in ‘less developed’ countries before the introduction of the print or electronic media.” Although a rich network of communication channels existed in indigenous Africa before the introduction of modern media of communication, studies into these local channels of communication is quite recent as African scholars in the past and even up till now have concentrated much of their research efforts mainly on the western media of communication such as radio, television, newspapers and magazines. It is therefore no wonder that the quantity and variety of research literature on traditional channels of communication in Africa are very scanty.

This text therefore brings into focus the various aspects of African indigenous communication systems aimed at inculcating in the minds of people that the various peoples of Africa had ways of sharing information that were as effective as modern day media of communication. It is hoped that this text would add to the general efforts of African and Afrocentric scholars at salvaging our culture; lead to a greater understanding of African systems of communication as reflected in the diverse cultures of the various peoples of Africa; and would be of benefit to communication policy makers and development communication experts in that it would further enhance their knowledge about the communication needs of those living in rural areas and how to effectively reach them.

3.7Why Study African Communication Systems?

African peoples in spite of their great linguistic and ethnic diversity have been communicating among themselves in a variety of ways for a long time. The sheer range of a variety of human and inter-personal communication on that immense continent offers challenge to contemporary communication scholars (Hatchen, 1971:15)

A look into the reality of the existence of indigenous communication systems in Nigeria shows that before the advent of modern means of communication, there were traditional means in Nigeria by which information is made to reach its recipient. There were also means of propagating the collective knowledge of the recognised custodians of the people’s oral traditions. Some of these are still being used.

From the above, it is obvious that a variety of traditional communication channels existed in Africa, particularly in Nigeria before the introduction of the modern mass media systems.

So, it should be noted that a communication system which does not take into account the traditional, social and cultural dynamics of society will only succeed in alienating the highly placed from the majority of the people in the rural areas (Wilson, 1982). This statement summarises the effect of negligence in the study of our indigenous sources of communication, opinion formation, processes of decision and actions.What is responsible?

According to Ibagere (1994), Western education is the bane of these, as it has made people to continue regarding African communication systems with contempt. The question at this juncture is: should this be allowed to continue? Again, Ibagere (1994:96) stated that: The modern mass media, however, cannot serve, fully, the communication needs of Africa, unless they are combined with the traditional modes of communication. Therefore, rather than supplanting these traditional modes, efforts should be geared towards harnessing and developing them to serve our information needs in general.

Therefore, there is the need to increase studies on our traditional communication systems not just to add to knowledge but also to find alternative systems of information dissemination; fully understand the dynamics and systems of delivering information and receiving feedback among the various ethnic groups in indigenous Africa who live mostly in the rural areas, and who are currently outside the effective reach of the westernised mass media (Opubor, 1975).

Furthermore, Ugboajah (1972) cited in Wilson and Unoh (1991:28) stated, “The most important thing about African’s traditional communication is that the audience has learnt to attach great significance to it. Traditional media has (sic) force and credibility. They put stability into African’s indigenous institutions.”

So, from all that has been discussed so far, one can argue like Opubor (1975) that African traditional channels of communication represent the most potent mechanism for communication among the various peoples of Africa. Furthermore, notwithstanding the flaws that may be inherent in the traditional channels of communication in Africa, the fact remains as Hatchen (1971:15) pointed out, “the sheer range and variety of traditional communication offer a challenge to contemporary [African] communication scholars”. This underscores the need to stimulate scholarship in this area of communication studies.

Hence, we should study it to educate ourselves on the culture and heritage of Africa. Put succiently, we should study African communication systems for knowledge and because of its relevance and acceptance in Africa. Looking at knowledge, studying African communication systems will help us to understand our cultures, idiosyncracies and perculiarities. Again, it relates to African culture, values and beliefs which engenders acceptance. On relevance, it is still relevant for communicating with some people in Africa.


Although communication has several definitions, but generally it involves the sending and receiving of various messages. It was also stated that communication performs some other specific functions.

It argued that African communication systems perform all these functions, while specifically promoting African culture. However, despite the central place of African communication in the perpetuation of African cultures, this aspect of communication studies has been neglected by communication scholars.  Again, it is important to note that African communication systems is a complex system and the most important way by which the ruralites communicate among themselves and with others. It is tied to the culture of its people.

This unit further reviewed our attitudes towards the study of African traditional media, because our lackadaisical attitude to these media in the face of pressures from the western media, which threaten to completely dominate them, does not augur well for our social existence. It concludes that despite the central place of African communication in the preservation of African culture, it has been highly neglected by communication scholars as an area of research. So, do we allow the indigenous communication system to be suppressed by exogenous communication system? If we do, it would lead to the erosion of indigenous cultures. Thus, it should be highlighted that the erosion of indigenous communication system by western education and media endangers the survival of indigenous knowledge. To avoid this, there is the need for the study of indigenous communication systems.

This unit does not suggest that modern media of communication should be discarded for African communication systems, but rather that the rich potentials of African communication media should be studied and used along side modern media of communication for a more effective communication across the various peoples of Africa despite their psychographic and demographic differences.


This unit examined what ‘communication’ means. It was explained that communication refers to the exchange of information and ideas. It was emphasized that there are sundry definitions of communication. Again, in this unit, we also examined the functions of communication. It was explained that communication performs sundry functions. Some of the functions as discussed in this unit include: (a) information (b) socialisation (c) education (d) motivation (e) cultural promotion (f) entertainment. It also defined African communication systems.

We also examined the concept of African communication systems highlighting linkages with culture.
In addition to the above, we also looked at the neglect of African communication systems, highlighted the gains and presented reasons for studying African communication systems.


  1. What is communication? 
  2. List the functions of communication. 
  3. What is the interplay between African communication systems and culture? 
  4. List the reasons for studying African Communication Systems. 


  1. List five functions of communication. 
  2. Discuss the five functions of communication listed. 
  3. What is African communication systems? 
  4. Discuss two reasons for studying African communication systems. 


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