Adventures of the Mind
Recording Oral Histories:
A Race Against
Genealogy experts are experiencing a race against time in Sub-Saharan Africa; an area that spans 36 countries. There is an urgency to collect oral interviews of African genealogy because family historians are aging and some are dying before those histories can be recorded.
Dr. Osei-Agyemang Bonsu, an area manager for the Church’s FamilySearch International, is working hard to preserve family history in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has spent the past five years working with a team of contractors to record the histories and take pictures of the elderly family historians he called “informants.”
Ultimately the team’s efforts will be freely searchable online at FamilySearch.org. “Every family has a particular person who knows the history of that particular family, and you need to know who that person is,” said Bonsu during a Skype interview from Ghana. “They are dying fast and going away with all this information.”
Written records for many Native Africans didn’t appear until war registration records were created in 1949, and he said those are deteriorating. “They are not well-kept and they are not on quality paper, and so these are also getting lost quickly,” added Bonsu, who has been involved in efforts to digitize historic records in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. He said field workers will be moving to records in Nigeria this year.
“We are losing information every day, and that’s my worry,” said Bonsu, who spoke at the RootsTech Conference in Salt Lake City on 6 February 2014, on the challenges facing those tracing their African ancestry.
Bonsu told the story of an 86-year-old informant who spent three days recording the family history of his village with his contractors. On the fourth day, they returned to thank him before moving on to another village only to learn that he had died. “If we had been just three days late, all of the information would have been gone,” he said. They attended his funeral and donated a copy of the information to the family, “and that was the greatest thing that they ever got and they cherished it so much.”
Bonsu estimates that 10,000 oral histories have been recorded so far. His hope is to have other organizations join the project so at least 50,000 interviews can be achieved in the next five years.