In an age when it’s difficult for many of us to imagine not having a cell phone, 40% of the people on earth have no written family history. Dr. Osei-Aguemang Bonsu of FamilySearch explained the challenges that statistic presents in his address titled: Doing Family History in Sub Saharan Africa. The LDS Newsroom recently published an in-depth article about Dr. Bonsu’s efforts to preserve African oral histories.
The challenge of creating written family histories is time and time is running out. Dr. Bonsu is from Ghana but the problem for genealogists is the same in the other 36 countries that make up Sub Saharan Africa.
Time is the problem because young men are moving to the cities. The old men of the villages, the only source of family and village history, have no one to transfer history to. When they die the history will be lost. There is a saying in Africa: “When and old man dies, a library burns down.”
Ancestors are extremely important in Africans. They are constantly connected to them as every event calls for inviting ancestors to join them. Births, funerals, weddings, any community event includes the ancestors.
Each family has one member, an old man or woman, who knows the names of the ancestors and recites them. He asks them to come join their family members at village occasions. Ancestors are asked to participate in whatever the family is doing.
When the young men are moving to the cities the chain of ancestral knowledge is broken. That crisis of information is being addressed by FamilySearch.
FamilySearch goes to the villages and records what the old men know. In one village an elder named Okwei died the day after they finished talking to him. A delay of just one week and the three days of interviews would have been lost forever. When FamilySearch workers brought the records from the recordings they had made of Okwei, the family and village were delighted and relieved. They regarded those records as though they were pure gold.
The first task for family historians is the preservation of the history. Then access to the community helps to validate the oral histories. Where people are buried is also a way to validate because everyone who dies is buried in their village.
The knowledge of ancestors is important in virtually every aspect of life from marriage to a dispute over who owns a fruit tree. If family history can document a famous forbearer, a pioneer, war leader or politician, parents may be able to claim a higher bride price. A host does not know how to treat a guest until he is aware of kin relationship, or lack thereof.
In the field, FamilySearch starts with recording of histories as they are recited by the old men. Then they can validate that information through interviews of secondary sources. The collection strategy includes getting names and stories about a particular family, or about parts of a village. Village leaders help researchers know what groups and families exist and identify primary and secondary informants. There will be one person in each family who is the authority and most everyone knows who that is. The secondary informants then help connect the branches of each family.
Researchers follow an interview protocol. They create the audio label, or the date, place, time, name of the interviewer and informant and what content they want to capture. Then they let the informant talk without worrying about specificity. The informant will relate both the village history and family history beginning with the first ancestor. Then the ancestors are integrated into a master pedigree. Open and closed ended questions of primary and secondary informants follows to verify the information. FamilySearch has found that group interviews are also important to verification.
With young men drifting to urban areas, the pressure to preserve oral genealogy is intense. FamilySearch has proven that it is possible for people to go back and connect with their families and villages. That provides hope and the goal.
So much more needs to be done. In Ghana, only the surface has been scratched in five years of work. That leaves millions of histories needing to be recorded throughout Sub Saharan Africa.