Throughout Africa, irreplaceable family information and traditions are being lost due to neglect, war and deterioration. But from Accra to Zimbabwe, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is helping preserve this valuable history so Africans can connect with their roots.
The Church has been involved in genealogy since 1894, but the African culture presents a unique set of challenges to family history research. Because most family information is passed down orally, the Church’s non-profit FamilySearch organization is focused on preserving both African oral traditions and records that can help people learn about their ancestors.
“In Africa, there is a proverb that states, ‘When an old man dies, it is as if a library has burnt down,’” said Ghanaian Church member Osei-Agyemang Bonsu. “Unfortunately, due to economic difficulties, many young people are moving from their villages, where they have the chance of obtaining information from the older people. The purpose of the oral genealogy project is to go to these old people and record what they know before they die.”
Most African tribes have a designated “storyteller” who is responsible to memorize the tribe’s oral traditions, including names of ancestors going back six to thirty generations. FamilySearch works with chiefs and local volunteers to visit these storytellers and record the information in their heads. Sometimes the interview is recorded on video and other times the information is written down on paper. Once it is recorded, the lineage-linked data is put into a spreadsheet and uploaded into a computer format developed by FamilySearch called GEDCOM. Currently, this GEDCOM file is put into FamilySearch’s Community Trees project but will eventually be integrated with the FamilySearch.org website.
FamilySearch is also working with children in South Africa to encourage them to write down their family traditions. FamilySearch employee Isebelle Krauss conducts training to help young people know how to interview the elderly people in their village.
“We encourage them [South African youth] to find their roots, to record it and to be proud of who they are,” Krauss said.
Krauss works with the South African Department of Education and Heritage and the Department of Arts and Culture to hold oral tradition storytelling competitions in public schools.
“The children are encouraged to collect as many names as possible and come back to either sing, recite or give a hard copy of their research,” Krauss said. “The pilot project was in Kwa Zulu Natal, and I was privileged to be one of the judges at the final round between 30 schools. What an experience! The little ones danced and sang their history and an eight-year-old won the competition with 15 generations.”
Although the majority of African heritage is oral, written records such as censuses and birth, marriage and death certificates can help people verify the names, dates and places in their family history. FamilySearch has worked with governments, archives and churches in Ghana, South Africa, Cote D’Ivoire, Liberia, Swaziland, Nigeria, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe to digitize records of genealogical importance. FamilySearch employee Stephen Nickle says some of the irreplaceable records in these countries are in danger of being lost.
“There are various records throughout Africa that are at risk. Some are destroyed through war or deterioration or because there is a lack of room and other records are more important,” Nickle said. “When those records are destroyed, a part of Africa goes away. Preserving those records helps future generations know where they came from, which is an important part of maintaining a culture.”
Many of the records collected by FamilySearch are now available for free on the FamilySearch.org website, where they can be accessed by anyone anywhere in the world. More African records will be posted on the site in the coming months.