Church Preserves Precious Records of African Nation

Church Preserves Precious Records of African Nation

An early look at one of many stories featured in the October 2017 World Report

News Story

Years of civil war and a deadly outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever virus, Ebola, left Sierra Leone devastated and its infrastructure broken. A year after the declared end of the deadly scourge, dysfunction spills over into virtually every aspect of life in this poverty-stricken West African country, including the record preservation of a population.

 

At the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Birth and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, paper records dating back to the early 1800s are disintegrating at an alarming rate due to poor storage conditions, heat, humidity and frequent handling.

“Sometimes we have only one or two days with lights … per week,” says deputy chief registrar of birth and death records, Richard Konie. “So that is very difficult for us.”

The deputy chief says he and his staff often pool money just to keep the lights on those few days a week, in dank, stiflingly hot rooms where all work is done with pen and paper — the same rooms where all the country’s records have been stored for decades on open makeshift shelves that sag under the volume of weight.

“When I saw these records for the first time, it was devastating,” recalls Thierry Mutombo, project manager in charge of record access for FamilySearch International of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “I had my heart broken because of the conditions of how these records are kept and the way that the people are working here, giving the best of themselves to preserve what they can for people and families of Sierra Leone.”  

Despite valiant efforts by dedicated caretakers, rampant deterioration of the tattered records threatened to obliterate the very history of the nation. Mutombo says that all changed with a plea to President Thomas S. Monson from the government of Sierra Leone on behalf of its president, Ernest Bai Koroma, asking for help preserving the at-risk records.

The Church approved a project that photographs images of the dilapidated birth and death records, which are then digitized and eventually made available online. The operation is underway in a room on the same floor as the Office of the Registrar of Birth and Deaths.

Principal registrar Alhaj Nallo says his staff was in a “frantic effort” to preserve copies of records by hand until FamilySearch began the process of digitizing records. “We are grateful to FamilySearch for coming to our aid, for coming to the aid of the people of this nation, … to the aid of the children of this nation.”

Preserving Records Across Sierra Leone

Freetown is not the only community where records are being preserved through digitization. The Sierra Leone government granted FamilySearch access to records located in towns and remote villages across the country. Charles Fornah is from one of those remote villages deep in the bush called Mokolbondo.

The quaint community of elephant grass-thatched huts includes generations of just a few families. “All this while we’ve been keeping records through word-of-mouth, father to son and down,” he says. “But most times, critical records go missing when people die.” Fornah says he looks forward to the preservation of his family’s records. “Not only are [these records] going to be on paper or word-of-mouth, but electronic anywhere in the country or the world with the click of the button of a mouse.”

Interfaith Cooperation

Thierry Mutombo of FamilySearch is also working with interfaith leaders in Sierra Leone such as Father Alphonso Carew, chancellor of archives of the Archdiocese of Freetown. The Catholic Church has opened its vaults containing baptismal, confirmation and marriage records to be part of the preservation project.

“We cannot talk about archives, dozens of archives or historic archives, … if records are not kept,” says Father Carew. “Any kind of record at all is crucially important because it becomes a database for future generations.”

A "Remarkable Undertaking"

When the project is completed some 4 million records will be digitally preserved for generations to come. Church-sponsored FamilySearch is engaged in similar digitizing projects in countries all over Africa.

“To have a project where we are trying to make sure we capture and retain the records that do exist is a remarkable undertaking and necessary,” says Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, whose assignments include ministering to the African people. “All over the earth we make available our records, and they strengthen communities because they have that sense of place, that sense of person — a place of history.”

Watch World Report

This story is one of many stories featured in World Report October 2017. Watch World Report this conference weekend for additional stories on the Church’s global efforts to bring humanitarian aid and disaster relief to people suffering in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria and the earthquakes in Mexico. See also the new additions of missionary training centers and the progress of temples announced and under construction.

World Report broadcast schedule:

View World Report general conference weekend on KSL-TV (NBC affiliate, Salt Lake City), BYUTV, BYUTV International and the Church satellite system. Viewing times are Saturday, September 30, and Sunday, October 1. Additional airtimes are available Saturday, October 6, and Sunday, October 7.

Saturday, September 30

KSL-TV: 12:30 p.m.–1:30 p.m. MDT

BYUTV: 1:00 p.m.–2:00 p.m. MDT

Church Satellite: 12:10 p.m.–1:55 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.–5:15 p.m. MDT (broadcast in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean)

Sunday, October 1

BYUTV: 6:30 a.m.–7:30 a.m. MDT

BYUTV International: 6:00 a.m.–7:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon–1:00 p.m. MDT (broadcast in Spanish and Portuguese)

Church Satellite: 8:00 a.m. – 8:45 a.m. & 12:10 p.m. – 12:55 p.m. (MDT, broadcast in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean)

Saturday, October 6

Church Satellite: 11:00 p.m. – 11:45 p.m. (MDT - International time zone considerations. Broadcast in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean)

Sunday, October 7

Church Satellite: 2:00 a.m. – 2:45 a.m. (MDT - International time zone considerations. Broadcast in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Russian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean)

Style Guide Note:When reporting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, please use the complete name of the Church in the first reference. For more information on the use of the name of the Church, go to our online Style Guide.