FamilySearch International is moving eastward through Africa, saving stories and information through oral interviews and recording the stories and genealogies of the people in an effort to connect the past to the future.
Thierry Mutombo is spearheading the Oral Genealogy Project for FamilySearch International through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. FamilySearch is a private, non-profit organization which leverages support from local government and engages people in each community to assist in collecting and preserving oral stories and genealogies.
The work started in Ghana in 2003, the Ivory Coast in 2007, and D.R. Congo in 2015—and is now moving forward into eight more African countries, including Kenya.
Before engaging with local villagers, a managing field agent is appointed to secure village entry, a process to obtain permission from the clan, tribal chief, or council—and to explain the importance of preserving local histories, culture, and genealogies. In most cases, agreements are easily arranged, as people see the need for collecting and preserving local histories. They also recognize a sense of urgency, for as the saying goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”
Field workers invite all the relatives to meet and then record both audio and video using a special smartphone application. This collecting and preserving is a tedious process and requires that all information be checked and verified. Stories, genealogies, and collected data are sent to FamilySearch in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, where they are processed, archived, and made available to all the world via the internet at FamilySearch.org.
It is amazing to see how tribal elders remember such vast amounts of their history. They don’t keep track of actual dates but reference significant events such as World War II or the great rains or a long drought. Dates can then be pinpointed by cross-referencing through the country’s official historical records. Estimates are given for birth, marriages, and death dates. Ask any elder, “When is your birthday?” and he’ll respond, “Any day of the year I can have a birthday party or none at all.”
The stories and genealogies are transcribed into both English and Swahili and then printed—with a bound copy given to each family and village. The families and village chiefs are most appreciative and often tell field workers that they are an answer to prayers. The workers are frequently asked, “Where have you been all this time? What took you so long?”
This work reaches across the generations. A Ugandan field agent relates the story of arriving in an area to arrange for village entry. While going through the process to obtain permission, he made reference to tribal ancestors. At that moment the chief asked the field agent to take off his shoes, go to the river, drop in some money, and ask certain tribal ancestors by name for permission to proceed with the work. Suddenly, the sky filled with dark clouds and rain poured from overhead—but only in the immediate area where the field agent was standing. The chief then told the field agent that the ancestors had consented by sending the rain and that they were grateful that this work was to be done.
Gathering village relatives together and preserving their stories can also help resolve cultural differences and bring peace to sometimes bitter relationships. This program can also help to reconnect distant families. For example, young people who move out of their birth lands—never to return—can now have access to their history and genealogies, including their own family tree, through the FamilySearch website.
There is no cost and the service is available to everyone at FamilySearch.org.