Editor’s note: this story pairs with “Cultural elements affect Mormon missionary work in Africa”
The term “family history” has been used in General Conference 280 times in the last 30 years — seven times more frequently than in the 140 years prior.
LDS Church leaders have repeatedly emphasized the importance of genealogy and the blessings it brings upon both the dead and the living; however, for many people across the globe it is a race against time to preserve the past.
According to FamilySearch, “only 13 percent of the world’s top genealogical records are digitized and preserved.” The remaining 87 percent risk being lost or destroyed. According to FamilySearch, “Governments are asking FamilySearch for help in preserving their records at three times the rate FamilySearch and its crews can capture” the documents digitally.
As the number of Mormons in Africa grows, preserving these records is becoming increasingly important. The Mormon Newsroom reports there are 285 family history centers on the continent of Africa; however, poor storage conditions, heat, humidity and frequent handling have left paper records deteriorating at a rapid rate.
Such was the case in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the deterioration of records dating back to the 1800s threatened to destroy an entire history. According to lds.org, in October 2017, Ernest Bai Koroma, the president of Sierra Leone, reached out to President Thomas S. Monson for help in preserving the country’s at-risk genealogical records. Shortly after, the church approved a project to photograph, digitize and make available online the dilapidated birth and death records.
Alhaj Nallo, principal registrar at the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Birth and Deaths in Freetown, told Mormon Newsroom his staff was frantically trying to preserve the records until FamilySearch began assisting.
“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,” Nallo told Mormon Newsroom.
The Sierra Leone government has granted FamilySearch access to records located in towns and remote villages across the country. According to Mormon Newsroom, the Catholic Church has also opened its vaults containing baptismal, confirmation and marriage records to be part of the preservation effort.
Elder David A. Bednar of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, whose assignments include ministering to the African people, told Mormon Newsroom a project such as this is necessary and a remarkable undertaking.
“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,” Elder Bednar said.
When the project is completed, 4 million records will be digitally preserved for future generations. According to Leslie Hadfield, a BYU Africana studies professor, genealogy is often preserved orally on the continent.
“When young men go through their initiation in some African cultures, they learn their genealogy,” Hadfield said, “Or when you ask an individual, ‘Who are you?’ they tell you they are the son or daughter of so-and-so.”
She said details aren’t always captured in oral history, and this poses a problem for LDS family history work, which requires proper dates and documentation.
“I can trace my family line back, but an individual in Africa might just know their clan and what it is known for,” Hadfield said. “That is how they get their identity, and it determines things like how they interact with others or who they can marry.”
The church has begun pilot work to conduct interviews and record oral histories in native languages so nothing is lost in translation.