Find Yourself in Family History

African Oral Historian Touched by Importance of Past

Donna Messerly-Brownby Donna Messerly-Brown

One of the greatest places to find yourself is in family history. There’s just something about the ability to connect with ancestors unknown that helps me develop a sense of self. For that reason, family history research is a rich form of self-help.

Several years ago I fell in love with my great-great-great-grandmother Elvira Teeples Wheeler Rockwood Van Curen. I descended from her through my maternal grandfather, Floyd Raymond Morgan. Sometimes when I feel absolutely defeated, I think of Grandma Teeples and of the hearty pioneer stock from whence I came!

Grandma was one of the earliest members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She followed its first president Joseph Smith and subsequent leaders to the West despite seemingly insurmountable circumstances. Her first husband was killed in a rock quarry while helping to build the church’s Nauvoo temple. Her second husband beat her with a buggy whip (she cooked that whip up in a stew and left it for him for dinner as she rode off into the sunset with her children). Three of her homes were burned during the Mormon persecutions in Missouri and Illinois. Her third husband left her in Idaho with young children to raise alone. She delivered a significant number of babies during her era as early settlers tamed the Wild West.

Just one of the many colorful characters I have discovered in my family history, Grandma Teeples is my own pillar of strength (and I’m pretty sure I can feel her blood pumping through my veins).

I encourage everyone to delve into family history. Ask questions, conduct simple research, look for your ancestors’ names online. It’s so easy to start; but, be careful, this activity is known for its high addiction rate!

Because I love family history and its  ability to heal the soul, I want to tell you about a special event taking place in Georgia thanks to Family History Expos!

The following information was garnered from a personal interview with Paul Adjei of Ghana Africa. What an inspiring individual! What an honor to have spoken to him. Mr. Adjei is another pioneer making progress on a wild frontier despite tremendous odds against him:

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African Oral Historian Stresses Importance of Recording History at Georgia Family History Expo

By Donna M. Brown

Paul Adjei

If the traditional West African belief is true, “every time an old man dies it is as if a library has burned down,” it’s safe to consider Paul Adjei a modern-day fireman. He is an oral historian sworn to collect, preserve and protect a dissipating past.

Adjei, sponsored by Family History Expos, will present at the 2012 Georgia Family History Expo Nov. 9-10 in Duluth. There he will share the spirit and purpose of his work collecting the oral histories of the Akan in West Africa. He will travel from his home of Kumasi-Ghana to teach two classes at the expo and participate in a panel discussion there with Fortune 500 executive and genealogist Bernard E. Gracy. The Expo will take place at the Gwinnett Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway.

Adjei Born to Africa, Called to Serve

Adjei was born in Kumasi-Ghana in 1977. His mother had given birth to seven children prior to marrying Adjei’s father. “I have many elderly brothers and a sister,” he said. His mother and his father brought five more children into the world and raised them in a 14X14 room. Adjei has a twin sister. A lack of food and money for school was always a struggle for his family.

“I was not resentful, but accepted our condition as it was,” Adjei said. “As a child I helped my mother to sell so we could put food on the table.”

Adjei helped feed the family throughout his youth. “My mum has done almost any business that an African mother could think of. We use to sell charcoal. We sold earrings and I would put them in a flat bowl and hold the bowl on my head. I would go from house to house to sell to our neighbors.”

The 2012 graduating class of field students who attended the Rural Development College in Kwaso, Ghana. The students are field workers supervised by Paul Adjei commissioned to collect oral histories of their people for Family Search.

The turning point in Adjei’s life came the day he met missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1991. “I was one of the people missionaries would call a ‘golden contact,’” he said. “I had never seen the church in my neighborhood before. One Saturday evening I was contemplating about which church to join. My dad was the pastor of a Charismatic church in town.”

Adjei said he was unfamiliar with the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Most church’s paid their clergy; so, one Saturday afternoon he walked into an LDS church and asked for the pastor. Individual wards of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are overseen by volunteer clergy members lead by a bishop. Bishops are not available at the meeting houses full time, but there were missionaries available to talk with Adjei. “The missionaries came out to meet with me. I had never stayed for church activities,” he said.

Although his father had his own church, Adjei’s parents were supportive of his decision and began to see the transformation in him immediately. At the time, it was common for youth in his area to smoke and drink and swear,” Adjei said. “My parents noticed that I did not do any of those things because of the church I joined. Even though my father had his own church, they were always supportive of my decision.

It was the church that introduced Adjei to the concept of genealogy and family history research. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is strongly rooted in families. A cornerstone principle of the Gospel is that families can be together forever.

In 1999 Adjei went on to serve an LDS mission in his homeland, Ghana. “Heavenly father has never, ever made a mistake in anything that he does and I’m sure the Lord led me here,” he said.

Today Adjei compares notes of his childhood with his siblings. “There are so many stories we share whenever I meet my brother who is currently doing well economically. We look back and feel humble,” he said.

In 2000 Adjei launched his commerce-based business, Worldbiz. “This business was organized for commerce, not family history,” Adjei said. In time, the African businessman came to accept his life’s calling as an oral family historian. Yet, he still holds out hope for his commercial venture.

“The one thing about family history work is that it is a field you have to have a passion for,” Adjei said. “It’s a field that allows you to help people discover and uncover the past.” The bottom line? There’s not much money to be made in the family history industry, but he accepts that it strives toward a greater purpose. “What I expect and I hope to accomplish is to be able to tell the outside world – especially with African-Americans it is time to look back, it is time to be able to know where you come from.”

The family genealogist, a young child in the center of this photograph, is carried up to practice his family history. This child was chosen by a clan in Ghana, Africa to study his lineage in order to preserve history for his clan.

The Genealogical Society of Utah (GSU), also known today as the FamilySearch Archive, was founded in 1894 by leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is self-described as a private, nonprofit, cultural and educational organization.

The organization’s purpose is many-fold. While its records of all kinds are open to the public, it was originally formed to promote genealogical research and help church members identify their ancestors. FamilySearch Archive helps by:

  • collecting
  • organizing
  • preserving
  • providing access to

all kinds of family-related records.

It was GSU that first recruited Adjei in 2007 to use his passion for the people, his knowledge of the region, his love of history and his unique skill set to lead an African hunt of epic proportions – a hunt for crucial Akan history stock-piled in the minds of its elders. The project is a challenge, Adjei said, because much of the information FamilySearch wants to preserve was once only found in the songs, stories and rich cultural traditions of the Akan. With an average male life expectancy of 55, much historic tribal knowledge is buried with its vessel.

Due to the Akan’s oral tradition, Adjei said before the oral history project, stories were only stored in the memories of musicians, story tellers, historians, genealogists and myth makers. A strong sense of culture can help keep the information alive through African tradition, but times are changing and hundreds of years of information are at risk if the knowledge goes unrecorded.

The GSU’s first oral genealogy project in West Africa was conducted in Gambia in the early 1980’s, according to a 2007 report, “African Oral Genealogy: Collecting and Preserving Yesterday for Tomorrow” by Osei-Agyemang Bonsu and Melvin P. Thatcher. It was written for the World Library and Information Congress 73rd IFLA General Conference and Council in Durban, South Africa. IFLA is an acronym for the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

In 2003 a pilot project was organized among the Ashanti of Ghana, a sub-group of the Akans. “In 2004 and 2005 pilot projects were carried out among the Ga in Ghana and the Ibibio in Nigeria,” the report said.

Akan People Targeted in Oral History Project

The Akan people represent an ethnic group in West Africa. The Akan are most concentrated in Ghana and on the Ivory Coast. With about 20 million people representing the Akan ethnic group, they make up the majority of the population in both countries.

There are many subgroups of the Akan and the people speak a wide variety of dialects of the primary language known as Twi-Fante.

Adjei set out to accomplish his part of the project with a handful of field-trained interviewers. In time he became aware of the Rural Development College in Kwaso, Ghana, (one of his field workers was a student there). The college helps non-governmental entities develop rural areas of Africa – the perfect partner for the oral history project. About 30 fieldworkers are assisting with the project today and all are students.

“We have worked with the school in diverse ways,” Adjei said. He and his partners constantly seek ways to give back to the school and the rural communities it represents. He recently aided the acquisition of computer equipment for the college. “We also go out to do charitable things for people,” he said.

Students of the Rural Development College in Kwaso, Ghana board the bus to travel through communities in order to collect oral histories of the Akan. The students are field workers supervised by Paul Adjei commissioned to collect oral histories of their people for Family Search.

Education First Step to Successful Harvest

Adjei said the project is met with mixed emotions. “Our communities are made in such a way that [the land] is ruled by chiefs and by kings … you have to get permission from the chief of the land to collect oral histories there,” Adjei said. When a chief approves the collection of an oral history without consulting them, his people can become resentful and closed minded.

“The key is to help the people understand the importance of what we are about to share. It’s a matter of education, it’s a matter of letting them know what we are doing and they always open up when they understand,” Adjei said.

African lore implores individuals to become familiar with the sound of their own chief’s trumpets. The village is the basic social and economic unit, and the entire village typically participates in major ceremonies.People must be present at the colorful festivals and celebratory gatherings of people so they can become familiar with the trumpet’s unique sound. If they do not know the sound, they are likely to be missed, Adjei said. A Diabur is a traditional general meeting of the Akan people. When the people gather at the meeting they are called to their own by the sound of the trumpet. If they do not know the sound, they will be lost.

Genealogy a Labor of Love

“I have learned so much. The greatest of it all is the enlightenment of our rich culture,” Adjei said. “I am touched by the inability of our ancestors and our leaders … and by their lack of knowledge in those days that they did not see the importance of the recording of our history.”

Adjei said it’s better late than never and for future generations, “The world is going to be looking at our history. I find it a great honor and a privilege … Because of the project I have traveled to the hinterlands of my country and have been overcome with the people’s great knowledge of our culture.” He is continually humbled by the people’s willingness to share.

The oral historian relates a song by Osibisa, an African rock band, called “Welcome Home.” The song lyrics say in part:

You’ve been gone it’s an empty home,

Come on back where you really belong

You are always welcome home, welcome home.

You’ve been kept down for much too long,

Stand up please and say I am free

Don’t forget you are welcome home, welcome home.

Adjei believes African descendants should not be treated like traditional tourists when they visit the country, but like family returned to their own promised land. He hopes his collection of oral histories will help turn the hearts of his people back toward home.

The oral histories he gathers will one day be made available through FamilySearch Archives. In time he hopes to have the stories translated into English and languages that will make them easy to share among the people.

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One thought on “Find Yourself in Family History

  1. Pingback: Oral Histories Save Family Memories For Ever - Points and Figures | Points and Figures

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