Church Preserves Precious Records of African Nation

Contributed By MormonNewsroom.org

  • 9 October 2017

Tattered and deteriorating records at the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

Article Highlights

  • Records in Sierra Leone have been deteriorating rapidly due to poor storage conditions.
  • Sierra Leone president, Ernest Bai Koroma, asked President Monson for help preserving the country’s records.
  • Now, the records are being digitized with the help of FamilySearch International.

“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 David A. Bednar, Quorum of the Twelve Apostles

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.”

Tattered and deteriorating records at the Office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

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.”

All transcription of records is done by hand at the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

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.”

Tattered and deteriorating records at the Office of the Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

A “remarkable undertaking”

When the project is completed some four 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.”

The weathered sign and building of the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone where the nation’s records are at risk and deteriorating, August 2017.

The weathered sign of the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where the nation’s records are at risk and deteriorating, August 2017.

Richard Konie, deputy chief registrar of births and deaths of Sierra Leone, oversees transcription of records by hand. The small staff’s cramped work area also serves as storage for the country’s birth and death records in Freetown, August 2017.

Deputy chief registrar, Richard Konie, inspects tattered at-risk records at the Office of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

Principal registrar Alhaj Nallo (right) inspects death records at the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

Pascal Coffie photographs birth and death records for LDS Church-sponsored FamilySearch International records preservation project. The Sierra Leone government asked the Church for help preserving the nation’s records. They will be digitized and made searchable online. Coffie works next to the Births and Deaths Registrar office in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

Lining up a record sheet to be photographed. Four million records will be digitized and made searchable online as part of the LDS Church-sponsored FamilySearch International records preservation project. The station is next to the Office of the Deputy Chief Registrar of Births and Deaths in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

Charles Fornah (front and center) with his relatives at his home village of Mokolbondo deep in the Sierra Leone bush, August 2017.

Preserving family history is important to the people of Sierra Leone such as with the Abu family in Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.

Overlooking Freetown, Sierra Leone, August 2017.