Anthropologists from the universities of Mainz and Frankfurt present oral history materials to the National Archives of Burkina Faso

A contribution towards safeguarding an intangible cultural heritage


In late June 2012, anthropologists working at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) and Goethe University Frankfurt am Main in Germany handed over a voluminous collection of oral history materials to the National Archives of Burkina Faso based in the capital city of Ouagadougou. The National Archives, which were established in 1970, are now home to these more than 6,000 pages of notes, transcriptions, and translations relating to almost 800 interviews conducted with village elders, earth priests, and village chiefs in the border regions of Burkina Faso and Ghana. Under the supervision of Professor Dr. Carola Lentz of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at JGU, a team of young researchers involved in a sub-project conducted under the aegis of the Collaborative Research Center 268 "Cultural Development and Language History in the West African Savannah" – sponsored by the German Research Foundation (DFG) – had collected local oral histories relating to migration and settlement, land rights, and local politics in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial eras. Between 1997 and 2002, the team conducted interviews in more than 200 villages in northwestern Ghana and southwestern Burkina Faso. A considerable number of scholarly publications has been produced as a result of this project, i.e., fifteen master's theses, two doctoral dissertations, and one professorial thesis, plus a total of nine books and over 90 journal articles and book contributions, authored by Lentz and her colleagues who participated in the project.

Once the project itself had been wrapped up, the research team decided not only to make their scholarly assessments available to the interested public and local scholars, but also to provide access to the original documents relating to the many interviews conducted in the border region between Burkina Faso and Ghana. As there are no written sources dating to the pre-colonial era in this region and even material on more recent developments is scarce, the oral histories related by the village elders represent an invaluable archive of information. These were collected, transcribed, and translated into French and English by the team. "Oral traditions are a part of our intangible cultural heritage," emphasized Professor Hamidou Diallo, Director of the National Archives of Burkina Faso, in his speech of thanks at the ceremony marking the hand-over of the materials. The team's research materials – including meticulous information on the date, site, and background of the interlocutors of each interview listed in tables and organized alphabetically by each village – have been bound into six large volumes. Diallo also pointed out that these oral testimonies are an exceptional source of information about the early history of Burkina Faso, especially in the pre-colonial era. He expressly thanked the German research team for its efforts and for making these collected materials available for further research in the country from which they came. This, he noted, is truly a gesture of academic cooperation of a kind which, unfortunately, still remains the exception rather than the rule.

Additional copies of the volumes will be archived in the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Legon, in the Africana Collection of the Melville Herskovits Library at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, USA, in the library of the Frobenius Institute at Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, and, of course, in the library of the Department of Anthropology and African Studies at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz.