Voices from the past

Opening a Namibian oral archive

13 October 2020 | Social Issues

An extensive archive containing the voices of around 200 Namibians recorded in 1953 and 1954 has just been made more accessible with the launch of a new website: https://namibia1953.com/
Visitors to the site are able to consult a list of the names of those who were recorded by Ernst and Ruth Dammann. The couple was interested in recording African languages and literature, but often also took photographs of the people that were being recorded.
The website has been developed by staff and students at the University of Basel with colleagues at the Basel Afrika Bibliographien, where the collection is held. The Museums Association of Namibia has collaborated on the project and is promoting the web site.
The site provides a link which enables you to contact the archive by email and request digital copies of the sound recordings and photographs of family members. A few profiles have already been made public on the site, including those of the late Goab David Goreseb, the late Nehemia Shoovaleka and Adelheid Mbuandjou. If permission is obtained from family members other profiles will be added to the site, so that other voices can be heard.
Jahanika Hengombe, an intern at MAN who has been working on the project, says “People are very excited to hear the actual voices of their ancestors and they often share interesting oral literature, such as praise poems in Otjiherero”.

Preserving memories
Director of the Museums Association of Namibia Dr Jeremy Silvester, explained why the project is significant: “Archives store documents and records that preserve our memories of the past. We were excited by this project for two reasons. Firstly, our goal during the recent Namibian Heritage Week was to find new ways to ensure that people could access material about our cultural heritage and history, especially during this period when the pandemic is placing restrictions on our movements and activities. Copies of these sound recordings have already been deposited at the National Archives of Namibia, but people did not know they were there. We hope this website, launched during Namibian Heritage Week, can be a model for ‘opening’ up an archive and giving more Namibians better access to an important historical source.”
He said the second, important point is that this project is part of a larger vision of the need to decolonize archive collections. “The National Archives of Namibia stores the memory of the nation. It is the most important institution in Namibia for anyone researching our history. However, the collections mainly contain the archives of the colonial administration and do not adequately reflect the voices and experiences of black Namibians.
“We hope that this project will encourage many families to look at their private archives of photographs and documents and consider donating them to the archives to broaden our ‘collective memory’ of the past. Families who have identified their grandparents’ and parents’ voices have already sent photographs from their family albums to help identify them. The people whose voices were recorded were often prominent and well-remembered members of society, such as Jason Amukutuwa and Festus Gonteb. I believe that the National Archives could well embrace this process as a way to build up new biographical archives of black Namibians.”
For more info on the Namibia1953 website or the project, contact Jahanika Hengombe at 081 618 8244 or email the Museums Association of Namibia on [email protected]

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