Church Preserves Precious Records of African Nation
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.”