Posts Tagged ‘conference’

The 5th National Oral History Conference

October 28, 2008
not bad at all

oral histories conference swag

About three weeks ago (i know tardy blogging right?), I got to attend the the Oral History Association of South Africa (OHASA) 5th National Oral History Conference. I was presented a paper called Digital Storytelling Learning from Non-digital Narratives: Two Case Studies in South Africa along with Nic Bidwell from Australia and Xolile Sigaji from the Eastern Cape. The paper came out of a Royal Society workshop on User Generated Content (kind of like all that Web 2.0 stuff) and it’s about communities taking control of telling and preserving their stories NON-digitally, and what digital design can learn from this. My part of the paper describes District Six Musuem in Cape Town as a case study and Nic+Xolile’s part was about a workshop held in Lwandile, Transkei.

The conference was a weird one for me becuase (1) I was the only technical-type person there (2) there was a mix of academics, teachers and everyday storytellers there and (3) there was a heavy presence of historians. That last point was interesting because I got to think about what history actually is and what is means to be a historian. Turns out that it is to decide what accurate history is, especially when dealing with oral sources where memories are faulty and current contexts influence the stories told. The keynote was especially interesting and, dare I say, inspiring for my work. It was given by Pumla Madiba from the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (phew!).She addressed how modernism continues to invade African traditions such that oral traditions are not being continued by modern, ubanised youth. Shel also pointed out that, while people are talking about using modern technology to preserve oral histories, we must not forget that orality is a technology in and of itself. Technology is a broad concept that can include all ways or tools that a species (yes its not only us humans that can wield technology) uses to survive or control their environment. Right now, the world is so computer-driven that I think there is a really narrow idea of technology around these as something bound to computers or digital technology. This precludes people from thinking of non-digial things as technology, like zippers (a major invention of the 20th century) and transmitting knowledge through oral storytelling. Anyway, Pumla acknowledged that, while current technologies can help with the preservation of oral histories, it should not replace them and that the person-to-person phenomenon of storytelling should be conserved.

Overall I felt there were lots of people talking about oral history as something unknown and distinctly African. There was lots of talk about how we don’t understand oral history well enough and need to figure out how to preserve it appropriately. And there was comparatively less pragmatic talk about how to go about doing this (more problematising than solutionising). I appreciate that oral storytelling, as a technology for transmitting cultural values and indigenous knowledge reliably, has been unvalued in Africa. However, oral history isn’t unique to Africa (however romantic it may be to think of it as such), it has been explored the world over. From the bits and pieces that I know there has been lots of work on this in anthropology and linguistics, such as Alessandro Portelli who has studied oral history in Italy and the US and Ochs & Capps who explore everyday storytelling in general. So it is not entirely necessary for South African historians to start from scratch – there is already a vast body of work to learn from!

On the peripheral details, this conference is subsidised by the government and… well it showed funding wise! When I was told that all the speaker’s accomodation was paid for by the conference I thought that I had misunderstood. I was so sceptical in fact that I contacted the only person I know from East London and asked if I could stay with her folks there if I happened to find myself on the streets! But they put us up and not too shabbily either, my hotel room was just a little smaller than my whole flat! It had two TV’s, two desks, a couch and a balcony (which overlooked a noisy construction site). There were lavish dinners with live jazz and the ‘swag’ was among the best I’ve seen – check out the beaded and embroidered conference bag! Unfortunately, despite all these conference goodies, a copy of the proceedings was suspicioulsy absent which was a topic that came up around the dinner table a number of times. On the last day we got taken out for an excursion of Transkei, Mthatha and Qunu (where Mandela grew up). All be open, beautiful and calm and a nice way to end of things.