Oral History - an educational tool for educators and learners
Guide by Sephai Mngqolo
Sephai Mngqolo presented this paper in December 2002, at the South African History Provincial Conference (Northern Cape Education Department) in Upington. He works at the Living History Department of the McGregor Museum, Kimberley, http://www.museumsnc.co.za, and can be contacted on email@example.com.
Before any oral history production, historical events must occur and be memorized, and later told in narrative form. Only then can we produce it in written form. We therefore use oral tradition as an historical source to illustrate the new stories we tell of colonial penetration, African resistance, conquest and eventual freedom. In recent years, oral history has emerged as a powerful tool for recording and preserving unique memories and life experiences of people whose life stories might otherwise have been lost. It enables us to monitor events, feelings, attitudes and the way of life that have been deliberately hidden from the man in the street by governments. We seek to work with our memories, our achievements and our shames, our moments of glory, courage and love for one another, and also the hurts we inflicted upon each other. In doing this, we are able to create a more vivid and accurate picture of our past.
The McGregor Museum's mandate is not so much to tell the citizens of the Northern Cape exactly how to collect oral history, but to support them in this challenging endeavour by providing resources where possible, and guidance, as well as in finding additional resources in their respective areas.
This paper seeks to bring about the importance of Oral History as a tool in writing and recording our neglected histories. I will not dwell on collecting family histories or family trees, but will concentrate mainly on the work I am presently engaged in. In addition, I will also touch on the memory of our sources that we solely depend on, in order to record these histories that we are so eager to preserve. This paper will also take a critical look at how the Northern Cape Museums and the Northern Cape Department of Education can start collaborative programmes in collecting local Oral History.
We have more than enough evidence through narratives to condemn or give credit regarding what happened in the past. We know now that apartheid was one form of exploitation with special characteristics that included the idea of introducing a series of laws that prohibited fellow South Africans from living as citizens of the country. The cornerstone of apartheid was the disenfranchisement of all indigenous black Africans, who constituted more than eighty percent of the population. Also it persecuted anyone who sympathized in any way with his/her fellow South Africans. We also know that South Africans through the years have proved their determination to resist tyranny and fight for their birthright by a variety of means. They have demonstrated unequalled courage, resilience and ingenuity in supporting their struggle. It is through these experiences of our countrymen that researchers are able to re-write our history books. By doing so, it has therefore become imperative for us to be inquisitive about our past. "To know why things happened is a compelling motive for witnessing past events". It was encouraging to note that during the 65th Anniversary of Orlando Pirates Football Club about a fortnight ago, the Club's Chairperson Mr. Ivan Khoza made an appeal on national television that South Africans must start to collect and write their own histories. He was referring to the hundreds and thousand of Rands his club has paid to collect the club's historic material from publishers and other private companies. This plea from the sporting fraternity is just a tip of the iceberg to our history as a people. In essence, Mr. Khoza was referring to the vast memories that are idle, that need to be questioned by scholars, because memories, when used as oral histories can function as a dynamic for creative projects for some schools, around our province, where our histories have been suppressed for a long time.
Remembering and forgetting
I must also clarify at the outset that there are obstacles one encounters when collecting Oral History, as this has a lot to do with memory. We depend on our memory to construct sentences that make sense, we continuously try to remember events that happened and, we attempt to remember as fairly and as fully as we can. However, we all suffer from historical amnesia because, as in other areas of social activity, human behaviour and contradiction are inseparable, and so is our memory. Blanchot was correct when relating speech and forgetting "it was strange that forgetting could rely in this way on speech and that speech could welcome forgetting". It is true that the memories we have, like the events we make or engage with are neither authentic nor honest. Levi also points out factors that can alter memory in a particular way. "Bodily traumas, not only those affecting the brain; interference by other 'competing' memories; abnormal states of consciousness; repression. However in normal conditions a slow degradation is at work: a dimming of the records, one might say a physiological oblivion, which few memories can resist"4. Hence we find it impossible sometimes to remember names of our colleagues we meet at conferences similar to this one. Having said this, I think as curators, educators and learners we should not allow ourselves to be discouraged from recording memories that cannot be verified or remembered to tell peoples histories. We will be failing dismally in our commitment of recording, preserving, collecting, exhibiting and researching these histories. If we allow ourselves to succumb to these pressures, we will never achieve our goals.
The cultural theorist, Richard Terdiman, describes memory thus: ''a content of some sort is registered. A representation appears, response to the content previously registered". Museums and other institutions that use oral sources are faced with many challenging tasks that cannot be easily avoided. One of the attractions of oral sources is that they provide a more personal and subjective perspective of social processes, a perspective that is rarely found in archives, public documents and information elicited through structured questionnaires. Oral testimonies as mentioned before provide key insights into the lives of the dispossessed and powerless, and also open a window into the experiences of people without a written history.
Truth, Lies and Fantasies
Human beings have the ability to construct any past that is deemed necessary for various situations and the interviewer or audience is always disadvantaged whenever there is no prior knowledge to the past that is being interrogated. The construction of individual memories always employs different types of understanding, from dry scholarly knowledge to visceral sense of the past, each with different claims to the truth and authenticity. We all have the ability to twist what actually happened to what never happened; we are also able to day- dream about things that are possible and others that are impossible by fantasizing "Some people are prone to lie consciously, so as to falsify the reality in cold blood, but many more are reliable and weigh anchor to take leave (momentarily or forever) from, real memories, and to manufacture a truth more suitable to their deeds". Therefore as curators and educators we need to be aware of such pitfalls when dealing with oral sources. Our informants can mislead us and make up their own stories because the histories we encounter have shape and purpose, they are arrived at because certain evidence has survived, and accounts have been created by using different methods and other materials. The shape that history takes reflects something of the past, which is content, but also something of the present in which it was made.
Museums in South Africa
Museums throughout the world represent events that occurred recently or events that occurred in the more distant past. One of the key roles museums play is educational: they educate their audience through their narratives, exhibitions, books and flyers. However, museums are also part of knowledge production. They communicate public memory by using photographs, audio recordings, video documents and by doing so, these museums influence how the public remembers and communicates it's past. Museums are like memory; they mediate the past, present and future. Unlike personal memory, which is animated by individual lived experiences, museums give material form to authorized versions of the past, which in time became institutionalized as public memory. Museums construct histories from the products of its relevant research and collecting. In doing so, they draw these results together within exhibitions and public services. "In the post modern era, museums also have become places for discourses of resistance and debates of history, both by social groups demanding a voice by artists and insiders who use the museum as a subject creating a dialogue about the institution within their work of labeled as 'institutional critique" The importance of Oral History cannot be underestimated, My department is busy with the interviewing of ex political prisoners from Robben Island who are from the Northern Cape. This project is run in collaboration with the Robben Island Museum, the Mayibuye Centre and Tetlanyo High School in Galeshewe. We are recording the experiences of former inmates; and I must confess this the most exciting project that has involved about four learners from Tetlanyo School who have participated in the Robben Island Spring School in the year 2000. This is an annual event where selected learners from around the country and the neighbouring counties are able to visit the island with their various oral history projects.
The McGregor Museum in Kimberley provides many different ways to learn from its collections and this includes oral recordings. Besides guided tours and exhibitions, there is a discovery room with hands-on features, representations in school classrooms, and also a variety of traveling/temporary exhibitions. This is one way in which learners can interact with exhibitions and also have first-hand experience of how our recorded materials are obtained.
Teaching and Oral History
For Educators, Oral History is one vehicle that can lead learners to the rich heritage resources that one finds outside the walls of a classroom and the pages of school textbooks. It is an effective tool for a conducive learning environment. Whenever learners are engaged with an Oral history Project that is conducted within their communities, they usually put in more effort because the atmosphere is completely different form the daily routine. It matters not what learning area is chosen; if the setting is right, such platform usually encourage them to raise the right question for themselves. Once the right question is raised, they are moved to tax themselves to the fullest to find an answer. Some learners are known to do exceptionally well when learning or conducting research away from school premises.
It must be asserted that our heritage and educational institutions, in the light of the processes of transformation, are faced with ambiguous problems that enjoy the status quo. Whilst in others there are new objectives that are being set, these institutions had to tackle the huge task of collecting some of these memories and making them available to the 'nation' or communities who want to know what happened in the past. It is therefore my assumption that if heritage institutions and schools in the Northern Cape form partnerships and run projects of collecting their local oral history, I can also argue without any doubt that ten years down the line we will be able to write our own history of the people by the people. These proposed projects must be structured in such a way that all the stakeholders are involved in the drawing up what needs to be recorded. “The passage from memory to history has required every social group to redefine its identity through revitalization of its own history. The task of remembering makes everyone his own historian. The demand for history has thus largely overflowed the circle of professional historians. Those who have long been marginalized in traditional history are not the only ones haunted by the need to recover their buried past".
- Identify area/person/topic for research.
- Do research/background.
- Befriend your interviewee.
- Explain purpose of your research.
- Never make false promises.
- be frank with your intentions.
- Agree on a day, month and time for the interview.
- Remember to allow time frame of not less than three days.
- Always try to choose/agree for the interviewee's venue - avoid noisy venues.
Check recording equipment:
- Take recorder - battery, etc.
- Video recorder - battery, etc.
- Note books and pens
- Always carry extra batteries and cassettes.
- Clearly mark your cassettes.
- Before the interview explain purpose of interview again - agree on language(s) to be used.
- Explain that you don't have a time frame.
- Enter data to your cassettes.
- Always ask open-ended questions (e.g. ‘speak about your family experience’, as opposed to ‘are your parents still alive?’
- Do not interupt when interviewee is talking or stop him/her.
- Avoid talking/agreeing (e.g. yes/hmmm). Keep eye contact and nod or smile.
- When interviewee wanders off the topic, always talk him/her back.
- Always keep an eye to your equipment (if the recording cassettes are functioning).
- Be a good listener.
- Last question.
Using Museums to teach History
Education, History education in this instance is tasked with restoring the dignity of the communities by unearthing the true history of our peoples, more than that we must also preserve that history. It thus becomes a challenge to both history educators and the museums to set about this task of restoring and preserving this people’s history. Many of our communities lack that pride and dignity that they so deserve because their histories have not been recorded and preserved. Museums play a major role in unearthing and preserving those untold stories. The story of Mr. E Manuel bears testimony to this. Using museums to teach history goes one step further in this preservation process.
I work in Lavender Hill, an area of extreme poverty, high unemployment, a high level of social decay and human rights violations. Skills acquired in areas such as these are often survival of the fittest, resolving conflict through violence and a gangster mentality and discipline. Museums, heritage and history education is not always a priority in these areas. People have more pressing bread and butter needs that require attention. It is however precisely people from areas such as these that have experienced the wrath of the previous government and its apartheid machinery first hand. History is a struggle against forgetting. The collective memory of communities such as these needs to be refreshed "jogged" into action by learning from the past and improving on the future.
It is against this background and working from the assumption that there is little or no knowledge of museums and the values thereof that one needs to tackle the question of using museums to teach history. A good starting point would be to look the question. What is a museum? What are its uses and what can be learnt?
The concept of the museum must first be introduced to our learners. To most learners and others, museums are traditionally seen as cold, gray buildings where visitors must be absolutely quiet. Stories were usually far removed from their present reality and therefore of no interest to them. The idea of a museum containing stories of people and places that they can identify with must be promoted. Starting archives or little museums at schools and at their homes containing important documents, achievements, registers, lists of staff members through the years, old equipment such as typewriters, photocopiers and other objects. These "little museums" goes a long way to demonstrating what museums are and illustrating their purpose.
History and museums (e.g. Robben Island) can play a major role in teaching learners a different set of norms and values that can be applied in everyday life. Robben Island has from as far back as the 17th century, carried a theme of banishment. More importantly it has become one of the greatest symbols of triumph of good over evil. It demonstrates how dedication, persistence and the human spirit are able to overcome hardships and gain human dignity.
Planning and managing site/museum visits and fieldwork
Learners must see the world around them with their own eyes. Exploring the local environment is a good place to start. It is also an ideal way to integrate History and Geography in a natural way. Fieldwork does not have to be expensive. It can also be done with minimal disruption to the school timetable.
Opportunities for site visits and field trips need to be identified during medium term planning. The visits should link directly to the topic being studied and should provide further opportunities for developing history as a process of enquiry.
It is important for you to have visited the museum or site beforehand, particularly if this is a first visit for you and your learners. If there is a guide at the site, explain your overall aims to the guide and discuss whether the guided tour fits in with your aims. Discuss any adaptations that might be necessary. If there is an education centre at the site, ask to see it during your planning visit to see how you could make use of the facilities. Be careful not to ask learners to do work at the education centre or the website, which could be done at school.
Before the visit you will need to decide how much information you will give learners and how much you want them to discover from the site. They could be given a key question to help them make sense of the site.
Things to do in planning fieldwork or a site visit
Always check that you have
- arranged the necessary permission
- made the purpose of the visit clear to all colleagues, helpers and learners
- confirmed any bookings in writing
- obtained permission slips from parents of learners if the activity is outside the school grounds
- have enough staff to accompany the learners on the trip
- informed other colleagues that you would be out of school for part of the day or for a few lessons (if this is necessary)
- organized appropriate provision for any learner with special needs
- gathered the necessary equipment and medical aid kits
- compiled an accurate register of all learners on the field work activity
- Left emergency contact numbers with the school administrative staff.
Field visits and fieldwork should be more than just casual observation and lecture-style presentation from the teacher or 'expert' presenter. It is an opportunity to gather and record data for the enquiry. The tasks set should have a variety of outcomes, some of which can be assessed after the visit. Where appropriate, the activities planned for the site visit/field trip should involve cross-curricular skills such as
- careful, planned observations and recording, including drawing
- comparison and deduction, reading, writing and comprehension, measuring and estimating, map and plan reading, number and scientific skills
- social skills, discussing, sharing and communicating
- Fun experience.
Site visits: Activity sheets or worksheets?
It is important that when on outings or excursions, learners are guided to think about what they are seeing and doing.
Too often 'worksheets' used for outings do not lead learners to make their own judgments or stimulate observation and critical thinking. An 'activity' sheet should assist in focusing learners' thinking and looking. A test of a good activity sheet is:
- Were the questions and activities devised specifically for the visit?
- Does it lead to direct observation of the site/museum? Avoid questions that rely only on reading the display panels.
- Are the answers useful?
- Was it designed specifically for this visit and for these learners?
- Does it lead to an activity such as drawing, deducing, or seeking evidence? Ensure these are based on the evidence at the site.
- Are the questions open-ended rather than closed? Wherever possible ask questions that require more than one word answers and a variety of responses - for example, descriptive, comparative or creative, extended prose, drawing, diagrams, labeling, note-taking or poetry.
- Is there enough time for the activity sheet to be used properly at the site. There shouldn't be a race to see who can get the most answers right.
- Are learners asked to reflect on their visit by e.g. asking what was most interesting to them and explaining why? Or what they liked the least and again providing an explanation?
Follow up in the classroom
Follow-up work done back at school to reinforce the skills, ideas and information gathered during the visit is important.
- If learners have had an activity sheet, get the learners to use the information gathered for further work and research.
- If learners are asked to write an account of the visit, guide them to focus on the unique features of the site rather than giving a straight 'story' of the day, or they could be asked to compare what they knew before they visited the site and what they now know.
- Learners could be asked to write about what they found most interesting and why.
- Learners could be asked to make a display of written work, maps, drawings or photographs to tell other classes about the visit.
- Learners could develop a class museum or exhibition.
- The follow-up work could be combined with Arts and Culture.
- Learners could make a frieze, collage, create models, draw or sketch while on the visit.
Robben Island Board Game
The Robben Island Board Game has been developed so that the Robben Island Museum and its national spin-offs can be introduced to the learners and the narrative can be spread. The Island is not always accessible to all. There is thus a growing need to develop strategies to make Robben Island a living experience to learners from all backgrounds but more importantly to those who have little or no interest in our tragic past and the lessons that can be learnt from this. History teachers need to introduce the Robben Island Museum in a dynamic and creative manner.
Valdi Van Reenen and Vernon Titus included Robben Island in their curriculum but had limited access to the Island in terms of logistics, available time, etc. They looked at ways of bringing the Island into the classroom in a fun way.
The narrative of the Island is often lost when visiting the Island as learners are in awe with regard to the boat trip and being on an Island. When asked to relate the island experience to others, the story of the boat trip always takes prominence. The board seeks to introduce the Island learning experience in a fun way.
The Robben Island Board Game has, in turn, led to a relationship with the Robben Island Museum and an interest in using the game as a vehicle to the narrative of the Island and also to use museum education in the classroom.
It aims to teach the history of ordinary South Africans in a manner that would inspire learners to develop a passion for history, museums and the culture of human rights. The game furthermore hopes to impart desired values, to embrace oral history and to elicit healthy debate.
A maximum of eight players can play at once. Six of these are people that were banished to the Island for various reasons. There is an oppressor that punishes the prisoners for any indiscretions, actual or imagined. The last player is the human rights conscience that tries to assist players and also mediate on their behalf. The prisoners’ sole aim is to get off the island as soon as possible. They do this through negotiations with each other, tradeoffs, coercing and plotting against their oppressors. Players are punished when they cannot answer questions. The route is filled with obstacles that hamper and sabotage their escape. Players are allowed to assist each other with answers if they so wish. The game ends when all the players have won their freedom. Players can also escape the Island by drawing a "free at last" card. All the characters used on the 17th century board are based on the history of the Island during that period.
The game spreads over four centuries; with each century having its own board and questions. There is a common thread of banishment, resistance and victory of the human spirit that runs throughout the game. It aims to move away from the conventional way in which museums are often viewed and to introduce the Island as a living, moving museum. There are plans afoot to develop a junior board for use in the first two phases of education. This will include support materials on heritage education, e.g. information sheets and storybooks.
The game introduces the learner to Robben Island and its story. The board game cannot replace a visit to the island but it could serve as good preparation. It creates a sense of both sympathy and empathy. It deals with human rights and their violation. The game develops skills of negotiation, conflict resolution and planning strategies. These are all themes that can be explored in other areas of the curriculum making the whole Robben Island experience cross- curricular
Learners are engaged in such a way that they need to develop and draw on their critical thinking skills in order to discuss and challenge some of the issues that arise. Learners are also able to extract relevant facts from the information sheets to answer questions that arise during discussions. Learners can also use the information to write their own accounts of the Island experience.
Role-play can be use to depict scenes from the era. The human rights violations as contained in the board game could lead to a re look at the way in which learners violate each other’s rights and may even lead to changes. A large responsibility lies with the educator to explore these issues in the class.
Learning experiences can be planned using the game and background readings to make the teaching and learning of Robben Island fun. An important learning experience is the introduction of Robben Island as a museum and world heritage site. The learners thus develop an appreciation for museums and heritage sites as custodians of our past.
Learners are further encouraged via the input of the educator to identify, preserve and develop heritage sites within their schools and communities. Examples of these are:
- Time capsules filled with artifacts of particular area of importance e.g. the school history.
- Writing, displaying and preserving the history of the school
- Recording the oral histories of communities such as ours, that experienced forced removals and life in places such as District Six
- Instilling a sense of pride within the community creating local exhibitions depicting the lives, struggles and victories of the community. These become a constant reminder of life, as it was life as it is and life the way we want it to be.
In conclusion I would like to say that communities such as ours are in dire need of the use of museums within the classrooms. Even more so are our surrounding communities who, for too long have lived with the idea that they do not form part of the historical process.
We as educators need to become leaders in ensuring that these stories of people's day-to-day struggles and the harsh treatments in days gone by are not lost but preserved for generations to come. This, so that the children may rid themselves of their slave mentality and become players in their own right.
We are fortunate in our Province to have writers of Sol Plaatje’s calibre. He wrote down what the majority of the people wished for in South Africa, he wrote down what he saw during the South African War, most of which was from oral sources. Why do we not have one of his works as a prescribed book in our schools? Are we not failing the future generation by not recording people who knew Robert Sobukwe when he was banished to Kimberley? Why not interview the ''Upington Fourteen" and hear their stories? Why not the victims? Why not interview our Premier? I think we must start to question our history or the future will question us. We must be able to decide how our school curriculum should be like, what our children must know, by taking these initiatives will we know who we are.
- Dean, J. (2002). ‘Doing History: Theory, Practice and Pedagogy’, unpublished paper delivered at the October S.A. History Conference, History, Memory and Human Progress, Cape Town.
- Fines, J. & Nichol, J. (1997). Teaching Primary History, Oxford: Heinemann (Nuffield Primary History Project).
- Fines, J. & Verrier, R. (1974). The Drama of History, London: New University Education
Hexter, J. H. (1971). The History Primer, New York: Basic Books.
- Wray, D. & Lewis, M. (1997). Extending Literacy: Children reading and writing non-fiction. London: Routledge.