On June 12, 2019 I moderated a talk by anthropologist and oral historian Zoë West co-sponsored by Hrant Dink Foundation and Columbia Global Centers. Below is the full text of my introductory speech, prior to Zoë’s presentation:
I hereby would like to welcome you all in today’s conversation “Imagining Justice Through Oral History” with Zoe West. I’m sure you are all eager to hear what Zoe will tell us, so I will keep this introduction brief and pass the mic to her shortly.
In a world ruled by the notion “history is written by the victors”, I believe oral history provides a heaven for collective memory.
Whereas conventional history – written history of the so-called masters – is static, oral history can provide a dynamic and fluid alternative. It often provides us with the alternate story, the “other” history, and the candid records of the people as they themselves experienced events.
It also can run the risk of being buried in fantastic tell-tales and myths, fables and lore, but when properly researched, there often comes up an event behind these myths with such strong marks in the collective memory of the people that the lesson still rings true. Plus, we find at times that it may provide us with patches of stories from before there ever was any tangible means of archiving such as petroglyphs, and their successors hieroglyphs, later cuneiform, and now the written word as we know it.
Before I started working with groups people who own a rich oral history, in different parts of the globe, I used to be mesmerized by folk tales. I still own, in my personal library, several books of tales from different geographies, and I still make use of them in my researches, trying to understand a certain group of people in a certain geography often before I set out there.
Working with people in conflict and post-conflict zones and hearing their stories of a more recent past, I often question these books I own. Can they be true? Buried in layers of symbolism are they in fact telling us of not the witches and the giants and the monsters but of humanity itself?
When I was visually documenting and writing my first book Illegal, which tells the story of two young African women, one from Somalia, Suad, and the other from Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, I heard many stories from them on our many days, throughout the 3 years we spent together. Stories of their flight, their arrival in Turkey, the smugglers, the ships, crossing the Mediterranean, which port they thought they were left at, and so on.
In conversation one day Suad had told me that the captain of the ship smuggling them into Turkey had literally dumped them at sea, a couple of sea miles off the shore in the South, and that they were forced to swim ashore. Her exact words were, “I made it to the shore, because I was a very good swimmer. I learned to swim in the river in Beledwyne, in which there were many alligators. We had to swim fast so we could escape them.”
Years later, as I traveled to Eastern Chad to document the phlight of the people from Darfur, I met a Frenchman who had in fact spent a considerable amount of time in Beledwyne. His wife was from there. I asked him about the alligators in the Webi Shebelle River in which Suad claimed she learned how to swim. He told me there were no alligators in Webi Shebelle, there never had been.
Now, Suad loved telling a good story. She must have loved the idea that she learned to swim braving the crocodile filled river of Beledwyene. She must have loved to see the shock she inflicted upon me as she told her story. But I never took anything Suad told me with a grain of salt. I knew there was some truth in it, so I dug. One of these intense diggings ended up in saving her life by reopening her case with the UNHCR in Turkey, but that is a story for a different time.
For now, let’s go back to Suad’s story of the alligators she swam with. The Wadi Shebelle has a diverse and sensitive wildlife which is understudied. But it has been historically known to host one of the main crocodile species in all of Africa with a wide geographical distribution: The Nile Crocodile.
We know from Samuel Baker’s written work from 1868 that there were crocodiles in Sudan which were widely hunted. We also know from Arthur Donaldson Smith’s book, “Through Unknown African Countries” written in 1897 that there were crocodiles in Somalia along the Shebelle River Basin near Bariire which is down the river from Beledwyne.
Now, Beledwyne is North, near the Ethiopian-Somali border, and Northwest from Ethiopia is Sudan where we know the crocodiles were hunted some 30 years before Smith wrote his book.
However, Ethiopia builds a dam on the Shebelle River, cutting the water flow downstream, and with it the majority of the river wildlife, in 1926. We know from man-made dams that fish and amphibians mostly cannot travel downstream when the river is blocked as such. That is why my French friend never saw any alligators in Beledwyne, and possibly neither did his wife, both of them being born in the 1960s.
So what Suad had been telling me must have been patchy remains of her people’s oral history, maybe her grandmother’s, her nene’s, mixed with her troubled memories. And the more I thought of it afterwards I realized that maybe Suad wanted to share this story with me as it reminded her of happier times, or her youth, when she heard this story as a child, when her father had not yet been killed by a car bomb and her mother had not lost her mind. And her grandmother, telling her of a time when there were still alligators in Wadi Shebelle. When all was not yet lost.
So, the alligator part in Suad’s story was true, except it belonged to a different time. And just the mere mention of it is a gem for us researchers on a different level, those of us who are also interested in researching eco-system migrations, habitat loss and biodiversity at present.
I will leave you with a short passage from my last book: Standing Rock, in which I detail the resistance against a major crude oil pipeline crossing the Treaty Lands of the Lakota Tribe in the United States. Here you will hear some words from one of the most prominent oral history keepers of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe: LaDonna Tamakawastewin Allard, someone who was born into a culture of oral history, and someone who makes sure today that that culture still survives:
“Native American history, as with all oral histories is a challenging area for journalists to conduct research in. By professional definition, we are pushed to bend over backwards to tell all sides of a story based on hard fact. However when one side’s experiences have been meticulously documented and survived, while the other side’s memories have largely gone missing, it is near impossible to get down to the origins of a story and reconstruct reality. That ominous Winston Churchill quote – “History is written by the victors” – perpetually breathes down our necks.
So, on that day in the Prairie Knights Casino at Fort Yates, when I told LaDonna that I couldn’t find a written reference to the Black Snake Prophecy anywhere, she said, smiling, that it was because there was none: “because it must stay oral. Because we put it in writing, then it becomes a lie, because American language is up for interpretation; you can’t even remember what your bible said originally. You fight over interpretations. So, when you put it into written word, it becomes a lie.”
Sometimes keeping a story alive can be a powerful means of attaining a different type of justice, as we say in Turkish, “divine justice”. And at times, remembering can in fact help heal, especially when the memory of a new generation has been the construct of a “colonial mind” as the Lakota like to say, remembering their Lakota ways often brings closure for most. Oral history can serve as the reminder of an identity lost for people who have been torn by assimilation, yet never quiet “assimilated”.
With these thoughts, I introduce you today Zoe West, an anthropologist and an oral historian, also a keeper of stories. Zoe is adjunct faculty in the Oral History Master of Arts, Columbia University and the Harry Van Arsdale, Jr. Center for Labor Studies, SUNY Empire State College. She is also a founding member of Rhiza Collective, which, as a women-led collective uses storytelling, healing, organizing and research to support social transformation and environmental justice. And last but not least, Zoe is the co-editor of the oral history collection Nowhere to Be Home: Narratives from Survivors of Burma’s Militay Regime, which came out in 2016.
You may also reach Evrim Altuğ’s take on our panel, in Turkish, through this link: https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/yazarlar/2019/07/14/sozlu-tarihin-adaletle-imtihani/