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JLeslie's avatar

Were birth and census records kept in African countries historically?

Asked by JLeslie (61038points) 1 week ago

I am having trouble researching this. I know Africa is a large continent, and we can’t generalize one country to another. At the time before the major slave trade that brought Africans to the United States, were there good records of those people having been born and that type of information for generations back?

I know several Black Americans who feel a great loss that they don’t know their family surnames or have no way to trace back their ancestors. I am wondering how traceable it even is, even if they knew the surnames. Also, maybe they did not have surnames? If I remember correctly, Jewish people started having surnames around the 11th century; I assume it varies from culture to culture.

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7 Answers

janbb's avatar

I don’t know anything about African countries’ record keeping but I have read several authors who were able to trace their lineage back through enslaved ancestors to tribal affiliation. I am amazed by some of the genealogical work that is being done.

snowberry's avatar

My daughter spent 2 years on the Mercy Ship on the West coast of Africa. Her shipmates came from all over the world, and from all over the continent of Africa.

She is now engaged to a man from Benin, West Africa. About age 11 he was orphaned, then adopted. To enroll him in school, they had to get him a birth certificate. At the time he was too old to enroll in elementary school, so they set his birth date 5 years earlier than it really was so he could get his education. That meant that although his true age was 11, his birth certificate read that he was 6. It’s just how they do things there.

I have been told that in many of the poorest countries of Africa, regulations are a formality, and they can be bent when the need arises. I have also learned that the governments of the poorest countries are also very corrupt, and if you want something to happen, they expect you to pay a bribe. This means that unless you have outside sources confirming your data, your infomation can only be approximate, and might very well be non-existant, or skewed away from the truth.

Based on what I have been told, Internet in much of Africa is only available sporadically, to the wealthy, and in larger cities. I have also been told that the mail system is not reliable (my daughter had to send documents to a reliable business by DSL, and then her fiancee had to travel 40 minutes to pick up his mail). Geneology these days is mostly passed through the Internet as well as through the mail. My understanding is that much of geneological infomation in Africa is passed down through family lines and oral tradition. Add to that the fact that there can be so many dialects and languages involved in a single area (my daughter’s fiancee speaks 6 local dialects and languages). I think these conditions all act as barriers to discovering geneological data in much of Africa.

By the way, my future son in law has 3 university degrees (he’s working on a 4th degree). He just had his visa interview! We are so excited!

JLeslie's avatar

I am going to ask my reporter in Kenya what he knows. Answers were very interesting. I don’t know which countries most of the slaves were brought here from. I find the subject very interesting and also hard to focus on, because it is upsetting.

I think a lot of white people also cannot trace back very far, we had our names changed or lost traditions from the former countries our families came from. Especially for Jews I think we often feel no kinship with the old countries, maybe @janbb can comment on that too. So, while I would never compare being brought to America as a slave to coming here to flee oppression or extreme oppression or even genocide, I do think not knowing one’s genealogy far back or not having a positive tie to the old country is not that uncommon. They might be idealizing the white situation, but that does not negate the reality of what was taken from them, I don’t want to diminish that in any way.

Thank you for the answers so far, very interesting.

snowberry's avatar

@JLeslie I think your friends’ best plan is to pay to have their DNA traced. That would pinpoint their linage much easier than trying to find geneology. Once they have the apporximate location, perhaps they could begin to explore from there.

JLeslie's avatar

@snowberry He was saying every Black person should be able go get a DNA test for free. I understand why he feels that, but again a lot of white people don’t know either all that will come up in a DNA test.

I just think there is a constant push to make Black people feel worse. To the point that some Black people isolate themselves in their group and are less open to empathy and help from other oppressed or previously oppressed groups. I think that is a mistake. That’s what I don’t like. They don’t know which country or tribe, but they know Africa. I only know as far back as my grandparents and great grandparents. Before that all I know is they suffered horribly in their countries.

snowberry's avatar

This article says the slaves were procured from West Africa. That makes sense because West Africa is closest to North America.

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