Oral tradition remains a critical primary source for scholars of African history and linguistics. Yet few bodies of oral sources are accessible, especially those collected at different time periods, allowing for comparative analysis across similar linguistic communities, such as the Mara Cultural Heritage Digital Library. Regions like the Mara in Tanzania, without ancient kingdoms, a common local language or a heavy colonial presence, have been particularly under-documented. However, it is these factors that make the Mara Region particularly interesting to scholars. The linguistic diversity of the region, representing some 16 East Nyanza Bantu languages, Temi, Luo and Datooga, demonstrates both recent language shifts as well as long term patterns of interaction and movement across linguistic boundaries. Closely connected acephalous societies present a case study in shifting forms of leadership around gender, age and expertise. A particular focus of Jan Bender Shetler’s scholarship was the place-based and environmental aspects of cultural memory as it changes over time. In addition, communities that have relied on oral tradition to preserve cultural memory fear that this heritage will die as elders who speak local languages fluently and pass on oral narratives learned from their grandparents die. Repatriating the original interviews in the original languages to the Mara Region in an accessible and enduring form was the impetus for creating a digital library of these interviews and other related Mara sources.
Motivated by requests from scholars and Mara citizens for access to her interviews, Bender Shetler began the process of creating the Mara Cultural Heritage Digital Library to move her extensive research archive based on more than 300 interviews into digital form in 2009. These materials include mini-cassette audio tapes and film photographs from 1995-6 interviews, VCR tapes and digital photographs from 2003 interviews, DVDs from 2007 interviews and digital audio and photographs from 2010 interviews, in addition, other materials from Mara historians including reel to reel music tapes, cassette tapes, hand drawn maps, historical manuscripts, family histories, essays, dictionaries and GPS points for historical sites overlaid on topographic maps, that will be added in time. With the support of Goshen College grants, student assistants have been transcribing, digitizing and creating a website with a limited sample of the material since 2002. The story of that work was presented at an African Studies Association Conference and published as a chapter on the ethical issues surrounding the repatriation of oral sources in an open source publication, Searching for Sharing: Heritage and Multimedia in Africa, in 2017.
A National Endowment for the Humanities grant in 2021 allowed for a partnership with the Matrix Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences at Michigan State University to create the platform for housing the Mara documents that is consistently upgraded and serviced for accessibility and searchability on the Africa Online Digital Library. The dual language, English and Swahili interface allows for searchability by various audiences. Once Shetler’s materials have been added to the collection, supplementary material will be included based on available resources, their relevance to long-term Mara history and culture, and the material’s relationship to Bender Shetler’s core collection.
Each interview includes associated audio, photographs, transcripts, field notes, video and information on the informant and the context of the interview. The interview questions were broad ranging and speak to a variety of themes such as Cultural Memory, Democracy and Diversity, Environment and Climate Change, Gender and Livelihoods, and Linguistic and Cultural Patterns that are indicated for each interview. The interviews took place in all seven districts of the Mara Region, though primarily in the Serengeti district, and can be searched by district and village name, ethnic group, language or informant’s name. A few interviews took place in the Loliondo district of Arusha Region among Temi speakers who are claimed as ancestors of some Mara communities. Interviews in the Shirati, Roriya District among Luo and Suba speakers often make reference to events and connections in western Kenya. Project staff are open to ideas of what should be included, or not, and how to make the MCHDL more accessible to a wider audience, including secondary schools in the Mara Region.
The Mara Cultural Heritage Digital Library is made possible by funding from a National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Humanities Collections and Reference Resources Implementation grant (2021-23), Michigan State University, Goshen College and the expertise and dedication of the following individuals:
Project DirectorJan Bender Shetler (Goshen College)
Professor of History and Director of Global Engagement
Metadata ConsultantCatherine Foley (Michigan State University)
Director of Digital Library and Archive Projects Matrix: Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences
Matrix Support StaffJosh Christ (Lead Developer) Seila Gonzalez Estrecha (Director of Programming) Alicia Sheill (Data Remediation Specialist)
Project Administration (Goshen College)Beth Martin Birkey (Grants Administrator) Janine Ostergren (Project Administrative Assistant)
Linguistic ConsultantsLotta Aunio (University of Helsinki, The Mara Project) Tim Roth (University of Helsinki, The Mara Project) Agnes Odhiambo (Language Assistant)
Technical ConsultantMichael McHugh (Goshen College)
Senior AV Systems Specialist & Assistant Director, ITS Media
Library ConsultantJoe Springer (Goshen College)
Mennonite Historical Library Curator
Undergraduate Research Assistants for the NEH project (Goshen College)Grace Hitt Abby Keiwua Lydia Nolt Emily Strzelecki
Undergraduate Research Assistants in the preparatory phase (Goshen College)Rose Wang’ombe Mtoka (transcription, 2002-2004) Nyamusi Magatti (transcription, 2007) Kajungu Mturi (transcription 2011-13) Ted Maust (Maple Scholars Summer Research Program 2012, digitization and preparation of the digital archive collection on Greenstone) Oscar Kirwa (Maple Scholars Summer Research Program 2013 and 2014, Digitization of 1995-6 audio tapes)
Tanzania Project Coordinator
Advisory Board MembersVP Finance
Authorized Organization Representative, Goshen CollegeBeth Martin Birky
PhD, Grants Administrator, Associate Dean, Goshen CollegeJoe Springer
MLS, Mennonite Historical Library Curator, Goshen CollegeMichael Sherer
Retired Director of Information Technology, Goshen CollegeTobias Magatti
MA Peace Studies, TEA, Tanzania Education Aid, Goshen residentCatherine Foley
MSL, Matrix, Michigan State UniversityLotta Aunio, Director
The Mara Project, University of Helsinki, Finland
Partners in TanzaniaFacilitators of Interviews The Magotto Family, especially Nyawagamba Magotto, Mayani and Susana Magotto, Manyika Magotto, Mwalimu Nyamaganda Magotto, Faini Magotto, Mwenge Magotto, Mnyengere Magotto and Joseph Magoto, Nata Kinanda Sigara, Ikizu Mnada Joseph Mayonga, Datoog David Maganya Masama, Ngoreme Pastor Wilson Shanyangi Machota, Ikoma Rhoda Koreni, Yohana Wambura, Zanaki Perusi Kyambirya, Jita Kennedy Sigira, Pastor Zabron Musendo, Bwai Zedekia Oloo Siso, Luo Nyamusi Magatti, Shirati Michael Wambura Machambire, Sonjo Pastor Magwa Marara, Nyamuswa Esther Mantera, Kiagata
Supporting OrganizationsTanzania Education Aid, Shirati (Tobias Magatti) Butiama Cultural Tourism Enterprise (Madaraka Nyerere) Summer Institute for Linguistics, Mara Region, Musoma (Rebekah Mészároš) The University of Dar es Salaam, East Africana Library (Mohammed Kassim) and History Department (Albertus Onyiego) The Culture and Education Office, Musoma (Reuben Luhende) Grumeti Community and Wildlife Conservation Fund, Nata (Stephen Cunliffe) Mara Regional Library, Musoma (Sakina Msuya) Kemgesi Community Center, Ngoreme (David Manganya) The Buturi Makongoro Project (Judith Smith)
Dr. Jan Bender Shetler
Global Engagement Office
1700 South Main Street
Goshen IN 46526
Matrix the Center for Digital Humanities and Social Sciences
Michigan State University
Natural Science Building
288 Farm Lane
East Lansing, MI 48823
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