Durban’s successful Ulwazi project looking to expand

A four-year-old social history project in Durban bringing traditional oral histories into the digital age could be brought to Cape Town and Johannesburg.

“Ulwazi”, is an isiZulu word which means “our knowledge” and the Ulwazi project, funded by the eThekwini municipality, seeks to digitally preserve and share heritage and history in the Durban area.

Speaking to HumanIPO Niall McNulty, co-founder of Ulwazi and co-owner of McNulty Consulting, said: “I think what we’ve done in those four years is work out a lot of the problems and issues with this whole type of process and I think we’ve got quite a good model. Ideally the municipalities in Cape Town could actually take this idea and set up a similar program and likewise in Jo’burg.”

He said he has engaged in conversations with people who may be interested in starting up similar projects in those regions.

The project is run through the libraries and the Heritage Department of eThekwini Municipality, using Web 2.0 technology.

Web 2.0 enables online collaboration and makes the use of websites and online media easier.

McNulty said: “We are working with people who have very basic tech knowledge, entry-level people who have a matric, but don’t have any further education, so Web 2.0 is technology that enables people like that to publish information online.”

Ulwazi utilises the public library infrastructure in Durban, KwaZulu Natal (KZN), to gather indigenous knowledge and local history.

“How we actually do that is we recruit volunteers who are community journalists and we train them in oral history and interviewing skills. We teach them basic digital media production skills – how to use a digital camera and how to use a digital audio recorder,” explains McNulty.

The volunteer journalists then interview people within their communities to collect stories and write short articles that are uploaded to a “browser” site at any of the 90 public libraries in Durban.

It is then put onto the “community memory website”, together with photographs and occasionally an audio clip. This means the volunteers can log in at the nearest library and add their story, making it immediately available online.

McNulty said it is important to preserve indigenous knowledge and history for a variety of reasons.

“There has been a mass migration to the cities from the rural areas and so the traditional ways of passing down information from parent to child is lost – the chains of transmission have been broken.

“One thing is to actually collect and preserve it (historical information). The other thing is to actually share it and disseminate it somehow,” said McNulty, who believes dissemination should be adapted to digital technology such as the Internet and mobile phones.

McNulty added Ulwazi only focuses on the Durban area. “It is really regional – we are limited to the boundaries of the municipality, which is 50 kilometres west, north and south of Durban.”

Ulwazi was initially started through McNulty Consulting, a company set up by McNulty and his brother, Grant McNulty, who obtained a PHD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town.

“Basically we (McNulty Consulting) work on projects like the Ulwazi program and there are a few other ones mainly in Durban that use digital media and community engagement to collect heritage resources,” says McNulty. The company is also involved with research projects.

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