Oral History Projects


Living with Poverty: Oral Testimonies Reveal the Many Faces of Poverty

A new online collection of oral testimonies gathered from communities in Pakistan and Zambia powerfully convey, in their own words, the reality of poverty and its daily oppressions. Published for International Day for the Eradication of Poverty (October 17), the testimonies, www.panos.org.uk/livingwithpoverty, show that poverty has different faces in the two countries. In Zambia, for example, food insecurity and the human and economic costs of HIV and AIDS preoccupy the narrators. In Pakistan, the narrators living in squatter settlements face continual insecurity and describe the various survival strategies they employ to meet their basic needs. Nevertheless, a number of underlying concerns are common to the different communities, such as the frustration of battling against entrenched power structures, and indifference and corruption among those meant to be representing their interests.

Lack of voice is just one way that poverty reinforces poverty, as these stories vividly illustrate. For example, fishing families around Manchar Lake in Pakistan, whose livelihoods have been devastated by man-made pollution of the lake, find themselves locked into debt as a means of survival. Local traders buy their catch, often for less than market value; the same traders lend them money at high interest rates.

The project is sponsored by Panos London, which works with the media and other communicators to foster debate on under-reported, misrepresented or misunderstood development issues:[email protected] and: www.panos.org.uk. Panos London’s head of oral testimony, Siobhan Warrington, says, “The value of these testimonies is that they are driven by what the narrators want to talk about. As a result they highlight not only the daily hardships of poverty but tell us what people actually living in poverty think needs to be done. These are the real voices that policy-makers should be listening to.”These collections were gathered in collaboration with, Panos Pakistan, Shirkat Gah, Panos Southern Africa and the Choma Youth Development Organisation.

The testimonies, and photographs can be freely reproduced but please credit Panos London and send an email letting us know to [email protected]


New Zealand in the Pacific War: Personal Accounts of World War II

Bruce M. Petty has written three books on World War II in the Pacific, using both oral history and archival research, and recently completed a fourth titled, “New Zealand in the Pacific War: Personal Accounts of World War II.” He reports:

In addition to archival research, I interviewed Americans who were in New Zealand during the war, and New Zealanders, both veterans of the Pacific War and civilians from the home front; and have included oral histories of New Zealanders who were born to American servicemen.

The archival research and the personal stories in this book give a multidimensional picture of wartime New Zealand, and show how New Zealand and the United States came to know each other, not only as nations, but also as individuals. Although many New Zealanders from that time remember this coming of young American fighting men to New Zealand with some nostalgia, it is also the source of unhappy memories for others, which will be discussed in greater detail later in this paper.

In many of the oral histories, the war appears as little more than a backdrop to lives lived during WWII. The stories are about family life, about loss, about newfound friends and relationships, life before, during and after the war, and how Maori and Pakeha viewed themselves relative to each other both then and now.

The inspiration for this book came in the early part of 2001, when I interviewed a retired Australian naval officer for my book, “At War in the Pacific.” Trained to do things the British Navy way, Mac had to learn almost overnight how to do things the U.S. Navy way. It wasn’t simply the fact that Mac had to learn to do things a different way that inspired me to do this book; it was the realization that most books written about the war in the Pacific, and published in the U.S., give little credit or coverage to contributions made by Allied forces. Of the many books on the subject of the war in the Pacific–most all of them written by American historians-few give much attention to the contributions made by America’s allies.

Most if not all books written about New Zealand in World War II were published in New Zealand. That suggested to me that few people outside of New Zealand bought and read any of these books unless they had some dedicated reason for doing so. On the contrary, many books researched, written and published in the U.S. and Britain on the subject of World War II can be readily found in New Zealand libraries and bookstores. Put another way, New Zealanders know a lot more about the U.S. role in World War II than Americans know about New Zealand’s role. With this in mind, and having a publisher in the United States interested in my project to tell the story of New Zealand’s participation in the war in the Pacific, I think for the first time the story of this small nation’s contribution and sacrifice will have an audience beyond its borders.

Bruce M. Petty [email protected]


“Have You Heard from Johannesburg? Apartheid and the Club of the West.” A Clarity Films Production by Connie Field

The first completed segment of a six-part series by Connie Field on the worldwide anti-apartheid movement has been released for distribution. “Have You Heard from Johannesburg?” shows how South African exiles and African American leaders of the Civil Rights Movement organized a national campaign to reverse United States policy toward South Africa. Drawing on interviews with activists, the film provides a lesson in how a grassroots movement can place an issue on the national agenda, force its coverage by the mainstream media and change the conscience of a nation. The film was judged the best documentary feature at the Pan African Film Festival.

For more information on this project, visit www.clarityfilms.org



Positively Women, the only national charity working to improve the quality of life of women and families affected by HIV and AIDS has received a grant of £42,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop a project, “Invisible Women”, recording the oral testimonies of women living with HIV and AIDS in the UK. The medium of oral history recording is ideal for those women who wish to become involved, but who also wish to maintain their anonymity.

The oral histories will be gathered and coordinated by Positively Women volunteers, all of whom will be women living with HIV. Training in oral history techniques will be provided by oral historian Wendy Rickard, and many of these women will also contribute their own stories and personal experiences as part of the archive itself. Women, from London and around the country, will be interviewed and contributions will address a range of issues associated with HIV including diagnosis, health, culture, medications, regional variations and social implications. Those oral testimonies that are for open access will be deposited with the British Library where they will complement a number of stories already held there about women with HIV. A second set will be lodged at Positively Women for limited access. A booklet of transcripts will be published to distribute to employers and schools, and transcripts will be available on Positively Women’s web site, as will podcasts of the testimonies.

By making stories available to schools we can attempt to create acceptance in young people so that this stigma is not carried into adulthood. See some of our on-line stories at www.positivelywomen.org.uk Work on the archive will commence in early summer and will be officially launched at the end of 2007 as part of a series of events to mark Positively Women’s 20th Anniversary year.

Norena Shopland [email protected]


New Steel Shavings issue entitled “Brothers in Arms” contains oral histories about Vietnam Veterans

The just-published 2008 issue of Steel Shavings magazine (volume 39) features oral histories of Vietnam Veterans, conducted in connection with my course on the Vietnam War. Twenty years ago, when an initial Steel Shavings volume on “Vietnam Veterans from the Calumet Region” appeared in print, most Americans had reached a consensus regarding overseas wars; don’t be dragged into them unless the national security is at stake, there are viable political objectives; and policymakers have a clear-cut exit strategy. Alas, for five years now, our leaders, apparently suffering from collective amnesia, have gotten us bogged down in Iraq.

Early in my career at Indiana University Northwest, I began offering a course on Vietnam, a subject of continuing interest given the domestic and world ramifications of American foreign policy. Northwest Indiana, like many a working-class area, has sacrificed more than its share of young soldiers. One “Swingshift” class, especially designed for steelworkers, contained several Vietnam vets.

Interviews were loosely structured and designed to get the veteran to open up as much as possible. Virtually all dealt with how they ended up in Vietnam, their day-to-day existence there, how folks treated them upon their return, the nature of their adjustment process, any long-term effects, and how the war has affected their attitudes toward authority. The end result provides both an index into the minds of the region’s veterans and, in microcosm, a national perspective as well.

Over 50 IUN students contributed to the 240-page magazine. Copies of “Brothers in Arms: Vietnam Veterans from the Calumet Region of Northwest Indiana” are available for $12.50, including postage. Contact James Lane at IUN History Dept., 3400 Broadway, Gary IN 46408.

James B. Lane [email protected]

The War: Oral History on Television and in Print

Oral history got prominent attention in September 2007, when the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) aired an eighteen-hour documentary on American participation in World War II, The War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. http://www.pbs.org/thewar/ The series incorporated interviews with those who fought and those who remained on the home front, and encouraged others to conduct interviews with the World War II generation. The national weekly magazine U.S. News & World Report devoted a cover story, “Voices of World War II,” on the series and the Veterans Oral History Project at the Library of Congress. (See: From soldiers to disaster survivors page)

Before its airing, the documentary drew criticism for failing to include the wartime contributions of Latin Americans, causing Burns to add new material to address those concerns. This in turn led to an oral history sequence in the nationally syndicated Latino cartoon strip, “Baldo.”

For a week the cartoon strip recounted the experiences of an elderly war veteran, Benito Ramirez. The cartoonists Hector Cantu and Carlos Castellanos credited the composite character as based on interviews collected by Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin School of Journalism, who directs the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project in 1999.