Budapest Chronicles: Documents that tell stories (and getting lost)

After a few months of living and studying in Budapest, there is a blanket of shame that covers me as I contemplate the disclosure of what happened to me a few days ago. How can I explain that I could fail to locate a building that is a few streets behind the university where I study? How do I start saying that that place I failed to locate is actually part of the university, only located behind the main campus? If you think I am being hard on myself, I should let you know that during orientation, we actually had a tour of that place. Aren't I just plainly a slow-learner? That is to put it mildly, I know some rude chap who would rather call me small-brained.

I am not good at Geography, not good at map-reading, not good at taking directions. I am also not good at reading Hungarian street names. That is however no good case. For, since that very first day of visiting the Open Society Archives as part of orientation, we went to the same place once more to attend an organizing meeting for the International Film Festival held earlier this month. And two times were not enough, because I am offering the Archives, Evidence and Human Rights course, so the third time I went to the Archives was to attend the first class. At those three times of going to the same place, I was with classmates and course mates. The fourth time, to attend class is when I got lost. There was no classmate and course mate this time. I was alone. But having gone to the same place three times, to get lost on the fourth is to be a dim-wit. That is even lenient.

From the Daek Ferenc Ter stop, then take the path across the square leading to the university and then head to the Archives from the university, I chose to take the lower street, to locate the Archives without passing via the university. You see, the times we went to the Archives from the university, we turned south and so in my head I knew that taking the lower street would lead me to the Archives. From one bank to another, I kept my eyes open looking for the Archives building. Nothing! I walked on. I made turns to streets with labels I could not make out, met people doing road works and still could not find the Archives. I turned back and forth and still maintained the state of being lost. Until I met the man with a sword on his waist and a potbelly for a tummy. The statue of this man stands a few meters in front of St. Stephens Basilica and a few meters behind the university campus. Admitting that I had failed to find the archives on my own, I headed to the university to try and trace the path we had taken the first three times we went to the archives. As the Kiga say, 'omutunga tigweebwa ahugwarabire' (run off water does not forget where it has passed before), I easily traced the way this time.

Reaching class, I was late, panting, disorganized and there were documents circulating in class and the instructor saying things I could not make out.  My chance to look at the documents came, they were in a strange language, I duly passed them on. My mind was still debating on what exactly was happening in class; and then the instructor switched on a video and then we watched. I figured out finally what we were doing after watching the video clip.

The Open Society Archives (OSA) at Central European University is an archival laboratory that actively collects, preserves, and makes openly accessible documents related to recent history and human rights. The archive boasts of approximately 7,000 linear meters of records divided into three main groups of Communism, the Cold War, and their Afterlife, Human Rights and Soros Foundations Network and the Central European University. The documents in the Archives tell stories of life in the communist era of this part of the world among many other human rights related things. The Library at the Archives has a non-circulating reference library and a collection of more than 6,500 dailies and journals published from the 1950s onwards in more than 40 languages and also offers special publications from the region, numerous titles of informal and regional press and ephemera. The Digital Archival Laboratory is actually available at where anyone can access the digitalized materials.

The sheer amount of material at the Archives tells a story of people keen on not losing a grip of their history, people saying 'we shall not forget where we came from;' People telling their individual stories of how they experienced life in the communist era, how they survived genocides and massacres, and how they fought against communism –  Individual and collective stories being told.

That day, as I returned from a class I had almost missed because I got lost on the way; one question was on my mind, have our African societies not lost their way by neglecting our history? Where is our collective and individual memory? Who remembers the Mau Mau tangibly? Lamogi rebellion? Nyabingyi rebellion?  The Sharpeville massacres? The Herero genocide? Where are our museums and archives? Where is our memory? I remember a saying that a person does not exist without a past. I will not get lost the next time there is a class at the Archives.

Founder and Editor in Chief of the Readers Cafe Africa

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