Oral History NSW
Giving Voice to the Past
Giving Voice to the Past

Acoustic engineer Louis Challis recognised in Engineering Heritage Sydney OH program

by | July 1, 2017


The Engineering Heritage Australia Oral History Program interviewed 194 of Australia's preeminent engineers, one of whom was acoustic engineer Louis Challis. 

Louis Challis – brilliant acoustic engineer

Louis Challis AM, who had a reputation as Australia's leading acoustical engineer, spent his life making unwanted noise and vibration inaudible and making good noise crystal clear. He provided outstanding acoustical designs and advice for some of Australia's most important and prestigious buildings. Louis recently passed away and one of his legacies was an interview recorded under Engineering Heritage Sydney’s oral history program.

The program was conducted from 1991 to 2006 and recorded the personal history, experiences, knowledge and accomplishments of 194 eminent engineers. Thanks to the program we now have firsthand accounts from people such as the designer of the AMP Tower; developers of the first major wind tunnels and computers in Australia; the designer of sand and gravel pumps sold worldwide; consulting engineers who established well-known practices; a man who worked with Freysinnet - the inventor of pre-stressed concrete before the technique came to Australia; major players in projects including the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme, the Eastern Suburbs Railway, government engineering authorities and large construction companies; the Australian chemical engineer who was awarded the US Medal of Freedom for his service in tropical warfare; engineers involved in establishing and managing the Australian Atomic Energy Commission's Research Establishment at Lucas Heights; leading academics in various fields including architectural and design science and so on.

The tapes from the program together with documents associated with the interviews were all donated to the State Library of NSW where the tapes have since been digitised.

Unfortunately, funding for the program ceased in 2006. However, engineer oral history programs are still being conducted in Newcastle, some other states and by Engineering Heritage Australia.

Read the Sydney Morning Herald obituary for Louis Challis here.


                                                Louis Challis, 2007. Photo: Brendan Esposito, Sydney Morning Herald.

Lost voices in Callan Park - Outdoor Exhibition for National Trust Heritage Festival 2017

by Roslyn Burge | July 1, 2017


Lost Voices in Callan Park, an outdoor exhibition held as part of the National Trust Heritage Festival 23 April-7 May 2017, was public history and oral history in practice.

Outdoor Exhibition @ Callan Park & Broughton Hall for National Trust Heritage Festival 2017, 23 April to 7 May 2017

Lost Voices in Callan Park represents a fraction of the myriad voices and layers of emotion, dread or memory of Callan Park and Broughton Hall. 

Lost Voices in Callan Park was public history and oral history in practice.  Presented by Friends of Callan Park (FOCP), the oral history extracts and images of individuals interviewed for the Rozelle Hospital Oral History Project were dominant features of this exhibition; and audio extracts were played during guided tours.  This is the first exhibition at Callan Park or Broughton Hall based on oral history interviews with former patients, workers or children who grew up there.  It’s the third outdoor exhibition since 1999 which FOCP has mounted at Callan Park and Broughton Hall and comprised 35 panels installed in 13 different locations across 61 hectares.

The potential publicity provided by the Heritage Festival for community groups such as FOCP is invaluable:  it presents opportunities for strategic advocacy and the encouragement of broader understandings of the collective cultural landscape that is Callan Park and Broughton Hall.  The exhibition also had international exposure; coinciding with World Parks Week at the beginning of May, it was one of two events in Australia registered on www.worldurbanparks.org

Callan Park is complex, and so too the curation of an exhibition with its political understorey and creation by committee.  Initially it seemed a very straightforward notion to simply reprise a range of panels from exhibitions in 2010 (at Callan Park) and 2015 (in local libraries) and incorporate three new panels.  However, preliminary decisions about panel selection and matching oral history extracts to relevant physical locations was necessary in tandem with negotiating with four tenants and one stakeholder to install panels on land they use under lease or agreement with NSW Health. The Office of Environment and Heritage (the government agency which has managed Callan Park since July 2015) also needed to approve the installation.

Because the exhibition was mounted outdoors for two weeks it needed to be visible, weatherproof, secure and without public risk.  Images and text were printed on A1 coreflute panels, attached by cable ties to star-posts (lent by Leichhardt Council) which were installed at sites relevant to the context.  No panel was attached to vegetation.  A two-page catalogue (map, acknowledgements and genesis of the exhibition) together with a coloured brochure describing FOCP and its objectives (the reintroduction of mental health services and establishment of a Trust for the site) were distributed during the exhibition.

The exhibition was self-guided and accessible 24/7, so impossible to staff fulltime. Weather-proof ziplock bags containing flyers and catalogues were attached to the star-posts for people to help themselves and bags were regularly restocked.  FOCP staffed a table at the Main Gates on six days (for about five hours each time) distributing flyers and engaging with passersby and visitors to the exhibition. 

Most panels presented people’s stories and it is these that spoke particularly to visitors.  Interviewees recalled their work (With mental health you’re always going to have a lot of variety … your day is never dull - Julie Gover), or care while patients at Callan Park (Seeing the grounds and the views.  It was all therapeutic - Peter Gray), and others spoke nostalgically about growing up there (The whole of Callan Park … that was our playground - Paul Gilchrist). The immediacy of their voices at locations to which they referred prompted a potent reinterpretation of the site for many visitors. 

Other panels highlighted the physical beauty of the landscape and its arboreal riches; reproduced the objectives of the Callan Park (Special Provisions) Act 2002; gave a brief history of the original Callan Park House (now the NSW Writers’ Centre) and Broughton Hall (a burnt out shell since the 1980s); or highlighted significant, indeed unique architectural features such as the two war memorials or the modernist buildings, surrounded and unified by their architect’s original landscaping, now occupied by the University of Tasmania.  Two tenants contributed stories, We Help Ourselves (WHOS) and Glover’s Community Garden.

Hundreds of people pound the Bay Run each week and FOCP hoped some might stop to look at panels along the foreshore, while other hundreds who play on the ovals nearby might be momentarily distracted from single-minded fitness to also consider different aspects of this site.  Every week a couple of thousand people come to Callan Park and Broughton Hall.  Some work with the NGOs and NSW Health entities on site, study at the two universities, or attend the NSW Writers’ Centre – and then there’s the army of regular dog walkers.  All these groups are destination-driven, work in silos, and some never visit opposite ends of the site.  This exhibition enabled tenants to wander throughout the site during lunchtime tours with colleagues. 

The only means of assessing the reach of the exhibition are personal comments and the uptake of flyers.  Many of the two thousand catalogues and brochures distributed during the fortnight via the ziplock bags, or handed out personally at the table, were shared between couples or groups.  It would be a conservative estimate that approximately two thousand people saw the exhibition.

Public responses were overwhelming.  Despite a close familiarity with the site for two decades, FOCP (and I) were astonished at visitors’ reactions to these interpretive panels.  Dog walkers who exercise regularly, or the mother from Orange looking for somewhere safe for her ice-addicted son, paused to read and look about them with a renewed interest and were intrigued by the oral history recollections.  One described the exhibition as a community service, and other regular users were surprised to discover how much more there is to Callan Park than most people realise … no idea a space the size of Callan Park exists so close to the city.  Even as the exhibition was being removed people expressed regret to see the panels go. 

Whilst environmental conditions were not ideal for playing audio extracts on tours they did augment the panels, and Peter Gray, a member of FOCP, speaking about his experiences as a patient at Callan Park in the 1970s was a bonus.  One tour specifically for a group of men in the residential therapeutic program offered by WHOS at Broughton Hall, was among the most heartening.  Perhaps because they lived on site with time to appreciate its features, their perceptive questions about the history and people of the site reinforced the curiosity and eagerness people continually have - to know more!

Roslyn Burge curated the exhibition, and is a member of the executive committee of Friends of Callan Park.

The Australian Golf Heritage Society Oral History Project

by Carol McKirdy | July 1, 2017


The 'untold history' of golfing in Australia is captured in oral histories that interview greats of the game and explore the provenance of artefacts held at the Australian Golf Heritage Museum.

The Australian Golf Heritage Society Oral History Project

Since 2013 I have had the great privilege and pleasure of recording oral histories for the Australian Golf Heritage Society Museum. Although I come from a family of golfers with the ensuing garage full of golf equipment and amusing familial boasts of golf expertise and ability, my handicap is closer to snow-capped than scratch but I love the sport and the people involved in it.

As an oral historian working with the Australian Golf Heritage Society Museum, my aim is to work with them to record ‘the untold history’ of the game by interviewing prominent people in Australia’s golfing world. We aim to record the personal stories behind great golf and as well we try to uncover the stories behind golf artefacts housed in the museum.

The world of golf is superbly documented in Australia. Excellent records have been kept of facts and figures. The museum uses oral history to learn even more about the game including charming vignettes into times gone by. Who would have thought that in the past golfers had to be wary of a train interrupting play as it passed through the course (champion golfer, Margery McWilliam), or that house bricks served as putting holes on a major Perth golf course, or that lessons were taught by a golf pro with his rifle beside him that he sometimes fired to warn off ball thieves (golf professional, Dan Cullen, interviewed in his 99th year)?

Initially the oral history project was established as a one off project to learn more about the provenance of some of the vast collection of items in the Australian Golf Heritage Society Museum. The Australian Golf Heritage Museum used the oral history narrative to check the provenance of some of the artefacts at the museum. Donations to the museum do not necessarily come with specific details. Oral history narratives can also be confirmed according to established factual, historical background such as the known dates, facts, documents and figures of museum artefacts.

The narrators were asked very specific questions about golf equipment, clothing, golf course design and maintenance, the type of grass used, caddies, clubhouse usage, training methods and the organisation of Australian international tours and prize purses among others. Today we’re aware that golf playing champions win enormous prize money for tournaments but in the past winnings were very modest.  Frank Phillips played for Australia in the 1950s and 1960s and competed against Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus – the best three players in the world; Frank was ranked fourth. He won 3,800 pounds in 1957 (top of the money list) after winning numerous major events and made the headlines. Today a winner can earn more in a tournament than a professional of Frank’s stature won in a lifetime of playing golf.

The project is now ongoing and the same specific questions to support museum items’ provenance are asked but as well the golfing lives of the narrators are focussed upon. The Australian Golf Heritage Museum interviews are digitally recorded, usually in the narrator’s home, sometimes an aged care facility or at a golf club. All the standard oral history collection methods are followed. Some champion golfers have scrapbooks of newspaper clippings and memorabilia and these details are passed on to the museum in case they can be included in the museum’s collection or to gain access to.

Ultimately, the most important factor in oral history is the audio narrative but the Australian Golf Heritage Museum audio interviews are supported with a very comprehensive and detailed written summary of several thousand words for each recording. All the oral histories are uploaded to the museum’s website. Apparently the interviews are very popular and listened to often. Oral history is a powerful method of recording history, especially individual life stories and recollections. The interviews with golfing champions have been especially illuminating because they provide fascinating insights into the mindsets of some of Australia’s and the world’s most celebrated players. What does a champion think about as he or she approaches the 18th? Listen to his or her oral history to find out and as you listen, experience the pleasure of hearing the champion’s own voice. It’s even more enjoyable than getting a hole in one, or in my case, sinking a two-centimetre putt!

For the narrators, oral history has been a relatively easy way for them to record their knowledge of the game. For some, writing a record would not be an option.

Listening to a golfer retell a life in golf with the accompanying vocal tone, accent, pronunciation, inflections and nuances of speech is wonderful; the appeal of listening to and learning from a significant and real story is generally appreciated and valued. Most people love listening to stories, especially those that are true, unique and personal. Like a knowledgeable caddy advises his player, oral history speaks to us. The oral histories can be listened to at:


Carol Mckirdy has worked as an oral historian for 10 years. As well as interviewing for the Australian Golf Heritage Society Museum she interviews for the Australian Golf Club, family histories, library collections, organisations and for a series of interviews with immigrants from the different people who have made the Sutherland Shire their home. 

IOHA conference June 2018 - scholarships available

by | June 5, 2017


The 2018 IOHA conference, 'Memory and Narration', is being held in Finland. The closing date to submit proposals for conference papers is August 31 2017. Those whose papers are accepted may apply for a scholarship; closing date for scholarship applications is December 30 2017. Read about the conference here and download details about the scholarships, including application form, here.

Download information about the scholarships here, and for details about the conference visit here.

A Cultural History of Sound, Memory, and the Senses

by | March 13, 2017


An exciting new title co-edited by OH NSW past president Paula Hamilton and Joy Damousi

For details and to take advanatge of a discount offer, click here.

Hazel de Berg Award 2017

by | March 13, 2017


Nominations for this prestigious award now open. Details on the Awards and Grants page.

Call for nominations open now. Nominations close June 30. Check the Awards and Grants page for details

New audio available - 'Painful memories' seminar, Dec 3 2016

by | January 6, 2017


The final OH NSW seminar for the 2016 was'Painful memories - interviewing survivors of trauma'. The three speakers were insightful, thought-provoking and engaging. If you couldn't be there, there's no need to miss out- you can listen to the audio of the event right here

The final OH NSW seminar for 2016 was'Painful memories - interviewing survivors of trauma'. The three speakers were insightful, thought-provoking and engaging. If you couldn't be there, there's no need to miss out - audio of the event is right here

OHA Journal indexes now available - an invaluable resource

by | January 6, 2017


From 2017, Oral History Australia's annual journal will be published online only. Comprehensive and useful indexes to the content published throughout its hard copy life, from 1979-2016, are now available here.

Oral History Australia's annual journal was first published in 1979. From 2017 it will be available online only.

Indexes to all the material published in the journal throughout its hard copy life - articles, reviews, reports and peer-reviewed papers - are available here. These are an invaluable resource, well worth exploring. 

2017 Oral History Australia Conference - video welcome

by | December 20, 2016


View a short welcome video from Dr Indira Chowdhury, one of the 2017 Oral History Australia Conference's Keynote Speakers, on the conference website here.

View a short welcome video from Dr Indira Chowdhury, one of the 2017 Oral History Australia Conference's Keynote Speakers, on the conference website here.

This is a War Zone, Baby – Improvise!

by Aviva Sheb’a | September 27, 2016


Aviva Sheb’a writes about a project that utilises oral history in a different and unusual way ...

Aussie, strictly Kosher, recent ballet school graduate, 17-year-young flamenco and jazz dancer Aviva goes to entertain the troops in Vietnam – with a rhythm and blues band. What could possibly go wrong?

I toured (then South) Vietnam for three months, March to June, 1970. The most common exclamation there: this is a war zone, Baby – improvise!

My inability to readjust to life in Australia following my tumultuous tour, as well as my innate lust for adventure and performance led me to travel widely and to live and work in several different countries. My survival and sanity-saving mechanism was – and remains – my art. I developed my own method of using voice and body as a way to express and integrate my deepest emotions, coining the term, Vocal Dance, while working and living in Amsterdam in the 1970s.

In 1996 my two young children and I moved from Dunolly, a small town in Central Victoria, to Adelaide, where I began writing This is a War Zone, Baby – Improvise!  I intended to write it as a book and as a one-woman show, with each selling the other. I had no idea how to write a book, though had devised and performed two shows before. I thought I’d knock it on the head in 18 months. Bwahahahaha!

Twenty years on, I’ve performed the show in numerous versions; the book is in draft innumerable. Having the book manuscript professionally assessed three years ago showed me how to improve it by putting aside five years’ work – saving it for something else. Lesson: spend a few dollars on a good manuscript assessor and save a fortune in time and effort. (Thanks to Christine Paice, who did a marvellous job swiftly, with enormous compassion and integrity.)

The first season of the show was in the Adelaide Fringe, 2000. The final performance was 30 years to the day after innocent, naïve, over-protected Aviva arrived in the thick of the Vietnam War. I have kept developing the show, performing at in theatres, festivals and conferences. As the title suggests, each show is different. In 2013, This is a War Zone, Baby – Improvise! was the first of the Merrigong Theatre Company (Wollongong) Make it@Merrigong Studio Sessions, directed by Anne-Louise Rentell. In 2014, Anne-Louise and I presented together at the International Oral History Congress in Barcelona.  As well as excerpts from the show, we talked about our individual approaches to making performance from oral history, and our collaboration, which started in 2010.

I am currently rehearsing a new version under the direction of University of Wollongong Creative Arts Faculty’s Dr Janys Hayes. We are enjoying the process of discovering what Janys brings out of me. One of the delights of working with a great director is finding new ways of expression. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with Anne-Louise, and now Janys. That they’re friends who have a great respect for each other is a huge bonus.

This time, audiences will laugh and cry as I share some of the stories I’ve not performed before, as well as showing the development of Vocal Dance. Those who wish will also have a chance to join me and experience the joys of Vocal Dance.

Recently, the Phoenix Theatre Company received ownership of the Bridge Street Theatre, and are hosting a season of This is a War Zone, Baby – Improvise!

October: Friday 21, Saturday 22 at 8pm, Sunday 23 at 3pm. Bridge Street Theatre, 24 Bridge Street, Coniston (Wollongong). Tickets: $15. Bookings http://www.phoenixtheatre.net.au/

See www.avivasheba.com for further insight into Aviva’s work. Contact: aviva@avivasheba.com


OH NSW AGM - President's report

by | August 30, 2016


Read outgoing OH NSW president Professor Paula Hamilton's address to the recent AGM, and meet incoming president Anisa Puri

President’s Report for AGM, August 2016

This is my last Report for the 2015-6 year as I have been President of Oral History Association NSW for three years and it is time to pass the baton to others.

So in writing this address I ask myself what have I learned and what have I contributed to this not for profit organisation with 200 or so members? Intellectually I have tried to place the remembering more at the centre of oral history practice, rather than the interview itself.  Memory as we know, ‘refers to the past as it is lived’ and my own research over a number of years has been so enriched by the study of memory and how it works as an act of imagination, interconnection and is conjured through the senses – smell, taste, touch, sight and most of all sound.  The vivid memories connected with sensory triggers are produced almost entirely through chance associations, so there is that wonderful sense of happenstance that infuses the otherwise purposeful interview.

I have also aimed to link the practice of oral history more with how it is used, by asking metaphorically: who listens, and how?

Practically I have aimed at expanding our reach: not just to focus on basic workshops held regularly at our Sydney base but to get out there and both teach oral history and spread the word to a variety of groups – so over these years myself and others who gave workshops, launched books and talked, have been to Riverina, Wagga,  Young, Wollongong, Captains Flat, Grafton, Dubbo, Kandos, Tumut, Newcastle.  Part of this has been expanding the capacity of local studies library collections for the state library regional co-ordinator Ellen Forsyth through educating them about oral history projects and preservation of oral history as records.  Of the Sydney suburban areas we have also given talks at Ashfield, Lane Cove, Camden, Callan Park.

Second, I have tried, with the help of digital savvy members of the committee who know better than I about the potential of new media platforms for oral historians, to encourage stronger engagement with different ways of using oral history for communicating with people,  beyond the website and the book, particularly through our digital storytelling workshop, podcasting,  and radio. I would like to see more exploration about what is possible in different forms and how it varies. Can you tell more and better stories from an oral history tourist-type listening post or kiosk in the street? Or is it more evocative to make podcasts to use along waterways or country town walks?

I have also aimed to develop better access to collections of oral histories that are already in existence, assisting the Dictionary of Sydney project digitisation of the Liverpool oral history collection, a project started by Virginia Macleod before me; and the major project to which OHNSW contributed both money and time that was to survey the state library collection of oral histories over 770 tapes/digitising data, again with my colleague Virginia MacLeod.  Our report to the library has helped librarian Bruce Carter to build a research guide to the oral history collection that is ongoing.

What I take away is a renewal of faith in the humanity of people at large – no matter what goes on in politics, the vast bulk of people I meet are keenly interested in the past, have great stories and are just decent good people who want to understand and find out about the past and its meaning on a personal, local or national basis.

Over the three years working with a shifting members of a committee and been on several trips I have also made new friends. They say if you put two oral historians in a car together for four to six hours travelling to workshop destinations, then they will know each other’s life story at the end and this is true; I have learned insights from those in different walks of life on the committee and valued their ideas and contributions. We have had some very good discussions on occasions, as a sideline to the business of committee work. We are now also in the throes of organising the next national Oral History Australia conference to be held in Sydney in September 2017. After a reluctant start from your committee it now seems to be going very well and we want to hold the best event we can with our resources.

I have not always been successful in my endeavours but I would like to give heartfelt thanks to everyone who has assisted along the way. (Much of the work of a committee like this and a newsletter is hidden). Raphael Samuel, a British historian is famous for saying that producing History in any form is’ the work of many hands’ and we all know that is the case as more of our efforts become formal collaborations with different organisations.  I know any improvements will be carried on by those who succeed me with ideas for different directions that will keep the future of Oral History NSW safe. So keep in mind: when the replicant in the film  Blade Runner says that ‘experience is washed away in time like tears in rain’ he clearly had not met any oral historians!

Professor Paula Hamilton, President, August 2016


Anisa Puri is a professional historian with a wide range of experience in historical research, oral history, heritage interpretation, and project management. She has a Master of Public History from Monash University and was the Project Officer of the Australian Generations Oral History Project from 2012-2015.

Since 2015, she has worked as a Historian and Heritage Consultant at GML Heritage. In this role, she has conducted historical research, written detailed and summary histories, produced Heritage Interpretation Plans, and developed interpretive content for an exhibition. She is also currently working on the HIV/Aids Volunteers Oral History Project as a research assistant at Macquarie University.

Anisa has been a committee member of PHA Vic and Oral History Victoria. Her first book, Australian Lives: An Intimate History, co-authored by Professor Alistair Thomson, will be published by Monash University Press in 2017.



OH NSW AGM - new committee

by | August 27, 2016


The OH NSW AGM on Saturday August 27 elected a new president and a committee with some familiar and some fresh faces. Follow link for details. 

OH NSW’s AGM was held on Saturday August 27, at History House. Professor Paula Hamilton stepped down from her role as president, and previous president Virginia Macleod stepped down from her role on the executive committee. The meeting expressed heartfelt thanks to both.  They continue with key roles as organisers of the 2017 OH Conference being held in Sydney, and Paula also remains on the OH NSW executive committee. The new president of OH NSW is Anisa Puri, who has been an active committee member for several years, most recently as coordinator of the OH NSW events calendar and the OH NSW facebook page (go on, like us!) Other members of the newly-elected committee: Scott McKinnon (vice president), Andrew Host (treasurer), Bruce Carter (public officer), Cheryl Ware (secretary), Sally Zwartz (website), Catherine Freyne and Paula Hamilton. As well, Francis Good will continue in his role as editor of Network News.

Oral History in Conversation: Across Communities and Context

by | August 27, 2016


Audio of this seminar, held on August 27, can be heard here.

Scott McKinnon leads a conversation between (L-R) Dr Fabri Blacklock, Jacqui Wasilewsky and Robyn Swanson at a well-attended OH NSW seminar on August 27. More details and audio of the event are here.

Oral History and Migration Stories

by Atem Atem | July 4, 2016


If you missed out on this recent OH NSW seminar, you can now read ANU PhD student Atem Atem's presentation on interviewing Sudanese and South Sudanese for the Australian Generations Project here - comments welcome. Audio to follow soon.

The panel at the Oral History and Migration Stories seminar,  June 26 - from left: Carol McKirdy (facilitator), Atem Atem, Helen Vatsikopoulos and Louise Whelan. The seminar was well attended and concluded with a lively question and answer session. Audio of the presentations will be available soon.

Experience with South Sudanese Interviewees

This paper will discuss some of the challenges that I faced conducting interviews for the Australian Generations Oral History Project. I also reflect on some selected themes that emerged from the interviews as I saw them.

The interviews

I conducted interviews for the Australian Generations Oral History project between 2013 and 2014. My task was to recruit and interview four or five Dinka speakers in Dinka and then transcribe the interviews in English and make time summaries. I eventually interviewed seven Sudanese, two in Dinka, one in Arabic and the rest in English.

Method used

The interviews were conversational and in-depth. This was a similar interview method I used for my PhD interviews. I used a modified version of family migration histories interview schedule as proposed by Johannes Pflegerl, which focuses the interview on the whole lived experience of the interviewee from the time they were living in their home country, to displacement and transition, to migration to a new country and life as they experience it in the current host country. The interviews focused on finding out as much as possible about the interviewees in terms of their family social life, education, economic activities, religion, the process of displacement and migration and adjusting to life in the host country. In addition, there were specific questions that I needed to ask in relation to the Australian Generations Oral History project I was interviewing for. For example, there were questions on Medicare, leisure, sexuality, multiculturalism, etc. There were also generational questions that sought to find out what generations the interviewees identified with, how different the generations were from earlier and later generations and so on.


The participants I interviewed were all men except one. Sudanese males were more accessible to me and they had the time to do the interviews.

The age range of the interviewees was diverse, producing interesting dynamics during interviews. For example, Uncle Lungar saw me as a young person who was recording his perspective on the Dinka culture and life in Australia on behalf of South Sudanese youth in diaspora. Therefore, during the entire interview Uncle Lungar placed himself in a position of authority since he was carrying out his duty as an elder addressing the younger generation and in the process educating them on culture and life in diaspora. This also meant that he didn’t answer my questions in the way I would have liked them answered. As a result my role was to keep him talking as long as possible.

 The interview with Achol Gai, the only female interviewee, was also quite interesting. She just arrived home as I walked to her flat to conduct the interview. She had left home early that Saturday leaving behind her young daughter and partner. As she showed me the way to her flat, she carried full shopping bags. I was asked to wait until she cooked dinner. Her partner was left with the job of entertaining me. As soon as the cooking was done it was time for dinner. It was not appropriate for me to refuse to join the family to dine since Achol and I know each other quite well. By the time the interview started Achol was exhausted and all she wanted was to spend time with her family.

 Understandably, Achol was intending on making the interview as short as possible. It was not likely that the interview with Achol would go on for five hours. So answers were not forth coming or were very short and to the point.  This interview was supposed to take half an hour but eventually took one and half-hours. I worked hard to keep the conversation going. Knowing Achol before hand allowed me to draw on common experiences in the past. This got her talking but I had to also accept that we would reverse roles sometimes so that she also asked questions of me. I found myself being the interviewer, the interviewee and the commentator as the interview progressed.    


The length of the interview was forbidding for most people though I made it clear that the interviews didn’t need to go for the whole five hours and could be broken up to as many sessions as the interviewees liked. The majority of the interviewees chose to either have marathon five-hour interviews or broke the interviews into two sessions. It was sometime difficult to get people to do the interviews as scheduled. I was not surprised that I had to wait sometime for hours to only be informed that the interviewee was caught up doing something else. For example, in one case the interviewee drove to the airport but on their way back was stuck in traffic for two hours!

Carrying out interviews to obtain oral histories or any information for that matter in the way it is done in research is quite culturally alien for South Sudanese. The interviews were sometime difficult because they went against the culturally appropriate manner in which information was obtained. Normally, the person seeking information visited the person of interest at his/her home. The person of interest then showed the appropriate level of hospitality depending on the status of the visiting person and the pre-existing relationship if there was any.

 Questions were not asked directly but a conversation ensued that had nothing to do with the purpose of the visit. After exchanging pleasantries and a general conversation, the person seeking information might weave his enquiry into the conversation. However, in the case where the issues were very serious or the person seeking information had no existing relationship with the person from whom the information was sought, either the person from whom the information was sought indicated that he/she wanted to know why he/she was receiving a visit or the person visiting indicated that he/she was visiting for a specific reason. The framing of the enquiry was done in such a way that it was respectful and normally no direct questions asked. A long vague story was commonly narrated from which the listener worked out what the issue of the enquiry was. The answer to the enquiry was equally long in an effort to address all aspects of the enquiry. The person enquiring then displays his/her satisfaction in what he/she heard or continued the enquiry until his/her enquiry was satisfactorily addressed.

 Another issue was my position in relation to the interviewees. I knew two of the interviewees quite well. This can be good. For example, one interviewee hesitated to answer a question but then told me that since I was the one interviewing him he was going to be honest and say something controversial that South Sudanese might not like to hear. However, my position in relation to the interviewees could also be problematic. For example, in the case of Uncle Lungar as mentioned above, it was difficult to get him to speak to the questions because of our individual positions relative to each other in the community – he was an elder and I was a younger person.

 One more issue was the fact that the interviewees were not sure of what to think when I explained to them that if they needed to use the stories they were going to tell me during the interview in the future they would need to take permission from the National Library of Australia. I did my best to explain to them how it works. However, it didn’t make sense to some of them that the National Library of Australia was going to own their stories. This was culturally a foreign idea. No one could claim ownership of a story including one’s own story. Once a story was told or experienced and reflected upon it could be used by anyone in the community as much as they wished without asking permission to use it. I made it clear to the interviewees prior to the interviews that they didn’t have to do the interviews if they didn’t agree that they would need to take permission from the National Library of Australia to use their story as recorded by the National Library of Australia in the future. I also assured them that the National Library of Australia couldn’t own their stories.


Impact of war

The majority of Sudanese and South Sudanese who live in Australia came to Australia through the humanitarian program. Their migration was a result of civil war. David Mawel spoke of his war experience. The war that led to the displacement of millions of people in South Sudan between 1983 and 2005 started in Mawel’s hometown. He witnessed it. Mawel was a child then and recalled that he didn’t understand the politics of the war. However, his quest for education made him seek refuge in Ethiopia in the hope of meeting Dr John Garang, the rebel leader, who might get him a scholarship to send him to school. Unfortunately Mawel ended up in the rebel army. Mawel, a child wandering alone in the bush, didn’t have his family with him. He had to survive without the warmth and love of the family. Family to him was important and symbolised in his mind what was normal – peace, order, stability, guidance, protection and love. He accepted to be deprived of his family for a higher and greater goal and that was the freedom of the people of South Sudan. The death of colleagues and friends on the battlefield made Mawel more determined to fight on because the only way to avenge their death was through liberating Sudan from oppression. The experience of Mawel growing up without family was unfortunately not unique. Thousands of South Sudanese children fled their homes leaving behind family. The high profile Lost Boys of Sudan were among these children. 

Now that Mawel is in Australia, he wants South Sudanese young people who were born here or grew up here to understand that family is very important and should not be taken for granted. He is saddened when he sees South Sudanese young people in Western Sydney fighting their parents and choosing to live on the streets fighting, drinking and in many cases taking drugs. Mawel believes that authorities in Sydney need to work closely with South Sudanese community, South Sudanese elders and parents to help South Sudanese young people be the best they can be and play a significant role in moving their home Australia forward.


James Mayol experienced the war in a different way. When I met him, he was friendly and very engaging. He came across as an intelligent man and a man who would have led a normal life. During the early stages of the war, Arab militias attacked Mayol’s village in South Sudan. He was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As a young boy he lived as a slave for sometime. His master assigned him to cattle herding. Mayol’s master wanted him to forget his culture and language and take up Islam and the Arabic culture. Mayol quietly resisted. He refused to be assimilated. The process of his assimilation involved watching him closely and making him work hard to break his spirit. However, Mayol had other plans. When the opportunity presented itself to him he ran away. Mayol ended up in the nearest town after a long journey on foot.

Mayol joined a circus as he sought ways to go back home. His natural skills and positive attitude enabled him to join the army as a recruit. He eventually made his way up north and to Eretria to join the South Sudanese rebels. In Eretria, he was unable to join the South Sudanese rebels. However, due to his athletic skills he was chosen to compete at the Olympics. He didn’t compete at the Olympics but instead came to Australia.

Mayol’s life before coming to Australia was full of challenges but he conquered them all. His experience demonstrated his resilience and tenacity. He never gave up even when things looked so murky and impossible to work out. His resilience took him far and continues to drive him. In Australia, Mayol worked hard and took himself through university and simultaneously raised a young family. He completed his university studies in Sydney and returned to South Sudan. He is currently a government minister in South Sudan.

 It has been observed that refugees are resilient people. Refugees are determined and innovative in addition to being resilient. This means that they can make something for themselves anywhere they go. Australia’s refugee policy especially that on asylum seekers and the negative discourse around refugees generally have negative impact on refugees in Australia.  Australia should be grateful for each refugee who comes here because refugees can make Australia a better place through their resilience, ingenuity, hard work and commitment to this country.   


It is very difficult to develop a clear sense of identity in the context of continuous displacement. Achol Gai was born just about the time war broke out in South Sudan in the early 1980s. She separated ways with her parents and siblings who sought refuge in Ethiopia. Achol was left in the village with her grandmother. When Achol was old enough to go to Ethiopia, she joined her family in Ethiopia. However, her father was caught up in the politics of the liberation movement and was detained. He was one of the founders of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that planned the war for independence of South Sudan. SPLM has been the ruling party in South Sudan since it gained independence in 2011.

 Achol never met her father but had her mother with her always. Strong women had always surrounded her. She spoke of her feminine identity as a source of strength and she would want to pass that on to her young daughter. In Ethiopia she didn’t know she or her family were refugees because no one spoke of refugees. The fact that her father was highly regarded meant that she lived a sheltered life in Ethiopia.

 At school in Kenya, Achol came face to face with identity challenges. She was in a foreign country where people spoke different languages and looked different. This was no different from Ethiopia. However, Kenyan schoolmates pointed out that Achol was a refugee. Initially Achol didn’t understand what that meant. The concept of being a refugee in Achol’s mind until she went to school in Kenya was not there. For her, one could live in another country but that is all there was to it. In practice, for Achol, her refugee identity didn’t make any difference. She went to school in Niarobi like other Kenyan children. She spoke Swahili like everyone else and she lived in a decent house that was sometime crowed but as decent as everyone else’s. However, Achol felt that she was walking around with a mark on her forehead that said ‘REFUGEE’. Achol didn’t feel settled in her own skin and Identity in Nairobi. Nobody knew her outside school. Her father in Nairobi, apart from donors who lined up to support her family financially, had no profile and was not known.

 Ironically, Achol found her identity in the refugee camp. She loved visiting Kakuma Refugee Camp where most of her relatives lived. They recognised her and her father. She was the daughter of the beloved Martin Majir who was the most respected South Sudanese politician of his time. People in Kakuma recognised Achol as part of the big family. She felt there that she was accepted entirely. The people of the camp were her people and she belonged to them. Before Achol migrated to Australia she lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp where she taught to give back to her community.

 Achol’s story seems to suggest that identity is closely connected to the sense of belonging. The way a person is received and perceived in society determines whether someone identifies with that society or not. For Achol, the sense of belonging was found in the most difficult place in Kenya – a refugee camp where she felt her identity was recognised and celebrated. For Achol, it didn’t matter how much she personally gained materially and socially in Nairobi. Her refugee status seemed to place her, at least emotionally, in the category of the other. However, in the refugee camp her refugee identity disappeared and her being who she was was celebrated.


Multiculturalism is probably the most misunderstood and controversial concept. It means different things to different people. For example, for Achol Multiculturalism meant giving people like her another chance. It safeguards against discrimination and racism. However, for James Mayol, multiculturalism at the one level is an enabler allowing him to learn English and maybe find a job of some sort. However, it doesn’t go far enough.

 Mayol was concerned about the fact that communities in Sydney seemed to be segregated. In a multicultural society he failed to understand why all migrants were settled in Western Sydney. Why was it that North Sydney was reserved for Anglo-Australians? Why was it that the Lebanese congregate in one part of Sydney while the Vietnamese in Another? Mayol suggested that there was little intercultural interaction that was going on among communities in Sydney. This, according to him, was not what he understood multiculturalism was or should be.

Mayol also pointed out that in a multicultural society, people with difference should be accepted and included. However, in Australia multiculturalism seemed to be about some exclusionary hierarchy based on material possession. He felt that his children would always have less then everyone else because he had nothing to pass on to them. When Australian children grew up they inherited money or property that they continued building on and eventually passed on to the next generation. Mayol predicted that it would take generations for his descents to get to the point where they had accumulated enough wealth to set them up at equal footing with other Australians. Mayol seemed to think that in a multicultural society this should not be the case – people should not belong based on what they own but on who they are.

In addition Mayol gave some psychological interpretation of what happened to migrants in a multicultural society – they were torn between the home country and the host country. Migrants couldn’t forget their home country and the people they lived with before migrating. However, the migrant cannot leave his/her children in Australia and return home. So the migrant in a multicultural society was torn between two worlds – the world of his people and the new world of his children. The migrant would go back home for a little while to enjoy the company of his people that he would miss while in Australia. However, he would miss his children while at home and would feel that his absence from his children for long periods wasn’t acceptable. Mayol concluded that there was no resolution to this struggle.


I have described above how I carried out interviews for the Australian Generations Oral History Project and the issues that I had come up against as I worked with different members of the Sudanese community. My status as a member of the community was very influential in how interviewees were recruited and the way the interviews preceded. The interviewee’s choice of what questions to answer and how to answer them was entirely determined by the interview dynamics created by my community membership and my status in relation to individual interviewees.

Ownership of recorded oral history material was difficult to explain to people from oral traditions. At least in the Sudanese and South Sudanese oral traditions, the community owned histories and stories collectively and every member of the community had the right to use oral history, stories, songs, poems, etc. in the way that best suit them. In most cases the way oral material was used was dependent on the occasion when the oral material was performed and the audience. This issue needs to be recognised and addressed when recording oral history with people who might come from oral traditions like the Sudanese.I have also presented a selection of themes for this presentation. These included the experience of war by former refugees; the resilience former refugees brought with them and continue to thrive on, identity and finally multiculturalism. These themes are common in migration studies. However, seeing them from purely Sudanese and South Sudanese perspective could give us a more nuance understanding of them. The themes also engage with what it means to be Australian and how Australians should treat each other irrespective of their heritage and legal status. In addition, the themes engage with the place of Australia in the world and how Australians should respond to international humanitarian crises that often bring people on to Australia’s shores seeking asylum.

New from the Australian Generations project

by | April 2, 2016


The Australian Generations project provides the content for the latest issue of Australian Historical Studies.

The latest theme issue of Australian Historical Studies (AHS), edited by Katie Holmes and Alistair Thomson, features seven articles by members of the Australian Generations team in which we use the project’s oral history interviews to illuminate a range of topics in Australian social history, and to discuss innovations and issues in oral history. The open access online editorial on ‘Oral History and Australian Generations’ by Katie and Al introduces the project and the articles. Katie and Al also discuss the articles in this video clip on the AHS Facebook site. Use this link to access all the articles. To view individual articles click on any of the following links (note that if you are not an AHS subscriber you will need to view through a local, state or education library, or pay for access):

Class, Social Equity and Higher Education in Postwar Australia (Christina Twomey and Jodie Boyd);

Talking about Mental Illness: Life Histories and Mental Health in Modern Australia (Katie Holmes);

Australian Generations? Memory, Oral History and Generational Identity in Postwar Australia (Alistair Thomson);

Telling Families and Locating Identity: Narratives of Late Modern Life (Kerreen Reiger);

Creating an Oral History Archive: Digital Opportunities and Ethical Issues (Kevin Bradley and Anisa Puri)

Oral History in the Digital Age: Beyond the Raw and the Cooked (Michael Frisch)

The Radio Documentary and Oral History: Challenges and Opportunities (Michelle Rayner) 

This journal theme issue is the major academic outcome from the ARC-funded Australian Generations Oral History Project, a collaboration between historians at Monash University and La Trobe University and colleagues at the National Library of Australia and ABC Radio National which produced 300 life history interviews with Australians born between 1920 and 1989. 

Later in 2016, Monash University Publishing will publish Australian Lives: An Aural History by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson. This book uses interview extracts to illuminate the lived experience of Australian history across the 20th century, arranged in chapters on Ancestry, Childhood, Faith, Youth, Migrations, Midlife, Activism, Later Life and Reflections. The book will be published as a paperback and e-book, and e-book users will be able to listen to each interview extract as they read – an ‘aural history’ first!.

You can also listen to ten Australian Generations radio programs produced by ABC Radio National, or access the interviews via the Australian Generations website. 


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