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Opinions Sun, 28 Sep 2008

Disasters: How prepared are we?

• The perspective of an Archivist

By Sammy Dzandu

If some people had their way, they would have deleted the word “disaster” from the list of lexical items. This is because the mention of the word alone reminds them of the kind of pain they suffered in the hands of disasters. Disasters have interesting lifestyles. They usually pay sudden visits. After their surprise or unexpected visits, they leave behind nothing but great damage, harm, loss, destruction and devastation. Disasters do not discriminate. They could strike anybody regardless of age, gender, position, etc. Heartless as they are, they never mind striking as many times as they could, so long as their victims give them the opportunity to do so.

As a nation, we have experienced many disasters including motor accidents, collapse of buildings, boat disasters, flood, fire and gas explosions. However, I would not like to open any old wounds by recounting the details of those events. The sad news is that lives and properties were lost. Period!

As humans, we can not prevent disasters such as floods, earthquakes and hurricanes from happening. This is because they are natural. The best we could do, however, is to make the necessary preparations to lessen their impact when they occur. It would therefore be unwise, for instance to put up buildings in waterways or areas identified to be earth-quake prone.

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We could however prevent other forms of disasters, such as water leakages, motor accidents, terrorism and explosions, which are caused by man from happening.

It is important to note that disasters, whether natural or man-made have the same character – They cause havoc! This is the main reason why we should combat them with all seriousness.

It seems some of us need a special tuition in how to learn from our mistakes and those of others. It is amazing that some people witness the destruction of buildings by floods due to the fact that the buildings were put up in waterways yet they go ahead to do same. It is unfortunate that some people ignore and in fact disobey notices that are normally displayed, forewarning people of dangers and other forms of risks. Sadly, when a disaster strikes, it does not affect the culprits alone; but all of us. We either lose a friend, a relative, or a colleague. Monies meant for something else have to be spent on disaster victims. Some people are even traumatized after experiencing those horrifying incidents.

As for the “murderers” who are on our roads, the least said about them the better. Of course I admit that accidents do happen but quite a number of the cases are sheer negligence, carelessness and in fact disregard to road safety regulations. I have personally observed something about these “murderers”. That is, they hardly lose their lives. They are so experienced in safeguarding themselves during accidents whiles others perish.

Typical of humans, (or should I say Ghanaians in particular?) we are quick to blame others when something bad happens, forgetting that we are also sometimes part of the problem. I witnessed an incident last week when I boarded a public transport. Initially, three gentlemen wanted to join the car. Unfortunately, the car was full after two of them had boarded it, leaving the third person. Determined to join his friends, the one who was left behind insisted he would board the car. Being cautious of the safety implications, a colleague and I refused to allow him to join us. Shockingly, other passengers, whom we expected to support us rather rained insults on us and even said we were inconsiderate. We however stood our grounds and refused the gentleman’s entry into the car. Just after that incident, we found ourselves in a heavy traffic and the driver attempted to dodge it by driving on the shoulder of the road. We again refused and told the driver to remain in the traffic. Ironically, the passengers, whose safeties we were protecting, did not spare us insults for insisting that the driver should do the right thing. Of course in the end, we earned the enviable title of being “too know people”. The fact is that if my friend and I were to compromise and something “unfortunate” happened, the only person to be blamed would have been the driver whereas we, the passengers were also the cause.

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In view of the fact that human life is irreplaceable, we need to use every means to protect lives against losses. Similarly, considering the amount of time, money and energy that go into acquiring properties, it is indeed painful to lose them to disasters. But the question is how often do we think about the safety of records also?

Discussing the effect of disasters on records, a friend remarked “People are thinking about better things and you are always talking about some old dirty discarded papers”. Well, I do not want to believe that that is the attitude and notion of many people – looking down on archivists and attaching no importance to records. Considering what my friend said it was obvious that he displayed some level of ignorance in records management. I therefore had to educate him. By his statement, he understood records to mean only papers. This is incorrect. It is true that papers are examples of records but they are not the only form of records. The term “records” includes all the documents that an individual or an organization creates and/or receives in the course of administrative and executive transactions. Since such documents form a part of or provide evidence of the transactions, they are maintained by or on behalf of those responsible for the transactions to serve as evidence, not only for the future use of the individual or the organization, but also for the use of their successors or any other persons with a legitimate interest in such documents.

From the above exposition, it is obvious that books, maps, photographs, video and audio tapes, microfilms, pen-drives and floppy diskettes are also examples of records. We should therefore be careful not to think about only papers when discussing issues about records management.

Those who have ever been in need of records such as land title document, audio or video tapes, appointment letters, gazettes, agreement or contract document to bail them out of serious cases could best testify about the importance of records.

Of late there have been several cases of fire outbreaks and floods in many parts of the country. Only God knows the volume and the kinds of information which were lost. It is important to note that during fire outbreaks, even if the records do not burn completely, the heat from the fire alone could char papers and melt plastics, rendering paper documents; photographic films, audio and video tapes unintelligible.

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There were instances where demonstrations degenerated into violence and vandalism and very important documents destroyed.

Could we imagine how the world would have been without the use of records/ information? It is not surprising when David Stephens, a certified records manager, in his book A Guide for Local Governments rightly stated "without good records, no local government can render good public services because records and information are the institutional memory of local governments. They serve as evidence of the relationship between the government and its citizens. They document current service transactions and they prove that statutes, regulations and ordinances have been faithfully executed and that public funds have been expended on behalf of the taxpayer. Finally, they constitute the report upon which the history of the community is written."

Information is so important that our national Constitution considers it a fundamental human right and for that matter makes provision in Articles 21(1) (f) for all Ghanaians to have the right to it. (Of course subject to such qualifications and laws as are necessary in a democratic society.

It is however important to note that information is meaningless if it is not organized. Since records are the primary/main source of information, and without information there can be no development, it behoves us to manage records properly by protecting them against disasters.

E-mail: wofasammy4@yahoo.com

The writer is an archivist.

Columnist: Dzandu, Sammy