Solving the puzzles of the past

Anne Lehmkuhl has a fascinating job that lovers of the history channel & detective novels might well envy. As a historical researcher and genealogist, Anne’s work is a daily puzzle that can often lead to some exciting and surprising discoveries. We talked to Anne about her business, South African Family History and Genealogy.

Safindit: How did you come to be in this line of work?
Anne: I started in 1984 by looking for my family history and the origins of the surnames. I was curious as to who the first immigrants were and when they arrived here. It took about a year to get a comprehensive history and by then, friends started asking me to help them with their histories. In 1996 I started looking at turning it into a business and offered my services as a researcher.

S: Did you train/ study in this field?
A: Unfortunately, there aren’t any specific courses for family history researchers in South Africa. There are courses and degrees overseas, but they do not deal with the South African context. I’ve been very interested in history since my high school days, and that has helped a lot. I also do a lot of reading about the subject and stay up to date with developments in this field.

S: Is this a full time job for you or more of a sideline?
A: At times it has been a full-time job, and at others a part-time job. I have lived on three different continents, and sometimes have had to take on a full-time job.

S: What is it about genealogy that interests/ excites you?
A: Giving people their family history going back a number of generations, and seeing their reactions, is what makes it interesting for me. In many cases, people know very little about their ancestors and how they came to be here. It’s also exciting to reunite long-lost families across the world.S: What kind of process do people need to follow when they come to you? 
A: It is quite a standard process for every case. I ask them for the following information:
Who were they? (names of people they want researched)
What dates do they know? (birth, marriage, divorce, military, immigration, death)
Where did these people live?
What research have they already done, if any?
What is their goal for this research? (finding all generations back to the first immigrant to South Africa, or finding their origins in Europe or finding documents to use for citizenship applications).
Once I have that, I see how and where I can be of help. Each case is different, so there isn’t a standard time-frame for completing a project, but it can take from a month to a year. It all depends on what the research goal is, and how many records are in existence for that family.

S: What has been your most exciting or interesting genealogy project or find?
A: A few years ago I was asked to do background research for two episodes of the BBC-TV series “Who Do You Think You Are?” which involved two UK celebrities with South African roots.
There was also a documentary for Al-Jazeera TV that looked at xenophobia in South Africa, and I was interviewed about the immigrant history of South Africa. Another interesting project, was researching the background for the film “Skin” about Sandra Laing’s family history.
On individual cases, it was exciting to find someone’s family history in a few hours, including old photographs. Another client wanted me to trace a friend last seen at university about 40 years ago. I finally reunited them, one in the USA and one in the Free State.

S: What kind of person does it take to work in this field?
A: Someone who enjoys history and understands it, someone who is curious and methodical. A genealogist has to be familiar and understand various types of old records, know where to find them, as well as how to analyse and interpret evidence.

S: What are some of the challenges you face in your field?
A: Probably the most challenging one is access to old records, especially church records, as South African records are not centralised and are found in many places across the country. The state of old documents can also be challenging, especially where there isn’t an emphasis of preserving these old records for future generations.

S: What do you enjoy most about your job?
A: To me, this work is like a puzzle. There are so many pieces scattered all over, and some have been missing for years. Every clue leads to another one. I get satisfaction from completing the puzzle and presenting that to a client. Knowing that they can tell their descendants their family history is very satisfying.


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