01/31/2012 05:08 EST | Updated 04/01/2012 05:12 EDT

Mia Farrow: Salvaging Darfur Traditions

How do we measure the depth of a tragedy? When a crisis erupts, a natural disaster like the drought in East Africa or a conflict like Darfur in Sudan, we measure the impact in numbers -- how many refugees, how many dead. Yet there are other impacts that can't be quantified. We can't count songs no longer sung, stories lost, and rituals forgotten.

Every community has its culture and traditions. Think about our families and the traditions that have been handed down to us from past generations. It's part of who we are. They form our identity and bind us together. Emergencies tear up these cultural roots, scattering communities and taking people away from the lands and ways of their ancestors.

It's not always easy to save a life, but it's even harder to save a tradition. One remarkable woman has found a way.

Mia Farrow is a world-renowned, award-winning actress. She is also a powerful activist and advocate for the peoples of the developing world. Today she is on a crusade to preserve the traditions and culture of Darfur.

In the conflict in Darfur, Sudanese government forces and Arab militias have targeted non-Arab ethnic groups like the Masalit, Zaghawa, and Fur, killing them and driving them out of their villages. Some 2.5 million displaced people now live in camps in Darfur and across the border in Chad.

Farrow first visited the camps of Darfur in 2003. Since then she has been back 12 times:

After spending time with the refugees it began to settle in on me how much has been lost here...Cultural traditions and practices are no longer being observed by the refugees. They don't do the ceremonies in the camps because the ceremonies were tied to the land. Planting, harvesting, the basic celebrations like naming [a child].

The people are in mourning for those they lost and left behind. Farrow recalls the story of one woman who had to make a terrible choice between survival for herself and her children, or risking death trying to carry her wounded husband and brother. She left them. Bearing that kind of grief, there is little mood for celebration.

Mia shows us photos of the conditions these people live in now. She pauses as she turns the pages to speak about each person by name. A girl uses a dirty, broken jerry can at a well filled with a substance that is more mud than water. Stick huts covered with ragged tarps. An eight-year-old boy shows the stumps where his hands were blown off by an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade he found outside the camp.

It has been eight years since the first camps were established. A generation of children is growing up with no knowledge of its traditions and culture. Farrow realized she wanted to ensure those children did not lose their heritage. She came up with a plan to archive all that was meaningful for the people of Darfur.

Farrow tells the people she will wait at the edge of the camp with a video camera. Those who want can come. Farrow does not tell them what she wants to see. The people themselves decide what is important to preserve for their descendents. They present songs, dances, stories, and even demonstrate the more practical, such as agricultural methods. She has documented the making of a drum, and a shoe.

The refugees have also given her artifacts to preserve -- tools, instruments, and various pieces of their lives they managed to save when they fled.

Getting buy-in from the refugees isn't always easy. When life is a day-to-day struggle to survive, it's hard to see stories as a priority. Farrow recalls one difficult camp leader. "You know the things we need," he said to her. "Look at this sheeting, the rain comes right through! You need to tell people our children are dying!"

Farrow still made her pitch. "You have lost everything, but your treasures lie in your memories." She convinced him to let the project go ahead. The people came and, as they danced and sang, many smiled for the first time in years. The recording took a month, and on the last day the skeptical leader came to Farrow again, a smile on his face. "Mia," he said, "Thank you for reminding us to remember."

It will be a long task as there is so much to preserve, but Farrow is committed to seeing it through. "It's my life's work," she says.

Farrow's recordings and artifacts are currently being housed by the University of Connecticut. However she hopes to some day build a museum in Darfur itself so future generations of Darfuri can access the materials.

"Hopefully one day peace will come to Darfur, and the people will endure and be able to return," she says. When that day comes and the children of Darfur can finally go home, they will find Mia Farrow's museum waiting for them with all the treasures of their heritage.

You can learn more about Mia Farrow's incredible project by visiting her web site: