By Webber Ndoro

For some time, cultural heritage management in Africa has been mainly concerned with the preservation and presentation of heritage sites from a technical point of view. The emphasis has been on the preservation of the architecturally spectacular places, such as the pyramids of Egypt and Sudan, the forts and castles of Ghana, and the stone monuments of Zimbabwe. Although heritage management systems in Africa are slowly changing, in most cases management focuses on the tangible elements of the heritage and overemphasizes the monumental and archaeological aspects.

There is a tendency to think that heritage management in Africa generally began with European colonization. However, the fact that the Europeans found so much heritage intact means that these sites survived because of some form of prior management. Obviously, places associated with religious practice and those in everyday use received more attention than abandoned sites. In Africa it is no coincidence that many national monuments are also rainmaking shrines—for example, Khami in Zimbabwe, Brandberg in Namibia, and Sukar in Nigeria. During the precolonial era, most places of cultural significance enjoyed protection, in the sense that no one was allowed into them without the sanction of religious leaders. Such places were sacred and protected by a series of taboos and restrictions. However, with colonization these places became important scientific sites. While scientific research made the sites accessible to a wider audience, it also led to their desecration and cultural debasement. Once areas were designated national parks or monuments, traditional rituals were prohibited.

Communities and Their Heritage

Since the time of European colonization in Africa, local communities have become increasingly alienated from their cultural heritage. Most legislative and administrative structures were set up during the colonial period and were aimed at limited interests. With the introduction of protective legislation, archaeological sites became government property. Government interest usually means modernization—and this has meant that heritage managers would not permit cultural or ritual ceremonies at the sites. In many instances, local communities were moved hundreds of kilometers away from their original homes; this displacement created a physical and spiritual distance between communities and their ancestral cultural landscapes and monuments. Early protective legislation was not founded on an approach to preserve the diverse African cultural landscape but was, rather, designed to protect a few sites that served the interest of the few. The transfer of ownership of cultural property to the government and the displacement of people in these areas meant that the local communities no longer had legal access to the sites.

The major problems with most efforts to preserve and present cultural heritage in Africa seem to emanate from a failure to understand fully the cultural significance of the heritage and to appreciate its value to local communities. Following independence, many African nations realized the value of the past in nation building and the need to restore cultural pride, which had been seriously eroded by colonialism. It is thus surprising that the interests of local communities are often still ignored at the expense of international guidelines and frames of operation. Although this situation is changing, it also appears that despite the attainment of independence, heritage management in Africa has tended to assume that local communities are irrelevant to the "scientific" methods of managing their own heritage.

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But heritage management is not just the preservation of physical remains. It is a multifaceted concept that takes into account the landscape in which cultural property—both tangible and intangible—exists and the interests of all concerned groups. It also involves upholding all the values ascribed to the heritage by all interested and affected parties. Heritage management, particularly in Africa, therefore subsumes three main concepts:

  • memories (individual, collective, cognitive, and culturally constituted processes);
  • culture (actions, habits, text, music, rituals, events, material objects, monuments, structures, places, nature, and landscapes);
  • cultural heritage (individual, as well as collectively defined memories and cultures produced as a result of deliberate sociopolitical processes).

The colonial experience and the introduction of international conventions from such organizations as UNESCO has had a strong influence on the way that heritage management has evolved. These tend to promote the idea of monuments, sites, or places as relics from the past with limited relevance to the present sociocultural environment. The practice of heritage management in Africa has, in the past, ignored the role of local communities or people in the process of managing cultural sites. This is not surprising given that most heritage managers are professionals (e.g., archaeologists, botanists, historians, and anthropologists) whose main concerns previously were "objects," "artifacts," "monuments," and "specimens." This in the end removes local people from the environs of such monuments as Kilwa Kisiwani (Tanzania), Brandberg (Namibia), Timbuktu (Mali), and Thulamela (South Africa). By isolating these monuments, we create buffer zones to exclude them from the local communities.

Designated monuments and sites are intricately intertwined with people's lives. They are part and parcel of a vibrant and dynamic cultural landscape. The cultural landscapes on which the monuments are situated are more than certain tangible physical aspects, such as architectural and archaeological remains.

In Africa, the landscape on which heritage sites exist can be viewed as part of the cosmology of a people. In most African societies, there is no distinction between nature and creator and no sharp separation between humanity and nature. Trees, mountains, rocks, forests, and animals are treated as part of human life. They, too, are supposed to have a soul. Thus the landscape provides for the interplay of the human and natural species in a shared environment. For example, in Ghana the sacred groves of Tali, which cover 25 square kilometers of dense forests, provide a catchment area that protects drinking sources and provides herbs for medicinal purposes. These groves and forests are protected through a system of taboos and customs provided by the custodianship of five villages. Thus it becomes difficult to separate nature from culture. The landscape is also a communal resource. In this sense, the focus on sites as cultural resources is artificial, as the use of this resource is intricately intertwined with the use and control of other resources, such as water, soil, forests, and grasslands.

Community Empowerment

The appropriate heritage vision for Africa recognizes the importance of the communal context and looks beyond the myopic focus on the site, artifact, or monument. The metaphysical or intangible aspects are of great importance, particularly if we are to understand the total cultural significance of these places. The Great Zimbabwe is regarded by many Zimbabweans as first and foremost a national shrine. It is also regarded by many African people around the world as a symbol of African identity. The local indigenous communities, too, consider the place one of spiritual significance. But these communities have been denied access to it—initially because of the colonial practice and later because of the new heritage management system, both of which ignored the metaphysical aspects of the place.

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Access to cultural property by local and indigenous communities is very important, and not only because the heritage is theirs. Such access also helps restore damaged self-confidence. For development projects to succeed, the communities concerned must be self-confident. This can be achieved once people reacquire a sense of ownership of their heritage and begin to be proud of their past.

The empowering of local communities, which can lead to the restoration of pride in local heritage, is a contentious issue in most parts of Africa. Empowerment means involving communities in the preservation of heritage sites in their locality. Involvement in such endeavors builds pride and helps them see the need for the continued survival of the heritage places. Unfortunately, community involvement in preservation is not usually sought. The excuse given is that this is a highly technical subject, best left to technocrats who know better.

One instance of local involvement in heritage management was at the Zimbabwe-type site of Manyikeni, located in south-central Mozambique. By 1978, some 400 people from the local communities had participated in fieldwork at the Manyikeni site. The next year, in an effort to make the archaeological remains more accessible to these local communities, a museum was opened at the site.

Another example is the restoration of the madzimbabwe-type stone monument at Thulamela in South Africa, occupied between 1400 and 1700. The local people who speak the Shona dialect and who make up part of the modern Venda community are directly linked to Thulamela. The Venda, who were moved from this area when the park was created, claim traditional ownership of this site (although this ownership has been contested-apart from the Venda, the Tsonga, Shangaan, and Sotho also lived in the area). A restoration project to rehabilitate the stone ruins, begun in 1994, included systematic excavation around the collapsed stone walls in order to establish the general direction and foundation of the walled enclosures. After scrutiny of the wall styles, the enclosures were reconstructed by stonemasons. (The work at Thulamela was primarily archaeological research, and the reconstruction should therefore be considered an interpretation of what it could have been like.)

The program at Thulamela involved the Venda people in the implementation of the project and included negotiated decision-making processes regarding the long-term management of the site. The attraction of Thulamela was not just its stone walls (similar to the Great Zimbabwe) but also the gold-adorned skeletons discovered at the site during excavations in 1996. The cooperation between academic archaeologists and Venda chiefs in resolving sensitive issues relating to the excavation and rebuilding of remains at Thulamela was hailed in South Africa as a model of successful negotiations between indigenous peoples and the scientific community. The Venda people have taken immense pride in the excavations and in the restoration project. The opening of the site to the public affirms the complexity of indigenous culture in southern Africa and reclaims a significant chapter in Venda history.

Presentation of Heritage

It is ironic that the public most directly connected to the heritage has not been a primary audience for the presentation of monuments. Although there are some notable and promising moves to address the situation, such attempts are still in their infancy. Of significance has been the recently conducted ritual ceremony to open a sacred water fountain at the Great Zimbabwe monument. The sacred natural water fountain had been closed and sealed with concrete in the 1950s. This action did not please the neighboring communities because they regarded the fountain as a gift from the ancestors, particularly during drought years. In 2000, the National Museums and Monuments of Zimbabwe sponsored a ritual ceremony to reopen the fountain and allowed the local community access to the site.

However, in addition to providing local access to the monument to perform rituals and perhaps to make use of some resources, attempts must also be made to communicate the professional work of archaeologists and conservators. Their work must be presented in various ways in order to reach the different groups with an interest in the heritage. While educational efforts take time to yield results, such efforts are the only way of ensuring that present and future generations play a part in managing their own heritage. For instance, the historic site of Fort Jesus in Mombasa, Kenya, played an important role in the lives of the Swahilis in the town. Yet while the inhabitants have their own stories about the place, the story presented in the museum is primarily one of Portuguese and British conquests. Thus it is not surprising that many local inhabitants do not find a visit to the museum interesting.

In the final analysis, it should be realized that the long-term survival of heritage sites in Africa must be based on a management ethos that arises from the local socioenvironment. The oral traditions, myths, and legends that Western scholars had previously despised have to find their way into the exhibitions, displays, and general presentations. Such a practice serves not just the local communities but also the foreign visitor, who is genuinely interested in the culture of the area, for it creates a visitor experience that is uniquely African. It also helps create the contextual framework in which to interpret the cultural heritage. The incorporation of indigenous values and views into the way archaeologists, museums, and educational institutions present the past would also enrich academic discourse on the presented heritage. The preservation of heritage must incorporate methods that make it easier for schools and local communities to utilize the resource.

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Thus, a strategy to develop the heritage industry in Africa should adopt a code of practice that reconciles the needs of the heritage and its environment with those of the general public. The future of conservation and heritage management in most African countries will depend on how much this management is viewed as enhancing the life and development of the area. Heritage programs should also be integrated with general development issues. Adopting a purely academic view toward heritage places will, in the long run, lead to neglect of the heritage and ensure that both the local community and the policy makers ignore its management. It will diminish funding for heritage management projects, which will be given low priority by central governments, because they fail to provide tangible and meaningful benefits for the development of the country.

By reconciling the various cultural values of places, we begin to address some of the problems of giving local communities and the public in general access to and a pride in the past. It can also be argued that for local communities to begin to participate in any economic and democratic development in the present world, they first must be proud of themselves and of their heritage.

Webber Ndoro, a member of the archaeology faculty at the University of Zimbabwe, has worked on a number of heritage sites throughout Africa. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites.