By Lazare Eloundou Assomo and Joseph King

Any successful approach to conservation education must first look at the specific concept of heritage in the region or country concerned. Until fairly recently, African approaches to conservation education were based on Western concepts of heritage. According to Dawson Munjeri, former vice president of ICOMOS, the concept in Europe and America was created based on "the cult of the physical object and its aesthetic." That is, the materials, style, and monumental character are the foundation on which heritage has been understood, and they form the basis for conservation actions.

Mousgoum house in Cameroon

In Africa, this understanding of the heritage is insufficient. Indeed, the notion of cultural heritage, as perceived in Africa, celebrates the unbreakable link between man, nature, and God. African concepts of heritage have always embraced spiritual, social, and religious meanings, myths, and strong relationships with ancestors and the environment.

By ignoring these important aspects of heritage and focusing only on technical solutions to problems, African professionals and their European counterparts have had difficulties in ensuring the conservation of sites. In some cases, important protective rituals, taboos, or restrictions have been lost. In others, traditional conservation and maintenance practices have been abandoned as globalization and modernization have accelerated. Even identification of sites has been problematic at times, as the "monumental" or "built" aspects of the heritage were favored over less tangible, but perhaps more important, associations. In short, significant heritage in Africa has been deteriorating and even disappearing because appropriate measures have not been developed to take into account the African concept of heritage.

A Global Strategy in Africa

To confront this problem, some in Africa are now trying to take a lead in developing concepts related to intangible heritage, cultural landscapes, and other new ways of looking at both the identification and management of heritage. Two processes launched by the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO in the early 1990s have supported this effort.

The first is the Global Strategy for a Balanced and Representative World Heritage List. This initiative, begun in 1994, grew from the realization that the World Heritage List, up to that time, had been based on a "monumental" concept of heritage. The Global Strategy has tried to broaden definitions of the heritage with the goal of creating a World Heritage List that better represents all cultures.

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With regard to Africa, the World Heritage Centre conducted several meetings from 1995 to 1998, aimed at changing the perception of African cultural heritage. In February 1995, an international meeting of experts recommended the identification, study, protection, and publicizing of the archaeological, architectural, technical, and spiritual components of African cultural heritage. In October of the same year, African experts representing 13 countries met in Zimbabwe and called for a concept of cultural heritage that transcends the monumental vision and aesthetic notion of artistic masterpiece. They emphasized the need for a much broader anthropological approach, which takes into account the complex societal and symbolic values of sites, without limiting the analysis to form and building material. The fundamental role of the spiritual and the sacred as part of cultural heritage, along with its physical aspect, was recognized as characteristic of Africa. Since that meeting, there have been four additional meetings to discuss such topics as cultural landscapes and the notions of authenticity and integrity as they relate to Africa.

The second process launched by the World Heritage Committee and developed by ICCROM (the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) was the Global Training Strategy aimed at increasing the capacity of countries to deal with all aspects of the World Heritage Convention. The approach requested by the Committee was to look both at global needs and the specific needs of the various geographical regions. A meeting of experts held at ICCROM in 1996 invited professionals from around the world to analyze training needs and strategic approaches to education and training.

At that meeting, a paper was presented on a strategic approach to training in sub-Saharan Africa. The paper—prepared by CRATerre-EAG (the International Centre for Earth Construction-School of Architecture of Grenoble), in partnership with the World Heritage Centre and ICCROM—was based on a survey distributed to 44 countries. The results of the survey led to the identification of a number of issues to be considered in developing a training strategy for Africa:

  • the insufficient human resources and capacity to carry out management, conservation, and maintenance using traditional methods and materials;
  • the difficulty for African countries to integrate conservation policies into a framework for sustainable development;
  • the ineffectiveness of legislation aimed at protecting immovable cultural heritage;
  • the noninvolvement of local communities in conservation planning and management;
  • the lack of awareness of politicians, decision makers, and local communities of the role that conservation can play within rapidly changing economic, social, and environmental situations;
  • the lack of national inventories of immovable cultural heritage; and
  • the difficulty for African professionals to share information, specialized knowledge, and best practices in the region.

A Regional Training Program

After its presentation to the experts meeting in 1996, the training strategy for sub-Saharan Africa was adopted at the 20th session of the World Heritage Committee. In June 1997 the three organizations involved in the survey signed an agreement to develop a program based on the proposed strategy. In 1998, after a period of consultation and program development, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, ICCROM, CRATerre-EAG, and African cultural heritage organizations launched the Africa 2009 program. Its long-term aim is to increase national capacities in sub-Saharan Africa for management and conservation of immovable cultural heritage.

Financial partners include the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Swedish National Heritage Board, the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of Italy and Finland, the World Heritage Fund, the UNESCO Division of Culture, and ICCROM.

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The program—managed by a steering committee of African directors of cultural heritage and representatives of the three international organizations—is guided by several principles. These principles include involving local communities in planning for and protecting heritage resources within their territory and ensuring that tangible benefits can be derived by these communities; giving priority to local knowledge systems, human resources, skills, and materials; ensuring that activities contribute to capacity building within national institutions; giving priority to simple, incremental solutions to problems that can easily be implemented within an existing framework; creating awareness and respect for international conservation norms and standards; and focusing on prevention and maintenance as a cost-effective and sustainable strategy for management and conservation.

It terms of structure, activities are carried out at the regional level (Projet Cadre) and the site level (Projets Situés). The Projet Cadre comprises regional activities that include training courses, workshops, seminars, research projects, and networking. The Projets Situés aim at improving conservation at individual sites in the region. The strength of the program is derived from the link between the two levels. Information from the Projets Situés is fed back into the Projet Cadre to help improve training methodologies and techniques at the regional level and to ensure that the program is rooted in the realities of the field. In turn, developments on the regional level are used to strengthen the Projets Situés. The relationship between both levels highlights another important principle for Africa 2009: the promotion of hands-on practical experiences as an effective means of training. This hands-on approach to training is not only used during the Projets Situés but is also an integral part of regional courses and other activities.

The Projet Cadre has carried out five regional management courses, training over 100 participants. Twenty of these participants have been invited back to act as course assistants or resource persons. The year 2003 marked the introduction of an annual regional technical course, the first of which took place in Cameroon on the topic of documentation and inventory. A number of other activities have been carried out under the Projet Cadre, and a series of African sites have been the focus of Projets Situés work (see below).

The Larger Context

It is important to recognize that the Africa 2009 program exists within a larger training context in sub-Saharan Africa. In an effort to avoid duplication and take advantage of shared goals and interests, the program has tried, where possible, to create partnerships.

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Two important partners are the Ecole du Patrimoine Africain (EPA), located in Porto-Novo, Benin, and the Program for Museum Development in Africa (PMDA), located in Mombasa, Kenya. EPA is a university institution with a regional focus specialized in training and research for the conservation and promotion of movable and immovable cultural heritage. PMDA is a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the preservation, management, and promotion of cultural heritage in Africa through a program of training and development of support services. Both institutions were created as a final output of Prema, a multiyear program of ICCROM aimed at building capacity for museum professionals in the region. EPA works primarily with Francophone and Lusophone countries, while PMDA works with Anglophone countries. While these institutions work primarily on training related to conservation in museums, both are also interested in immovable cultural heritage. In initial phases, they provided a stable base from which to implement the annual regional courses of Africa 2009. In 2003, however, a broader agreement was signed so that collaborarative projects could increase.

Universities also play an important training role within the region. Africa 2009 has established a relationship with the University of Zimbabwe, which recently initiated a master's program in heritage management. The partnership includes funding scholarships for individuals to study for a master's degree in heritage management at the university. Partnerships are also being sought with other universities in the region. In addition, relationships have been established with the International Council of African Museums and the West African Museums Program; both play an important networking role for museum professionals within sub-Saharan Africa.

The implementation and coordination of Africa 2009 is a large undertaking, but its size gives it some unique benefits. By carrying out many different activities each year, the program is able to approach certain topics from different angles. For example, the topic of documentation and inventory is covered annually as part of the regional management courses, and it has also been the subject of a regional thematic seminar, three research projects/workshops, and a short technical course. Each time the topic is treated, concepts are developed and improvements are made. Another benefit of the size of the program and number of its activities is that it allows continued contact with regional professionals in a variety of contexts. This ensures that there is a sustained exchange of ideas, giving these professionals support in their continuing effort to improve the conditions for conservation in their home institutions. This constant contact functions, in effect, as a long-term capacity-building support.

The program is currently set to run through the end of 2009. Discussions are ongoing with partner institutions in the region to determine the shape of capacity-building activities aimed at conservation of immovable cultural heritage after that date. In the meantime, the program will continue to work with national heritage organizations in the region to improve capacity for the conservation of this important part of the world's heritage.

Lazare Eloundou Assomo is a program specialist with the Africa Unit of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Joseph King is a senior project manager with the Heritage Settlements Unit of ICCROM.

Africa 2009

A project of the UNESCO World Heritage Centre, ICCROM, CRATerre-EAG, and a number of African cultural heritage organizations

Activities of the Projet Cadre (regional level) of Africa 2009 have included:

  • annual directors seminars;
  • thematic seminars on legal frameworks, documentation, and inventory, and creating awareness of the importance of heritage;
  • research projects on traditional conservation, dry stone construction, inventory of rock art, and guidance for improvement of legal frameworks;
  • donation of computers and other equipment to national heritage organizations;
  • two scholarships for African professionals to work toward master's degrees at the University of Zimbabwe, and five scholarships for African professionals to attend courses at ICCROM;
  • a bilingual (English and French) Web page, an Internet mailing list, a newsletter, and a database of professionals who have taken part in activities.

Since 1998, the following sites have benefited from work through the Projets Situés (site projects) of the Africa 2009 program:

  • Asante Traditional Buildings, Ghana
  • Khami Archaeological Site, Zimbabwe
  • Kasubi Tombs, Uganda
  • James Island, Gambia
  • Kondoa Irangi Rock Paintings Site, Tanzania
  • Niamey, Zinder, and Agadez, Niger
  • Tombeau des Askias, Mali
  • Stone Built Structures in the Mandara Mountains, Cameroon
  • Cathédrale de Sainte Marie, Libreville, Gabon
  • Leven House and Steps, Kenya
  • Koutammakou Cultural Landscape, Togo