Is globalisation a threat to Africa’s cultural heritage?

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Mark Durney

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Sep 2, 2010, 2:18:43 PM9/2/10
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Is globalisation a threat to Africa’s cultural heritage?
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Residents of Kandahar, one of the villages that have come up in Lamu away from the stone town go about their daily activities. Several villages have come up in Lamu, leaving the conservation area in the hands of foreign investors who have money to spend on rehabilitating the old buildings. Photo/MAZERA NDURYA

By MWENDA WA MICHENI (email the author)

Posted Friday, September 3 2010 at 00:00
In France, it is Cannes—the annual International Film Festival and Market— that attracts thousands to the resort city every once in a year to indulge in cultural matters as they enjoy French fashion, wine and cuisines.

The Germans have their Berlin film festival that could be the second largest cinema gathering in the world, drawing thousands of cultural enthusiasts to the city every year.

Africa, especially the Francophone side, has its own cultural highlights too.

Ouagadougou, a small city in struggling Burkina Faso on the Western side of Africa, is mostly deserted.

But when the country’s bi-annual film festival Fespaco arrives in town, tourists flock in thousands to sample the Burkinabe way of life; the fashion display, the music and stories.

Then there is African cinema that has become part of Burkina Faso’s life.

Only a few of the visitors to the city are interested in wildlife and other tourism items that the country offers on the side.

“Even in mainstream tourism marketing, beaches, wildlife and sceneries are no longer a selling point,” says Georges Diener the cultural and cooperation counsellor at the French Embassy in Nairobi.

He recently convened a meeting in Mombasa to discuss the place of cultural heritage in a globalising world, in collaboration with Unesco and other heritage players.

“Cultural heritage, which defines the people, is the new hot cake in tourism and has a big part to play even in the way international politics play out as we move into the future.”

Dubbed Heritage, Memory and Politics, the Mombasa meeting addressed topical issues that the new global reality offers, especially in the context of African heritage, even politics and preservation of the continent’s memory.

The meeting brought together 60 cultural specialists, policymakers and researchers from diverse backgrounds, just to look through the emerging opportunities and threats to continent’s diverse heritage.

It was also part of activities to commemorate 2010. This is the year that Unesco has designated as the international year of the rapprochement of cultures.

The main goal of the International Year is to demonstrate the benefits of cultural diversity by acknowledging the importance of the transfers and exchanges between cultures and the ties forged between them since the dawn of humanity.

It is also a moment to look through the politics of culture and forces pulling around it.

“The Mombasa meetings aim to narrow down the terms of debate around key questions emerging from the current global approach to heritage,” said a communiqué from the organisers.

It added: “In the globalisation context of the last decades, heritage has become a major stake for construction and reconstruction of local identities.

At the Kenya’s coastal town of Lamu, there is a bit of Portuguese architecture, an Islamic influence ,especially witnessed in worship.

Then there is the Maghrebian and Indian influence in the area’s music and American spectacle seen in some tourists.

It is a global reality that has grown over the years, even losing some of her traditional Swahili mannerisms and memory in the course of interaction between cultures at play.

Is it a good thing or bad?

What does the future hold for Lamu and other African spaces, especially now that Facebook, MySpace and Twitter have networked Africans to the rest of the world, even further?

These are some of the questions that cultural experts tackled, trying to figure out how to make Africa’s diverse cultural heritage useful as opposed to destructive.

Possibilities abound of exploiting the Africa’s rich heritage, not just for money but also to strengthen the continent’s bargaining power by offering uniqueness that is not found elsewhere.

As the different parts of the world moved closer, thanks to globalisation, different cultures mixed freely.

In some instances, valuable cultural heritage gathered over years got wiped away, causing wide knowledge gaps.

In more extreme cases, cultural clashes left several people dead.

Elsewhere, positive cultural interactions grew more intense, producing exciting cultural experiences.

Clearly, globalisation has been a cross-pollination whose impact cuts both ways: constructive as well as destructive depending on the forces at play.

In Mombasa for instance, the cuisine, the architecture even fashion displays centuries of interactions between cultures.

The distinct architectural design of stone towns and the country town at the Coast borrows heavily from Arabic and Indian feel to blend into Swahili.

When the Portuguese moved into the Kenyan Coast around 1498, they brought with them influences still evident along the Coast.

Omani period

The Omani period, dominated by Omanis from south-eastern Arabia and who were closely linked to the Sultan of Zanzibar put a mark on this culture during and after 18th Century.

Apparently, International cultural dialogues, politics and memory issues have become so intertwined and complex that they have been causing sleepless nights to some cultural specialists.

In the case of Africa, there are additional concerns. The wave of democratisation that swept through Africa in the 80s and 90s gave birth to civil societies whose roots are foreign.

On cultural tourism, Mombasa and the rest of the Kenyan Coast have gems that few bother to sample.

This is because tourism marketers have not realised the potential and future of tourism, says Mr Diener who reckons that the global art market has surpassed the arms market by far, yet very few take time to look through the politics and implications of art markets globally.

The French have also put a huge investment in cultural heritage preservation in a number of projects.

They include Rabai Kaya conservation that seeks to develop alternative tourism around the coast.

Then there is the preservation of Mombasa Old Town that holds the history of the Coastal town; promotion of Swahili craft and the establishment of a Swahili market.

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