We have always been sustainable

Working to encourage a more critical, holistic and knowledge-based approach to digital solutions within African heritage, African Digital Heritage prove that many solutions to sustainable development lie within history
words – kylie kiunguyu
location – nairobi county, kenya

In the 1970s, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, the Senegalese Director of UNESCO, became one of the first high-profile individuals to call for the return – or restitution – of cultural heritage looted during colonialism. His argument, and the basis of many that have taken up this call since, is that to take cultural objects, human remains, spiritual artefacts and such is to steal a people’s collective memory and identity. 

Many colonial powers rejected the idea and adamantly refused to participate in any conversation around restitution until recently. Growing pressure from a more influential African diaspora, alongside shifting global relations, have forced the Global North to begin processes and negotiations towards restitution, even superficially, as a show of partial atonement for colonial atrocities and a commitment to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. 

Unfortunately the Global North’s promises and rhetoric are, at times, proving disingenuous – with countries consistently putting barriers against the return of looted cultural heritage. From questioning the capability of countries of origin to house them, to debating their claim of ownership under the rules and customs of war, it can seem there are little if any tangible intentions of redressing historical wrongdoing. 

Additionally, from African Digital Heritage’s lens here in the Global South, the conversation on restitution has been limited to the ‘return’ of tangible cultural heritage such as artefacts, collections and physical records. We are a Nairobi based, non-profit organisation working to encourage a more critical, holistic and knowledge-based approach to digital solutions within African heritage. Through this, we hope to cement the place of African culture in an era of rapidly changing technologies and endless frontiers. We argue that the current conversation around reclamation is an oversimplified idea of bartering the histories, innovations and identities of entire societies in the most palatable way to the plunderers – a fixation on the politics of repatriation over the continued damage that the stalled process causes. 

On the continent, the conversation around reclamation is also a nuanced interrogation and reframing of the intangible cultural heritage that was lost.

Not so much how we can go back, but more what we can learn and apply to our present and futures. ‘Futures’ as a demonstration that we can now question, imagine, create in multiples and turn an interrupted past into ‘infinite’ possibilities that reflect our past and present realities. The more we look into our pasts in an attempt to solve modern day problems or learn about our histories, the more we discover that long-honed expertise on the continent has always centred us, and worked for those who came before us. African societies made remarkable strides in ancient sciences, architecture, education, religion and governance, long before the scramble for its resources imposed Western ideals. This vast well of knowledge and cultural resources within such a regionally diverse [ethnicity here outweighing nationality] continent can serve as a paragon for the type of sustainable development the world is desperately in need of.

To test the provocation, we’ll consider the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Starting with one of our favourites, Number 9: Industry, innovation, and infrastructure. For this goal, we focus on the call to foster innovation, more specifically digital innovation. It’s 2024, and the rate at which technological advancements are happening is unprecedented. Innovation in itself isn’t the challenge; meaningful, localised innovation is. And we need localised innovation because it leans on local knowledge, social norms, cultural characteristics and regional dynamics to create solutions – solutions that are realistic and effective for the contexts they are catered to.

Digitisation, for example, was initially intended as a way of making information more organised, accessible and easier to use. More and more, it has become a way of ensuring that historical legacies are immortalised and traditional knowledge and cultural expressions can endure – especially given their ability to solve modern day problems. At African Digital Heritage, digitisation has given us the privilege of redocumenting contested histories with those whose accounts have been suppressed, reconstructing historically significant sites, restoring decaying archives and saving cultural landmarks that are at risk of demolition and severe dilapidation.

In 2020, we wondered what it would take to digitise 21,000 documents in six months, before embarking on a digitisation project with BookBunk that would preserve the rare archives of Kenya’s second oldest library. These records, which ranged from photographs to government ordinances, went on to become publicly accessible and the project spawned a public initiative that encouraged Kenyans to share and digitise their own personal archives. 

The next year, we challenged ourselves to ‘Save the Railway’ by documenting Kenya’s Railway Stations that were at risk of demolition and severe dilapidation. Although no longer in use, the stations hold in their cracks and crevices the stories of millions of Kenyans who depended heavily on the railway before its decline. 

Then, in 2022, we expanded our preservation work to include Gede ruins, Kenya’s most significant historic monuments. Gede was a crucial trade centre along the East African coast, with finds such as a Ming China vase and Venetian glass being excavated from this site. It also has a strong presence in the oral history of the Mijikenda community, who attributed sacred and spiritual meaning to it. Our publically accessible documentation and digitisation of the ruins contains 360 Panoramic tours, extensive spatial data and audio/visual recordings of the site and community members.

Last year, we helped complete a virtual reconstruction of Kamiriithu Theatre, located in Limuru, Kenya. The site is celebrated as a powerful experiment in African decolonisation where thespians used plays to confront land dispossession, industrial pollution and neocolonial injustice. The 3D model of the original open-air wooden theatre structure gives audiences a glimpse into the scene of these bold demonstrations of rebellion. 

Further examples of how crucial cultural heritage is can be evidenced in Sustainable Development Goal Number 3, Good Health and Well-being, which demands that we collectively find ways to ‘ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.’ African traditional medicine [ATM] is holistic in a way that considers the physical, metaphysical and spiritual condition of the person and their genetic, socio-cultural and environmental background in the causation and maintenance of illness. It grounds nutritional treatment, including herbal medicine, manual therapies such as massages, and supportive counselling such as talking circles or group therapy, in its healing techniques – a nod to the adage mind, body and soul. Considering the growing interest in overall well-being, mental health and disease control, ATM not only offers holistic treatment options, but it bridges the gap where healthcare is inaccessible. 

Clear examples of this were seen during the COVID-19 pandemic when, despite rapid and unprecedented progress in the development of vaccines and new therapies, most African countries had limited to no access to these products. The National Library of Medicine reported that, despite these limitations, populations used ATM in the supportive treatment of symptomatic cases and to fill the gaps in conventional healthcare services. Similar instances have been reported in Uganda, where ATM is the main source of treatment for mental illnesses, and in Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe, where ATM is used to manage AIDS symptoms. 

Then we have Sustainable Development Goal Number 11, Sustainable Cities and Communities, which asks us to ‘make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.’ While safety relies heavily on governance, what role does cultural heritage play within inclusivity, resilience and sustainability? Here, we can find perfect examples of the reframing mentioned earlier. 

By mixing traditional techniques with ‘new’ materials or waste, architects are creating resilient structures with minimal carbon footprints across the continent.

Such techniques also prioritise natural cooling and heating systems that will become household necessities in a warming world, while lessening the burden on energy sources. To help you envision what this looks like, consider the termite-designed ventilation inspired architect Mick Pearce. In 1991, he was commissioned to design the passively cooled Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe. Today, the building stands as a testament to how biomimicry can improve architectural design. 

One famous example is Gando Primary School, built by Diébédo Francis Kéré – the first African to receive the Pritzker Architecture Prize. He used modified traditional clay-building techniques and materials to create a structurally robust construction within the parameters set by cost, climate, resource availability and construction feasibility. The school’s dry-stacked brick ceiling allows maximum ventilation: cool air is pulled in from the interior windows, while hot air is released through perforations in the clay roof. Ultimately, climate-resistant housing can go a long way in ensuring vulnerable populations survive the climate crisis whilst simultaneously repurposing non-degradable waste. 

All these are demonstrations of the intangible cultural heritage which we can uncover, harness and ‘make mainstream’ for our use and the use of generations to come – a task that only becomes possible by latching onto community-centred preservation and restoration work that enlivens the past and empowers the future. The projects highlighted here, and African Digital Heritage’s collective work as a whole, are our way of not only safeguarding as much cultural heritage as possible but also providing avenues to guide similar efforts across the continent. We want to be a part of expanding how cultural heritage is used and understood. This is our version of reclamation – building and inspiring virtual universes and digital resources that are fully reflective of African cultures, despite and in spite of our interrupted past. Resources that can mobilise the wisdom of the past to realise sustainable futures; truly leaving no one behind – because cultural heritage is vital to our survival.

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