SPOTLIGHT ON AFRICA’S WORLD HERITAGE SITESParis - Four of the 31 new sites added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in December 2001 are in Sub-Saharan Africa – Tsodilo (Botswana), the Royal Hill of Ambohimanga (Madagascar), the old town of Lamu (Kenya) and the tombs of the Buganda kings at Kasubi (Uganda). South Island was attached to the Kenyan natural heritage site of the Lake Turkana National Parks, inscribed in 1997. Africa now has 57 cultural, natural and mixed heritage sites in 22 countries, as part of the world total of 721 sites in 124 countries.
More than a quarter of the African sites are also on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger because they are under special threat and urgently need protection.
With the Rock-Hewn Churches at Lalibela and the Simen National Park (both in Ethiopia) and Senegal’s island of Gorée, Africa featured among the first 12 sites chosen for UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978, along with Germany, Canada, Ecuador, the United States and Poland. Since then however, Africa’s presence on the List has not grown as much as other regions. In the mid 1990s nearly half of all sites on the List were in Europe.
One reason is the scarcity of candidates presented by African governments, whose enormous economic and social problems mean they cannot always pay full attention to cultural matters. Surveying a site and preparing an application for it to be put on the UNESCO list also costs money that these countries often do not have.
To help them draw up a list of heritage that could be put on the World Heritage List, prepare applications or seek technical help, UNESCO has set up a “preparatory assistance” scheme offering consultancy services, equipment and financial help up to a maximum of $30,000. Of the sites added to the List in December 2001, Madagascar got $18,300, Kenya $15,924 and Botswana $19,904 under this programme.
Africa’s under-representation on the World Heritage List is also due to the fact that its cultural heritage did not fit the criteria established by the World Heritage Committee. This realisation led the Committee to take a new look at the meaning of “masterpiece,” a concept inherited from ancient times, and to redefine it.
In 1994, a new category of “cultural landscapes” was thus introduced, opening the way for a broader representation of human heritage. Cultural landscapes are exceptional places that do not necessarily contain historical monuments, but where cultural and religious phenomena are closely connected with natural ones, or where traditions are kept alive amid modern society. Three of the new African sites -- Tsodilo, Ambohimanga and Kasubi – carry this new label.
Tsodilo: The Louvre of the Desert (Botswana). This cultural landscape in the Kalahari Desert is Botswana’s first site on the World Heritage List. Tsodilo’s 4,500 rock paintings and many carvings, all in a 10 sq.km. area, have earned it the nickname of “The Louvre of the Desert.” The site is a veritable art gallery that records at least 100,000 years of human and environmental evolution. Local tradition calls it a kingdom of ancestral spirits. It is also a sacred spot for the Hambukushu and Kung peoples, who have been in this desert region since the 19th century.
The site’s spiritual nature was revealed to the world in the mid-20th century, mainly by the explorer Laurens van der Post through his 1958 book The Lost World of the Kalahari. Tsodilo attracts today a large number of pilgrims and folk doctors who come to pray, meditate and heal.
The site is in northwestern Botswana, near the frontier withNamibia, and consists of a massive platform of ancient quartz rocks, bordered by ancient sand dunes to the east and the bed of a fossilised lake to the west. Its surrounding dunes, its inselbergs (small eroded hills), multi-coloured rocks, bearing many of the paintings, give the arid landscape a unique look.
The oldest rock paintings, huge and visible from a great distance, are mostly done in red ochre, taken from the hematite found in the local rocks. The most common subjects are big game, such asgiraffes and rhinoceroses, drawings of humans that often emphasise sexual organs, and symbolic geometrical shapes rarely seen in Stone Age art in Southern Africa. More recent paintings, the so-called “white ones” that are sometimes superimposed on the reddish ones, are mostly depictions of domestic animals and geometrical forms. Some date from the 6th century, others from the 12th or even the 19th. All are evidence of the region’s dynamic and continuous artistic tradition.
Tsodilo, declared a national monument in 1927, belongs to the state of Botswana and is administered by the country’s national museum. The management plan for the Tsodilo hills (implemented in 1994 and revised in 1999) is based on modern universal conservation principles and in line with a national rural development policy to improve the lives of local people. The management plan includes teaching local inhabitants to appreciate their heritage and make use of it without damaging it.
About 30,000 tourists visit Botswana’s historic monuments every year, but only ten per cent go to Tsodilo. Its addition to the World Heritage List should help the growth of cultural tourism and enable the rock art to be properly examined and catalogued.
Ambohimanga: the blue hill (Madagascar). Eleven years after the Bemaraha Strict Nature Reserve, the royal hill of Ambohimanga has now been put on the World Heritage List. Asian and African cultures mingle there, with close ties between the worship of ancestors and royalty, and it is the most important symbol of Madagascan cultural identity. The 1,468-metre “blue hill” is both a sacred site and an historic one, providing a fine example of age-old farming methods, especially irrigated rice-paddy terraces. The very rich local vegetation is as magnificent as the royal city’s architecture.
The 15th century Rova (fortified royal city) had its heyday between 1740 and 1794, when the royal palace was transferred to Antananarivo, the country’s present capital. Ambohimanga is still Madagascar’sreligious capital and the old kings are still buried there in the sacred eastern part of the city reserved for worship of the ancestors. The royal remains were left in a wooden mortuary building, the Tranomanara, before being taken to the tombs, where the kings (now ancestors) continued to provide protection and punishment for the living. Eleven kings were buried there until March 1897, when France, which colonised Madagascar the previous year, decided to transfer them to Antananarivo. A lawn now grows where the tombs once stood but the city has not lost its soul and remains a key place in Madagascan history and spirituality.
Apart from the royal city, which has 14 fortified stone gateways, the Ambohimanga site includes a holy fountain (fed by a spring whose water is considered purifying), the sacred pond of Amparihy (where the entrails of the dead kings were ceremonially washed to purify society), sacred woods (remains of the huge forests that once covered the hill), terraced rice-paddies (symbolising the monarch’s economic power), dragon trees and fig-trees (known as royal trees because they belonged to the royal household) and various holy places, some of them man-made and some natural.
Ambohimanga is administered by the town and the government’s cultural heritage department. The government funds about one sixth of its running costs ($20,000) and 60 per cent of the proceeds of entrance fees are turned back into the site. Outside subsidies have been obtained for restoration work and advertising campaigns. More than 40,000 people visit the site each year, including 12,000 foreign tourists, and it can cope with about 1,000 visitors a day. Its addition to UNESCO’s World Heritage List will probably boost tourism and encourage national and international bodies to help run and preserve it effectively.
Lamu: a jewel of Swahili culture (Kenya). The old town of Lamu is Kenya’s first cultural heritage site, along with two natural heritage sites already on the World Heritage List. Lamu, the oldest and best-preserved Swahili settlement in East Africa, has been continuously inhabited for 700 years. It used to be one of the region’s main trading centres and since the 19th century has been a major religious centre and place where Islamic culture is taught.
The town, 250 km from Mombasa, lies on an island of the same name off the Indian Ocean coast. It has two distinct parts – one with stone buildings, the other with earthen structures – and comprises 36 Mitaa (small neighbourhoods) which underpin social activity. Its fortress, built between 1813 and 1831, the massive walls of its houses between 40 and 60 cm thick, its quaint little streets and inner courtyards, its verandas and carved wooden doors all give it a special look that happily blends Arab, Indian, European and Swahili styles.
The town was first inhabited by the local Bantus but soon became a regular port of call for seamen coming from the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and the Far East. It was ruled by the Portuguese from 1506 to 1698, and then became an Omani protectorate and fell under British domination until becoming part of Kenya in 1963.
Its inhabitants include many descendants of the Prophet Mohammed and their presence has kept tradition alive, today in the form of annual festivals known as the Maulidi, which attract many Muslims from eastern, central and north Africa and the Gulf region.
Because it’s an island, Lamu has made few concessions to modernity. It is served by the small airport on the island of Manda and has between 15,000 and 20,000 visitors a year, a third of them Kenyans. The pressure of population growth and more tourists has begun to be felt recently. The gradual opening-up of a society where personal contact and family life have held most sway has been difficult at times.
A UNESCO-sponsored study in 1974 served as the basis for a conservation master-plan and the town was proclaimed a national historical monument in 1986. National and foreign funds have been raised to renovate the Swahili houses and train local experts in traditional craft methods.
Lamu’s addition to the World Heritage List should help to keep its cultural and religious values intact as it enters the modern world, and protect it against risks such as fire or the building of hotels near the historic area of the town.
Kasubi: the spiritual centre of the Baganda people (Uganda). The tombs of the kings of Buganda, at Kasubi, comprise the third Ugandan site to be put on the World Heritage List, after the BwindiImpenetrable National Park and the Rwenzori Mountains. The site is an exceptional example of both local architecture and the living traditions of the Baganda (who are part of the Bantu people) and is a place of worship, parts of which are out of bounds to visitors. It is also a green space in an area being rapidly urbanised.
The site is perched atop a hill in the Kampala district and apart from the main area of the tombs, includes farmland, buildings and cemeteries. The middle of the site is dominated by a splendid circular domed palace, the Muzibu Azaala Mpanga, built in 1882 by Mutesa I, the 35th Kabaka (king) of Buganda. Two years later, it was turned into a burial site to house the body of its creator and later those of three of his successors. It is adorned with the symbols of power – drums, spears, shields, medals and photographs of the kabakas – and the inside is hidden from view by a huge curtain of tree-bark behind which is the “sacred forest” where the four tombs are. The entrance to the “forest” is strictly reserved for the widows of the kabakas and members of the royal family.
Kasubi has resisted the ills of urbanisation largely because of the fear and respect the local population have for the spirits of the kabakas and because the site is run along traditional lines. Between 1967 and 1993, it was controlled by the central government, but since the restoration of Uganda’s traditional royal institutions, it has been run by the ruling kabaka.
The main wardens of the site are the Nalinga, the spiritual guardians, and the Lubungas, who are in charge of how the ground is used. The widows of the kabakas maintain the tombs themselves and live off what little is put in the charity baskets placed near them. The government providesno funding for the site, which is supported solely by rents and entrance fees.
Upkeep is traditionally the job of two clans – the Ngeye, who look after the straw roofs, and the Ngo who see to the decoration and the bark curtains. These responsibilities, handed down by their ancestors, ensure the authenticity of work done at the site, but they also raise some problems. Custom forbids the Ngeye to accept advice or technical instructions from others. But traditional maintenance is losing ground and quite a few of the buildings now have just corrugated iron roofs for lack of funding.
The best way to preserve the Kasubi site, which is threatened by rain, termites, fire and even theft of timber, would probably be to revive traditional skills and combine them with modern conservation methods.
African World Heritage sites in danger
Of the 57 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Africa, 13 are on the list of endangered sites, which aims to draw the attention of governments and public opinion to the urgent need to preserve them.
Nine countries are concerned: Benin (the Royal Palaces of Abomey), Ethiopia, (Simen National Park), Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire (Mount Nimba Strict Nature Reserve), Mali (Timbuktu), Niger (Aïr and Ténéré Natural Reserves), Uganda (Rwenzori Mountains National Park), Central African Republic (Manovo-Gounda St. Floris National Park), Democratic Republic of Congo (the Virunga, Garamba, Kahuzi-Biega and Salonga National Parks and the Okapi Wildlife Reserve) and Senegal (Djoudj National Bird Sanctuary). These nine African countries alone contain more than a third of the 31 sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
When sites are no longer under threat they are taken off the list. For example, the Tanzanian site of Ngorongoro, the huge crater that contains the world’s richest collection of wild animals, was put on the endangered list in 1984 and then five years later, after careful attention and several technical aid projects had improved it, was taken off.
Internationalcampaigns and operational projects are the main ways UNESCO acts to preserve sites. Unlike international campaigns, which are decided on by the Organization’s biennial General Conference, operational projects often originate with Member States and are sometimes urgent. They mainly concern cultural heritage sites that have been damaged by wars, natural disasters, pollution, the passage of time or human neglect.
The 26 worldwide preservation campaigns UNESCO has undertaken since 1960 have included efforts to save the main monuments and sites in Ethiopia (the Simen National Park, the Rock-Hewn Churches of Lalibela, Fasil Ghebbi, Tiya, Aksum, the Lower Valley of the Awash and the Lower Valley of the Omo) as well as the Island of Gorée, in Senegal.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, UNESCO has carried out operational projects to save the Royal Palaces of Abomey (Benin), the Fort Jesus Museum (Kenya), the Thaba National Museum (Lesotho), the Chinguetti and Ouadane manuscripts (Mauritania) and the old town of Zanzibar (Tanzania).
For more information, contact UNESCO’s Press Service: tel: (00 33-1) 45 68 17 48
You can also go to the World Heritage website: www.unesco.org/whc
Photos of the sites are available:
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UNESCO launched a new website (www.dakar.unesco.org/goree_patrimoine) on the Island of Gorée the 20th of January 2002 about this landmark of the Slave Trade that lies off Dakar, the capital of Senegal. It aims to make people aware of Gorée and help the international campaign launched in 1981 to preserve the island. It contains a lot of material about the history of Gorée, from its discovery by the Portuguese in 1444 until the present day.