Cultural heritage can contribute to inclusive growth

Friday February 21 2020

An elaborately attired maiden attends to the 'The African King in a vibrant pantomime that showcases the best of Kenyan culture at The Junction Mall in December, 2015. PHOTO | COURTESY


During the 33rd Assembly of the African Union held recently in Addis Ababa, 12 Heads of State accepted the invitation of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta of Mali, the African Union leader for Arts, Culture and Heritage to act as co-champions. The co-champions will be members of a council of peers who will spearhead the systematic integration of culture, arts and heritage in the Africa’s development agenda.

President Uhuru Kenyatta and Ethiopia President Mrs Sahle-Work Zewde will lead in this effort in the eastern Africa region. Through their work, 2021 may well be declared the African Union Year of Culture as proposed at the Addis Ababa meeting. This is good news for those who see culture as the missing link to inclusive development in Africa.

Culture, as a people’s productive and innovative thrust in navigating life, is linked to socio-economic development through its industries, food production systems, livelihood choices, tourism, cultural institutions, infrastructure, environmental management, fashion and microenterprises. It plays an important role in social cohesion and the expression of freedoms.

The Charter for the African Cultural Renaissance provides a crucial framework for arts and culture on the continent. Moreover, Aspiration 5 of Agenda 2063 envisions a continent with a strong cultural identity, celebrating its heritage and with shared values and ethics.

An important flagship project towards this vision is the Great African Museum as a focal centre for promoting African cultural heritage. The museum, when operational, will house the cultural and historical experiences of the African people from the pre-colonial to the slave trade, colonialism and postcolonial periods. The memory of the continent’s journey provides vital lessons for the future. Most of that memory is located in African languages.

 On the linguistic front, important work on African languages is being undertaken at the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) and the Centre for Linguistic and Historical Studies by Oral Tradition (CELHTO). The actualisation of the visions of ACALAN and CELHO, the ratification of the Charter for the African Cultural Renaissance and the implementation of programs envisaged in Agenda 2063 are vital for inclusive growth propelled by the Africa’s diversity of languages, arts and cultures.


The Constitution of Kenya has given culture a central place in national development. At Article 11, culture is viewed as the foundation of the nation and the State is called upon to enact legislation to promote the diversity of the people of Kenya as evidenced through their languages and cultures. Artistic freedom is protected alongside scientific and academic freedoms.

Despite, the opportunities provided by the Constitution, Kenya has not built the critical policy and legal framework for the advancement of arts and cultures. The National Culture Policy has been in the works for quite a while. The finalisation of this instrument would pave the way for systematic promotion of the diversity of Kenyan cultures, the establishment of the National Arts and Culture Council and mainstreaming of arts and culture in the national agenda.

It is encouraging that the Traditional Knowledge and Cultural Expressions Act, 2016, is now in place. The Constitution requires that ‘communities receive royalties for the use of their cultures and cultural heritage’ (Article 11 (3(a)). An opportunity exists for this to happen.

Another urgent matter in the Ministry relates to the languages of Kenya Bill. The Constitution of Kenya recognises Kiswahili is a co-official language of Kenya, alongside English. Kiswahili is also a national language and the lingua franca of the East African Community. The status of Kiswahili is, however, undermined by the absence of legislation on the management of languages in Kenya. At the regional level, the East African Kiswahili Commission is operational.

In the next few days, an international Symposium on cultural heritage for inclusive growth will be held in Nairobi. Organised by the British Council and Kenyan partners, the Symposium will provide an opportunity for deepened reflection on how cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, can contribute to inclusivity in social, economic and political life. Symposium attendees will learn, among other things, how to secure and promote cultural heritage across generations by listening to perspectives on how London has anchored culture in the urban areas; how Colombian and Vietnamese communities are involved in cultural heritage; how to set up a heritage organisation; and how indigenous South African languages are being digitised.

Prof Kimani Njogu is a Kiswahili and cultural scholar based at Twaweza Communications, Nairobi. (E-mail: [email protected])