Kisumu County has a gem of an exhibition in the Kisumu Museum known as Ber gi dala, which in literal translation means ‘a good home’. This is an effort to establish a living cultural heritage exhibition in Kenya.
Cultural heritage includes the monuments, buildings and objects that support and or contain such traditions. It is the sum total of a people’s traditions of living expressions inherited from our ancestors held in trust by current generations and transmitted on to future generations.
Oral traditions and practices, indigenous skills and competencies consist of intangible heritage, which is best maintained by a living cultural exhibition.
Living culture means, for example, that a community does not just talk of a harvest dance, but actually dances it during harvest. It is through the action that the next generation learns the words, use and significance of a cultural dance.
Ber gi dala is a living exhibition of the Luo community that includes the traditional setting and arrangement of a Luo homestead and the wealth of knowledge that was used in its establishment and running.
One important aspect of this heritage is the protection of the value systems of communities, which are saliently represented in their practices.
They should not be misunderstood as things that were practiced a long time ago. Rather they constitute contemporary rural and urban practices that communities still engage in to date.
For survival of individual communities as unique cultural entities in the face of globalisation, this is particularly important. Kenya, unsurprisingly, has ratified the UNESCO Convention on Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Ber gi dala is still a fascinating cultural exhibition to walk through. To explain, a Luo man established a homestead near his father’s homestead when he married. The homestead had one main entrance, with the house of the man and his first wife being positioned almost in the centre of the boma.
ALLOWED TO ESCAPE
Since the community was traditionally polygamous, the houses of other wives were positioned in a semi-circle to the right and left of the gate, progressing towards the back of the homestead.
The house of the first wife was the nucleus of homestead operations and all visitors first paid a courtesy call to this house. Here there were fed and entertained before it was established what their agenda was or whose visitors they were.
They might be in-laws from the village of the third wife, but they were entertained as visitors to the boma.
Our guide then pointed out that there was always a back exit to the boma, through which any clandestine visitors were allowed to escape when the head of the homestead arrived.
The house of the first born son is built to the right of the father’s hut, although the exhibition does not exactly explain at what point the sons started having their own dwellings within their father’s house.
The salient features of the exhibition are the traditional building technology of the Luo and that they practiced animal husbandry, as demonstrated by animal pens adjacent to each of the wives' huts.
Visitors will be greatly interested by a cultural group that enacts the ways of life within a Luo homestead practically, including by entertaining visitors and cooking and serving them with traditional porridge.
KAYAS AND ISUKHUTI
The intangible cultural heritage of many communities in the world is in danger of being lost and forgotten as we move towards the so-called ‘global village’. One question we forget to ask is whose culture will dominate this global village.
It is with this question in mind that more Kenyan communities should aim to establish living cultural exhibitions in the absence of actual practice of their traditions.
In Kenya, the other living cultural spaces are the Mijikenda kayas which have been inscribed on the world list of intangible heritage in urgent need of safeguarding, along with the Isukuti dance of the Idakho and Ishukha communities of the Luhya ethnic group.
A lot of work goes into intangible cultural heritage preservation, especially in its documentation and in keeping it alive for the value systems that they hold and the enjoyment they bring.
It is not a wonder to go to weddings these days where the women can no longer sing traditional songs in praise of marriage, family and the expected products of the marriage, children.
These songs and dances, which make weddings and other occasions, such as the celebration of the birth of children, richer, are lost. The messages in the songs are also lost, and forever, unless someone makes an effort to document and teach the next generation their meaning and wording.
It is very common to hear of cultural festivals in many counties across Kenya. However, it is not clear if they are playing the important role of preserving the intangible heritage of those cultures. It would be wonderful if they are.