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Demolitions: duty to conserve environment supersedes quest for cultural preservation

Wednesday September 12 2018

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In the professional world of heritage there have been many debates regarding the future of African museums and cultural institutions.

One of the main reasons that such discussions take place about African institutions and not, say, European institutions is colonisation and the influence that colonisers still want to exert over decisions in their former colonies.

The recent demolitions of properties that, according to the government, are illegal, as they are built on riparian land and on streams, has raised a new angle to this debate on the future of cultural institutions in Africa.
I have read with amazement claims on social media that the demolition of sections of the Oshwal Centre, an iconic building of religious and cultural significance, will constitute a destruction of heritage.

I have been to this centre once for a performance of the play Oliver Twist presented one December holiday by the Potter House School.

The auditorium is large and modern and I observed that a good part of the compound is dedicated to entertainment facilities, including a tennis court. It is well thought out and cannot be considered to be deprived of capacity or resources.


It is important for Kenyan communities to recognise what constitutes the cultural heritage of a nation or even a community.

According to the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), "Cultural heritage is an expression on the ways of living developed by a community and passed on through generations, including customs, practices, places, objects, artistic expressions and values."

Cultural heritage is therefore the man-made part of heritage.


Natural heritage, on the other hand, constitutes flora and fauna, biodiversity and all geological formations and ecosystems that are beyond the works of humans. Cultural heritage cannot therefore seek to appropriate natural heritage for individual use and still claim authenticity and integrity.

Natural heritage constitutes that which a nation inherits from the universe to make use of, hold, conserve and preserve for future generations. It cannot be owned by anyone of us.


So when communities choose to build on rivers, streams, mountains and restrict access to and or use by other humans, they are already operating way out of the accepted standards and norms for cultural heritage.

It is important to note that any community can contribute to the additions of and growth in cultural heritage. It is a desired state as Africa continues to struggle with repatriation and the smuggling of authentic cultural materials to international metropolitan cities.

However, African professionals need to be very careful and vigilant that those items should not be replaced by locally assembled political and economic models that do not meet the threshold for authentic cultural models.


This is not to say that individual communities cannot or have not made contributions to sites and places that meet the threshold of cultural heritage and also enjoy professional acceptability.

A case in point is the sacred Miji Kenda Kaya Forests on the Kenyan coast which one may argue are found within a natural heritage – a forest.

In this instance, the quest by the community to protect and maintain their spiritual sites and places that they believe to be the abode of their ancestral spirits has been pertinent in protecting these coastal lowland forests.

The forests were once extensive but are now under threat and can only be found in areas that enjoy strict cultural and or government protection.

The community also sets strict guidelines for interacting with the forest and any operations outside these guidelines are met with immediate repercussions from the elders.

Many world religions and traditional belief systems also support protection and preservation of natural heritage as they recognise the "hand of god" in their creation and continued existence on earth.

The unabashed destruction of natural heritage for promotion of alleged cultural and or medical needs is also the motive behind the decimation of many wildlife species.


The insatiable hunt for ivory, rhino horns, mountain gorilla meat and products and many other species has led to dangerous levels of illegal hunting and destruction of non-renewable resources by humans. Which then should make the idea of consumptive game hunting a source of pain not only from conservationists, but also from the perspective of cultural heritage.

It has taken years to convince communities in Kenya whose rites of passage and other age-old cultural activities are centred on hunting of birds (feathers make beautiful head dresses) and monkeys and lions (whose skins make ceremonial gowns) to give up the practice.

Whichever way you look at it, promoting or preserving cultural heritage relevant to a community or a small section of the population at the expense of natural heritage owned by all is not sustainable.

Twitter: @muthonithangwa