Preserving our cultural heritage: It’s either now or never

Preserving our cultural heritage: It’s either now or never

A WORKSHOP on marine cultural heritage that took place last week on 4th December 2020 was a unique one.

It was the first of such kind to be hosted at the oldest academic institution in Tanzania, the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) and in the country. The composition of the workshop’s participants came from diverse background and one would have anticipated a lot of disagreements during discussions. It was not.

Yes, there were heated debates but generally it was a meeting of minds. Principally, all participants comprising representatives from government agencies, international and fishers organisations, members of academia and the public from in and outside Tanzania explained how tangible and intangible marine cultural heritage resources were important and expressed their concerns on how these resources risks depletion due to various reasons.

They also voiced their insights on how efforts to locate new marine cultural heritage sites, mark and protect them are a matter of urgency for the benefit of coastal communities and the country at large. For them, development cannot be separated from cultural heritage.

The workshop was part of the week-long marine cultural heritage celebrations that officially ended on Sunday 6th under the Bahari Yetu Urithi Wetu (Our Ocean Our Heritage) project under the UDSM’s Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies.

A one-year project ending on 30th of this December 2020 has an interest to unravel the understanding of people on the importance of marine cultural heritage within the water and along the coast and how they could be engaged to protect them.

The project funded by the Rising from The Depth Network which is also funded by the UK Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through the Arts and Humanities Research Council Network Plus scheme covers the entire coast of East Africa benefiting Tanzania, Kenya, Mozambique, Madagascar and the Comoros.

Contributing from the United Kingdom via Zoom, Dr John Cooper, a Maritime Archaeologist and ethnographer from the University of Exeter noted that marine cultural heritage is completely tied to economic life and that they are subject to changing of economic activities, growth, laws, forces of nature and wars; all these things, he noted, threaten cultural heritage in a country.

Dr Lucy Blue, also a Marine Archaeologist from the University of Southampton in the UK said the lessons she has learnt from many places of work in different countries is that the stage people recognise the value and benefit of heritage is after those opportunities have gone.

“It is important to grasp an understanding of the value of cultural heritage when it is still living and working with that for the benefit of everybody sustainably,” she said, adding that “heritage should be part of the equation when it comes to development.”

For Dr Cooper, to make heritage part of the equation, there must be a healthy dialogue and discussion that goes on between local communities who maintain these heritages with the people who make strategic decisions about planning, fisheries and policies of the country.

This will help coming up with right decisions and planning around coastal development. In line with that, Dr Elgidius Ichumbaki who coordinates the project in Tanzania called for a more participatory approach for decisions that may adversely affect cultural heritage resources in the long run.

He gave an example of a recent initiative to shift Oldupai Gorge, ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani and Kondoa rock art heritage sites to Ngorongoro Conservation Area, Tanzania Wildlife Authority and Tanzania Forest Services respectively in an effort to try making the sites a source of income.

The sites were earlier supervised by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism’s Department of Antiquities. Dr Ichumbaki who is also a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, UDSM, noted that the three institutions were formed to protect natural heritage and use them to sustainably get income.

“We should not expect to get income from cultural heritage,” he noted. In trying to find money from these cultural heritage sites; the institutions have been trying to invest in them by building paths in Kilwa and a road in Kondoa sites.

In the process of building those infrastructures, extremely important artefacts such as ceramics, beads, and stone tools were destroyed. Dr Ichumbaki stressed that trying to get direct money from cultural heritage is wrong; instead, Tanzanians should be happy of their history and their cultural heritage and use all means to protect them.

Driving his point home, he explained how Tanzanians don’t make money from Mwalimu Nyerere who is their icon and history; instead, they are using a lot of money to celebrate his life because that makes them happy. “Mwalimu is our heritage. And that should be the case with other cultural heritage sites and objects,” he noted.

Contributing on the same issue, a fisheries officer at Bagamoyo District, Antonia Mpemba said extra caution should be taken especially now when Tanzania is mulling over utilising benefits of blue economy. “Striking a balance between economic developments and keeping our treasured cultural heritage intact is crucial,” said Antonia.

But striking a balance may become a challenge if there will be no thorough assessments along the shore and in sea in countries where there have been a lot of efforts to explore oil and gas recently.

Experts fear that without taking extra care, cultural heritage of historical significance such as a ‘shipwreck’ of 14th century intact with cargo under water in Kilwa may completely be destroyed.

A Legal Counsel for the UNESCO National Commission of the United Republic of Tanzania, Ms Caroline Mutahanamilwa advises that it is high time to seriously put emphasis on Heritage Impact Assessment for all projects taking place along the coast of Tanzania.

“This will help securing our cultural heritage resources which are greatly needed,” she said. On his part, Mr Davis Mpotwa from the Marine Parks and Reserves Unit, Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock Keeping advised to have in place a marine spatial plan that will help make informed and coordinated decisions about how to use marine resources sustainably.

A Masters’ student at the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies, Mr Abdallah Mohamed wondered why heritage is always the last agenda when it comes to development. “Experts should find a way to put cultural heritage up on the country’s development plan. Preserving them is critical,” said Mohamed.

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  • avatar
    Honest Hilary

    I appreciate whole team involved in marine heritage research

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