Great Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Kasubi Tombs, Uganda


"INTANGIBLE HERITAGE IN AFRICA : COULD IT BE A CASE OF 'MUCH - ADO - ABOUT NOTHING'?(1)"


Dawson Munjeri

William Shakespeare’s play has its equal in a Shona novel, Soko risina musoro by the late Zimbabwe nationalist, Herbert Chitepo. Translated from the Shona (a Zimbabwean language) it would be "a tale without a theme". Both Shakespeare’s and Chitepo’s work have their equal in the evolving patterns as the issue of intangible heritage takes the centre stage (or used to!!). After much debate by the 12th General Assembly of ICOMOS, what initially was the theme, "intangible heritage", soon transformed into "the tangible in the intangible" or vice versa and it now appears as "the intangible dimension of built heritage". No one could boldly assert that the soul (the intangible) can exist without the body (the tangible) and thus it can be argued philosophically and perhaps logically that the intangible and the tangible are two sides of the same coin. However, to argue that this tangible is of necessity "built heritage" is a syllogism "par excellence". It is as illogical to accept that while the tangible heritage has been allowed and continues to stand on its own foot, intangible heritage can only stand on two feet. This is not only a reversal of recent gains made on the global front but is also a rejection of the accepted conclusions of the UNESCO World Commission on Culture and Development which unequivocally states that in any partnership of the tangible and the intangible, "The tangible can only be interpreted through the intangible" and not vice versa.

To illustrate the above notions one needs look no further than our northern neighbours (Zambia). The Kuomboka ceremony of the Lozi people in the Zambezi valley of the Western Province of Zambia is steeped in decades of tradition. The movements of Lewanika (the Litunga - Paramount Chief) of the Lozi from the lowlands to the highlands, involves an entire "state" movement endowed with ritual and etiquette encompassing forms and format that are the heritage. The boat, (the tangible) is but a mark, the rhythmic movement of the oars to the accompaniment of song and dance and the rising and the lowering of the floods are the real message. The fixed terminal points, both north and south are tangible (palaces). However, codified in abstract forms is the essence of the tradition.

Further north, in Benin (West Africa), the city of Ouidah saw massive slavery and slave trade in the 17th to 19th centuries. The slave route from Ouidah to the Atlantic coast is punctuated by sites that recall this heinous activity - plants, lagoons, plantations etc: evidence of a by-gone economic, albeit abominable, heritage. Yet as Alain Sinou appropriately notes, "there is no physical direct evidence of slavery". The tangible item that exists is certainly not built heritage but plants, lagoons etc. which may disappear under the machete, pollution etc. How can the slave trade be recognised as an authentic phenomenon in the absence of built heritage? Perhaps the question is why not? The November 1994 joint ICOMOS meeting on cultural itineraries defined heritage routes (eg. religious, slave, gold/ivory, salt routes) as "composed of tangible elements of which the cultural significance comes from exchanges and multi-dimensional dialogue across countries or regions". While the pilgrim route of Santiago de Compostella (Spain) may meet this definition, the Ouidah case is testimony that this would not apply in non-material heritage societies. The definition also implies that the soul is subordinate to the substance - monumentalism reincarnated. Not so in "non-material societies", it is here submitted.

In the same Ouidah, voodoo temples are the most physical expressions of traditional religious practices. The number and variety of these temples testify to the strength of these cults, but that is all. They are of no significant value except as mneumonic reservoirs of social and cultural history. Ouidah’s most important worship practices do not take place in temples of impressive size and spectacular architecture. This would undermine the foundation of the belief systems that are highly codified. "A room, a tree, a corner of a wall have greater value in a religious practice than the temple".(2)

The very concept of "built heritage" is based on the relationship between a site and an event, but the illustrated cases do show that this is not necessarily so in some African societies. In those societies, cultural heritage is singularly more about values than edifices. These values need not be judged on the basis of physical properties and not even on the basis of an interactive matrix of cultural and physical properties. That is the problem with linking intangible heritage to "built up heritage" because it superimposes an inappropriate morphological typology. Let it never be forgotten that what distinguishes "living traditions" from all others, is the fact that existence overrides visibility. As Ardalen Nader and Bakhtar Laleh appropriately point out, living tradition provides the framework of design and construction and not the other way round.

The other problem with the "intangible dimension of the built heritage" approach is the problem of exclusivity. What are we to make of rock art sites? The definition of built heritage may have to be expanded to include the supernatural builders of the "built environment": to include mountains, caverns and other repositories of these galleries of art which are expressions of multiple viewpoints. Indeed these sites are more than geomorphological expressions but are the domicile of the living, the dead and the supernatural. Ignoring them incurs the wrath of these supernatural forces: the 13th General Assembly of ICOMOS can ill afford that curse. "The ancestors of Africa are angry
For those of us who believe in the power of
the ancestors the proof of their anger is all around us
For those who do not believe in ancestors
the proof of their anger is given another name."
Ali Mazrui
Lastly, if the impression given so far is that Africa has nothing to offer in terms of monumental "built heritage", nothing could be further from the truth. Africa has indeed evolved brick / stone mortar civilisations for example the Great Zimbabwe. These are however not expressions of "gloriana Africana". At face value they reflect the ethos of urbanism, kings and emperors, economic wealth etc. To an extent that is true especially when read against centralised State formation processes. However, this is only skin deep. Below it, the "raison d’être" of this built heritage illustrates that in both conception and execution these expressions of "gloriana Africana" are but expressions of "romantic primitivism" reflecting the wisdom of custom, instinct and the genius of indigenous capacities for intuition rather than the foreign concepts of rationality, scientific method and objectivity. For all its grandeur, Great Zimbabwe displays the fundamental message that it is a warm response to forces of nature be they spiritual, environmental etc. and not a product of "cold analytical reason". At this site, the basic architecture remains founded on the Shona traditional circular adobe hut (house). The sanctioning of utilisation space between the sacred and the profane is an affirmation that symbolism and reverence for the powers - that - be and above all, value considerations override aesthetic and material considerations, once again proving that the tangible can only be interpreted through the intangible. Because that is so, traditions continue to celebrate even when the stone walls of Great Zimbabwe collapse. To them, the spirits are moving house to settle elsewhere. The rest of us, we mourn the collapse of the physical fabric. Yes, we continue to deify a "built heritage" devoid of the real message : Soko risina musoro (a tale without a theme).

Dawson Munjeri
Icomos Vice-president (1999-2002)

(1) Much-ado-about nothing is a William Shakespeare play.
(2) A. Sinou. "Architectural and urban heritage; the example of the city of Ouidah, Benin" in Culture and Development in Africa, I. Serageldin & J. Taboroff (Eds), Washington, 1994:289.


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Dernière mise à jour: August 26th 2003