[Today] there is a growing understanding that human diversity is both the reality that makes dialogue necessary, and the very basis for that dialogue… We recognize that we are the products of many cultures, traditions and memories; that mutual respect allows us to study and learn from other cultures; and that we gain strength by combining the foreign with the familiar.
Kofi Annan (Secretary-General of the United Nations, 1997-2006)
The goal of preserving world heritage – that is, heritage deemed to be of “outstanding universal value” – is to ensure a legacy from the past is passed on to future generations. This legacy belongs to all humankind, it is quite literally the heritage of the world.
Through international cooperation for world heritage preservation, we are able to access and explore the most outstanding natural, cultural, and mixed sites offered by each country around the world. It is a doorway to learning about peoples’ values, histories, cross-border exchanges, and riches of natural and cultural diversity.
It is through learning about and celebrating this diversity that mutual respect grows.
African World Heritage Day
African World Heritage Day on 5 May is an opportunity for people around the world, and particularly Africans and those of African descent, to celebrate Africa’s vibrant and unique cultural and natural heritage.
Unfortunately, while African heritage is underrepresented on the World Heritage List (only 12% of all sites), it features disproportionally highly on the List of World Heritage in Danger (39% of all sites in danger). Civil unrest and instability, uncontrolled development, lack of investment in its safeguarding, and threats of climate change are all factors in the endangerment of world heritage in this region.
As the Ngorongoro Declaration (2016) affirms, safeguarding African World Heritage is a central driver for sustainable development, and so there is an urgent need to build capacity for heritage conservation and management in the region.
This will take international cooperation, overwriting the long-standing effects of colonial inequalities in heritage conservation, and ensuring that a narrative of diversity, dignity, and solidarity is established.
More than World Heritage
Yet maintaining a dialogue on cultural diversity takes more than the preservation of heritage sites. Looking to the historical record and personal accounts can bring these sites to life, by describing their value to the people and societies who created and lived in these places, often in their own words.
There is much power to be found in stories, archives, and records. They help us recognise that we are the “products of many cultures, traditions and memories” – they give context to the heritage of the world. UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme promotes the preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage, which are key resources for telling these stories.
In Africa, tapping into the power of these resources can be a central part in rewriting the narrative of the region’s cultural heritage, raising awareness of its rich traditions, building pride in one’s cultural identity, and educating on the value of cultural diversity.
Through this, heritage can spark a dialogue of mutual respect, which hopefully will play a role in counteracting the threats of extremism, helping to heal inequalities, and contributing to sustainable development.
Manuscripts of the Sahel
Let’s explore an example of the power of the narrative in this context.
In early 2020, IFLA was represented at an international consultation on documentary heritage in the Sahel, organised by UNESCO and held in the Malian capital, Bamako.
The meeting aimed to contribute to strengthening the preservation, accessibility and enhancement of ancient manuscripts from the Sahel region, in order to “improve universal access to knowledge on the written history of Africa”. Read more about this event here.
Containing a range of topics from mathematics to science, philosophy, grammar and theology, the manuscripts comprise a narrative that might not be widely known – depicting this region as a hub for knowledge exchange and intercultural discussion, and providing a rich African history of the written word.
Over the past years, manuscripts in the Sahel region have been notoriously targeted for destruction by those trying to silence this narrative. This destruction was mirrored in the context of built heritage with the targeted destruction of mausoleums in Timbuktu in 2012.
However, preserving and utilising the Sahelian ancient manuscripts to promote public access to the information and knowledge contained within can strengthen national cohesion, tolerance and dialogue. Experts maintain that the “protection, accessibility and promotion of ancient manuscripts can serve as a basis for building just, inclusive and peaceful societies in the Sahel”.
IFLA continues to support this project, and those who are working for the preservation of documentary heritage.
Ensuring the continuity of this shared narrative has the power to make a positive difference in a region that still faces many challenges.
Strengthening the preservation, accessibility and enhancement of such examples of heritage can not only strengthen respect for built heritage, it can bring forgotten pieces of history back to life – sparking dialogue, countering preconceived notions, and promoting respect.
On this African World Heritage Day, let’s celebrate the power of the narrative.