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    Historic Preservation in Sub-Saharan Africa


    Formidable Challenges

    Of all of the world's continents, Africa is plagued with the most challenging threats to architectural conservation.

    Though not immune to the development pressures and natural disasters that trouble the rest of the world, heritage in Africa suffers much more from the rightful preoccupation of governments and aid workers with humanitarian concerns, such as the HIV/AIDS epidemic and malnutrition, which drain resources and energies.

    Most African countries often find themselves trapped between international pressure to better protect their cultural heritage sites and local demands for improved infrastructure and economic development.

    In addition, political instability and guerilla-style conflict hampers conservation in the central and northern regions of sub-Saharan Africa as it does in the Middle East.

    Prospects for heritage look grim in some African countries, such as Zimbabwe, which takes its name and much of its pride and identity from its cultural monuments, yet has failed in its efforts to protect and conserve them effectively.

    However, other countries reflect encouraging trends, such as South Africa, which has emerged as a regional economic and cultural leader with architectural heritage conservation successes that have allowed it to foster developments in neighboring countries.

    Colonizing countries also left behind their own contributions to Africa's built heritage, from slave-trading forts on the continent's west coast to plantation estates in the east. Today's African governments must make difficult decisions about these painful physical reminders of past oppression, and limited budgets seldom make room for these sites.

    Promising Trends

    Fortunately, international recognition of African architectural heritage and financial support for its conservation has increased in recent years.

    The ambitious Africa 2009 program recently launched by the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) has offered a new source of hope for historic sites in sub-Saharan Africa by working to improve local awareness and appreciation of cultural resources, augment professional capacities, and establish an information exchange network.

    UNESCO has recognized dozens of cultural heritage sites in sub-Saharan Africa, and when combined with the rich wildlife and scenery, these designations have already contributed to the growth of tourism and economies in East Africa.

    South Africa is a leader in cultural heritage conservation in the continent today, with a balanced program of conserving all kinds of history that occurred in its lands, ranging from the colonial heritage of Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria to its recent successful nomination of the Mapungubwe Cultural Landscape to the World Heritage List.

    This and other listings of Africa's cultural landscapes and intangible heritage sites reflect a positive trend toward accepting the importance of more of Africa's traditional social reference points and routes and its sacred natural elements.

    In the past decade, there has been an increasing sensitivity on the part of international experts and government bodies to the interests of local communities and a concerted effort to involve them from the beginning in the planning and management of sites.

    Many recognized West African sites, such as Timbuktu in Mali and the Royal Palaces of Abomey in Benin, are still active ritual centers and functioning towns, and thus conservationists must carefully balance the needs of their users with maintaining the sites and their integrity.

    In sub-Saharan Africa, improving contemporary conservation practice over the long term will require the building and rebuilding of local awareness of heritage protection, the restoration of traditional patterns of ownership and use, the enforcement of existing legislation, and increased intra-African cooperation.

    The international heritage conservation community must also continue to play an active role to ensure future conservation successes in Africa. It must carefully balance aid and advice with respect for difference, and it should focus on empowering local communities by improving local capacities to carry out and finance projects independently.

    Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

    John H. Stubbs has served as vice president for field projects for the New York-based World Monuments Fund while teaching part-time as an associate professor of historic preservation in Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation since 1990. His prior experience includes ten years as an associate at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects & Planners in New York City, and two years' service at the Technical Preservation Services division of the U.S. National Park Service in Washington, D.C. A native of Louisiana, Stubbs's international experience began in the 1970s, working as a surveyor on archaeological excavations in Italy and Egypt and as a UNESCO Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome.

    This article is excerpted from Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation by John H. Stubbs, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.


    ICCROM, "Africa 2009," ICCROM, November 21, 2007.

    Dawson Munjeri, "Anchoring African Cultural and Natural Heritage: The Significance of Local Community Awareness in the Context of Capacity-Building," in Linking Universal and Local Values: Managing a Sustainable Future for World Heritage (PDF), ed. Eléonore de Merode, Rieks Smeets, and Carol Westrik, World Heritage Papers no. 13, conference proceedings, Amsterdam, May 22–24, 2003 (Paris: UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2004), 79.

    Webber Ndoro, "Traditional and Customary Heritage Systems: Nostalgia or Reality? The Implications of Managing Heritage Sites in Africa," in Linking Universal and Local Values: Managing a Sustainable Future for World Heritage (PDF), ed. Eléonore de Merode, Rieks Smeets, and Carol Westrik, World Heritage Papers no. 13, conference proceedings, Amsterdam, May 22–24, 2003 (Paris: UNESCO World Heritage Centre, 2004), 81.



    ArchWeek Image

    Petroglyphs, such as those in this cliff-shelter in northwestern Zimbabwe, are in peril throughout Africa. Along with the fossil record of the earliest humans, the rock art of Africa stands as the most enduring evidence of the continent's place in the origins of humankind. Problems ranging from vandalism and theft to purposeful desecration of sites threaten petroglyphs. Conservation of African rock art is being led by the International Federation for Rock Art (IFORA).
    Photo: Courtesy Werner Schmid Extra Large Image

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    In Mali, age-old traditions for maintaining earthen architecture are consciously continuing after an interlude involving scientific analyses of ways to conserve finely painted exterior polychromy. The Great Mosque in the village of Djenné-Djeno is an example of African earthen architecture that continues to serve its community and whose periodic repairs ensure a continuity of age-old building traditions.
    Photo: Courtesy Byron Bell Extra Large Image

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    Graphic depicting the range of possible physical magnitudes within which architectural conservationists may operate.
    Image: John Wiley & Sons Extra Large Image

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    On both the east and west coasts of Africa, there are still tangible reminders of the slave trade, such as this Gambian "slave castle" on the island of Gorée, about 2.5 miles (four kilometers) off the coast of Dakar, Senegal. The island served as a slaving post stronghold for nearly two centuries. UNESCO's Slave Trade Archives project is helping to ensure protection of historical documentation of such difficult histories, and has begun digitizing documentation of slave transactions in Gambia, Senegal, Ghana, and Benin.
    Photo: Courtesy Byron Bell

    ArchWeek Image

    Breaks in patterns of society and systems of inheritance in Africa over the last 400 years have disrupted senses of place, belonging, and continuity for many Africans. An example of this disruption can be seen in Johannesburg, where immigrants from various African nations have settled in different blocks of the city's former central business district.
    Photo: John H. Stubbs Extra Large Image

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    Other priorities — such as sickness, famine, and civil conflict — have drawn attention and resources away from organized heritage protection efforts in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The overpopulated Soweto district just east of Johannesburg exemplifies "temporary" settlement that continues indefinitely.
    Photo: John H. Stubbs Extra Large Image

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    Conserved intangible heritage in sub-Saharan Africa is exemplified by the listings of the Richtersveldt and Mapungubwe Cultural Landscapes in South Africa to the World Heritage List. These territories, with their scant evidence of human settlement, lack the consciously built "monumental" architecture found elsewhere. The most prominent form of cultural heritage of the nomadic Nama people, of the Richtersveldt area, is an oval hut made of bent sticks covered by woven reed mats. Shown here are replicas of similar buildings.
    Photo: Courtesy World Monuments Fund

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    Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation by John H. Stubbs.
    Image: John Wiley & Sons Extra Large Image


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