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date: 23 March 2023

Heritage Conservation in West Africafree

Heritage Conservation in West Africafree

  • Ishanlosen OdiauaIshanlosen OdiauaICOMOS


The conservation of heritage in west Africa is carried out at different levels—local and national. Communities continue to have the primary responsibility for heritage conservation, as the custodians of such heritage. The variety of heritage in the region, as in other parts of Africa, is largely assured by communal practices or traditional management systems, structured through various levels of community participation, sometimes gendered, with each member of society contributing to the conservation of a common cultural good. These cultural management systems operate contemporaneously with the official government systems set in place to reflect the international heritage discourse, whose practitioners promote it as superior to the traditional systems. However, these two systems are not harmonized, and the alienation of communities from the mainstream discourse could be detrimental to the conservation of heritage. The increase in urbanization and infrastructural development across the region, in line with the aspirations of national and regional development programs, has an impact on cultural heritage and its conservation. With efforts underway to be more inclusive, the traditional and official systems should both be encouraged to innovate and develop systems that are best adapted for ensuring the effective management of west African heritage.


  • Archaeology


The heritage of west Africa is rich and diverse, produced from centuries of cultural exchanges across this vast region and beyond. The creators and custodians of this heritage are primarily responsible for the conservation of this cultural heritage. The region, though not monolithic, has seen the development of precolonial states—organized as empires and kingdoms—such as the Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Oyo, Benin, Kanem-Borno, Ashanti, Mossi, and Hausa. The contemporary west African states are culturally defined by the cultural heritage of these preceding civilizations. The contemporary political and administrative governing structures in west Africa have established heritage conservation policies and systems primarily based on a colonial legacy. When taken as a whole, one thing is evident—the reality is that heritage conservation in the region is assured by the sum total of a series of protective measures that include traditional, endogenous practices and the official heritage legislations and “systems.” An appreciation of heritage conservation in west Africa must be approached from a historical perspective, to take a step back in time to examine precolonial and colonial periods to trace the evolution of cultural heritage conservation to the contexts of the contemporary postcolonial African state.1 Thus, understanding the diversity of this heritage and the myriad of the norms and systems requires examining texts in all the available languages and understanding culture beyond the political borders established from the colonial period.

The west African landscape testifies to a long record of human occupation—and the archaeological record of west Africa points to a long period of human occupation, from the burial sites in Gobero, Niger, which date from about 8500 bc (Garcea 2018), till the emergence of the first Sahelian states of Ghana, Mali, Songhai, Ife, Oyo (Ogundiran 2020), Benin, and Dahomey . Sites such as Niani, Old Oyo, Jenne-Jeno, Tadmekka (name of the site in ancient texts, corresponding to the contemporary settlement of Essouk), Walata (or Oualata), Timbuktu, and Gao bear evidence to the various human occupations in the region. Several of these places—such as Essouk, Benin, Oualata, Timbuktu, and Gao—have survived up to the 21st century.

Heritage Conservation Practice in West Africa

The precolonial era was characterized by traditional, endogenous practices that dictated the necessary customs and actions that communities in west African societies developed to safeguard their cultural heritage. As in other parts of Africa, west African societies invested in the protection of their cultural heritage based on established traditional norms. Evidence shows that these societies actively preserved their heritage prior to colonial interventions, through the social structures that facilitated practices for conserving cultural heritage in west African societies. The political economies and structures of the time-empowered political and community leaders were geared toward mobilizing the populations to ensure the conservation of community structures, whether it was the Kano city wall, the Benin moats, or the earth mosques of the west African savannah. However, the interruption to the customary political systems and economies of the colonial period—from the 19th century—destroyed the cultural infrastructure that united communities.

Colonial heritage legislations were an extension of colonial rule, and this led to a gradual alienation of local communities whose cultural activities ensured the protection of the heritage. The contemporary practice of heritage conservation in west Africa was founded closely on the models of the colonizing powers—particularly France and Great Britain—who established legal and administrative frameworks for the protection and conservation of heritage on their territories. In French West Africa, the emergence of heritage conservation practice was closely linked to the emerging heritage frameworks in France. Similarly, in English-speaking west Africa, heritage policy was influenced by British legislations.

Colonial officers collected objects according to their aesthetic tastes—which evolved between 1880 and 1960—fascinated by their “exotic” nature. The approaches adopted by the colonizing powers were not carried out with the perspective to present the cultural features of the colonized societies, but rather to transpose the “known” of their own cultures onto the “unknowns” of these new ones, in order to transform them according to their own criteria and visions. Their interest in the cultural heritage, particularly architecture, of the colonized was only to advance their own ideologies and domination and to reinforce an archaic, picturesque image of the colonized societies as being in need of the “civilizing” forces of the colonizers. Thus, French colonial officers were interested in conserving public buildings and civil works such as palaces, mosques, and fortifications while destroying modest residences. This coincided with what was happening in France, for example, where post-Revolution attempts to democratize the appreciation of works of art and monuments were underway in an effort to promote social equality.

By the early 21st century, heritage conservation agencies in Francophone countries were structured in a manner that separates museum management from that of sites, while in Anglophone countries, the same entities manage the conservation of sites, monuments, and museums. Whatever the structure adopted by individual countries, once a site was listed as national heritage, there was a gradual alienation of local communities whose cultural activities had primarily ensured the protection of the heritage.

Across the region, museums were established in large urban centers to house cultural objects from the different societies, far away from their places of origin. It was not unusual that some of these objects—such as wooden pillars from palaces and places of worship—had been discarded by the custodian communities, who often replaced them as part of the customary practices of renewal, which enabled them to renew the skills required to produce these pieces. These museums, conceived as places of conservation and display, present an altered image of the artistic heritage of the continent, displaying ethnographic pieces often distanced from and unrelated to the sites and places of their origin. This disconnection of cultural objects from cultural context is not limited to museums in west African capital cities. Many cultural heritage objects were also carried off—sometimes through violent interventions such as the Benin and Ashanti expeditions of the late 19th century—into museum collections in Europe. Within the cultural vacuum of museums, the interpretation of these cultural objects is often limited to the materials—wood, metal, leather, or stones—of the objects.

With the growth of the international heritage movement gaining momentum in the 1960s, coinciding with the period that many African countries gained political independence, newly independent African states not only adopted the policy frameworks for heritage conservation, but also joined the international discourses on heritage. In west Africa, Ghana and Nigeria were early actors on the international heritage scene. Nigeria in particular was represented on the organizing committee set up in 1964 to oversee the creation of the International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS 1966). The Nigerian representative, Mr. Ekpo Okpo Eyo, went on to become the first Nigerian head of the national institution, the Federal Department of Antiquities, charged with overseeing museums. Ghana, in particular, used this opportunity to share its experience on safeguarding African architecture, starting with the famous forts and castles along its coastline that were managed by the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. By 1969, traditional Ashanti buildings appeared on the national list of monuments.

ICOMOS became operational in 1965 and, along with the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM)—established in 19592—served as an international platform for sharing experiences and building capacity for cultural heritage conservation at the international level. With the adoption of UNESCO’s Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972, the stage was further set for the development of the cultural heritage discourse at the international level. By 1979, six west African countries—Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, and Senegal—had ratified the 1972 Convention. In the subsequent decades, all countries in the region became fully involved in the international movement, which promotes the listing of heritage as a standard for heritage conservation. In spite of the involvement of African countries in these international movements and organizations, by 2020 Africa accounted for less than 10 percent of the sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, with twenty-eight World Heritage sites in west Africa. To address this imbalance, African Member States of UNESCO and the African Union supported the launch of the African World Heritage Fund (AWHF) in 2006 to enhance the implementation of the 1972 World Heritage Convention in Africa.

The representation of Africa on the World Heritage List raises questions about the effectiveness of the formal conservation systems in place in these countries; and further raises the question of whether listing heritage is the best way to go: Is unlisted heritage any less important to its custodians than listed heritage? The exclusion and estrangement of traditional practices and conservation systems from the official systems established by the postcolonial states—or lack of recognition and imagination on how to integrate them—has not facilitated inclusive heritage conservation. African academics trained in Europe, the Americas, and even in Africa, shape and transfer the formal heritage conservation discourse in Africa. In fact, it has been suggested that the systems, and African experts, of the postcolonial period have more affinity with colonial authorities than with the general population (Ndoro and Wijesuriya 2015).

What Cultural Heritage Is Being Protected in West Africa?

Heritage conservation includes all actions aimed at maintaining the cultural significance of a heritage object or place, a process that starts the moment a place is attributed cultural values and singled out for protection (Torre 2013), and within the mainstream heritage discourse, there are various notions of the conservation of cultural heritage. This ranges from all measures and actions aimed at safeguarding cultural heritage while ensuring its accessibility to present and future generations (ICOM-CC 2008) to “all actions or processes that are aimed at safeguarding the character-defining elements of a cultural resource so as to retain its heritage value and extend its physical life.” It is clear from the various definitions within the “formal” heritage discourse, that there is a large focus on maintaining some originality of that which is physical, tangible, and can be touched, with the perspective of transmitting it to coming generations.

The reality is that the cultural heritage of west Africa is not limited to stones and mortar, even if these are visible landmarks of past human cultural activity, but encompasses the cultural practices, beliefs, and spirituality that links people to the natural landscapes. This cultural heritage is codified by the society, and is at the core of cultural identities and social cohesion, defining and attributing value to that which can or cannot be seen—tangible or intangible heritage. Whether it is the annual festival for the conservation of the Djenne mosque in Mali, or the celebrations of bounteous harvests, initiation and coming-of-age rites associated with specific places in the landscapes, sacred forests, and rivers.

African heritage is neither tangible nor intangible—it is tangible and intangible—as the tangible is meaningless, without the interpretation that can only be done through the intangible (Munjeri 2004). The separation of heritage into the tangible and intangible, as promoted in mainstream heritage discourse, does not exist in most African cultures—animals as well as plants within a tangible cultural heritage area also exude the same sacredness that is within the place (Kiriama and Onkoba 2020). Most African languages have no word that is translatable to “heritage” because the notion of heritage is embedded in their culture and landscape —the idea transmitted by the English word “heritage” is conveyed through various phrases and words that portray different worldviews and philosophies. Sinamai (2019) reminds us that, in Africa, the intangible is key to preserving the tangible, as heritage is not simply a place, or an object, but a state of mind. There is also the notion that the conservation of this heritage involves a selection, making choices—the fathers select that which is worth transmitting to the next generation and not everything can be transmitted across generations.

The protection and caretaking of the heritage is often linked to custodial rights and links to the past, anchored in customs and tradition. Oral histories are integral to the shaping of the narratives and worldviews of west African societies. This is distinct from the official mainstream approach that is anchored in the international heritage discourse driven by Western concepts, and as promoted through the UNESCO system. The established institutionalization of the heritage in the region must evolve to bring together the various facets of African reality—the intersections between community narratives and the material witnesses of the 21st century and the past.

Spiritual and Religious Heritage

Traditional beliefs and practices remain significant and influential across urban and rural communities in west Africa, for the conservation of heritage in its many forms. However, the impact and level of influence may, however, differ with location—stronger within rural areas and to varying degrees within cosmopolitan urban centers that are heterogeneous in nature.

The taboos of traditional African religions have been at the heart of the conservation of cultural heritage. These taboos often consist of prohibitions and restrictions that are imposed by the leadership of any community, for religious reasons and societal well-being. These restrictions could be of two types: either closely related to religious or ceremonial usage, or more broadly to the use of cultural heritage, including natural resources for socioeconomic and political applications.

Cultural heritage in west Africa is also associated with nature—it is not limited to that which is man-made. The relationship between west African people and their natural environment is encapsulated in the rich oral traditions that map the landscape, making cultural heritage of place. Spiritual beliefs are at the heart of the management of natural features, such as sacred groves, rivers, pools—believed to be inhabited and protected by gods (totem animals or ancestors)—often associated with old settlements. Sacred, secret, and often private places such as sacred forests are only accessible to initiated members of secret or ritual societies. Sacred forests, or groves, are often remnants of ancient forests, of great cultural and biodiversity value, and their conservation is highly dependent on religious and cultural beliefs. Some sacred forests were considered to be “evil forests” because of the belief that they were inhabited by malevolent forces—they were also the burial places for people who died in an untimely manner.3

Among the Akan of Ghana, sacred places such as the Akyem Abuakwa traditional area is home to a wide range of biodiverse and geologic formations, which are ascribed spiritual values, and to several deities in the Akan religion (Awuah-Nyamekye 2019). In the specific example of the Akan, the community is motivated by the need to not deprive future generations of rare plants and animals, but to maintain the delicate balance between plants, animals, and humans with their needs for food, medicine, space, clean water, and clean air. This is similar to the situation at the Osun Osogbo sacred grove where the Osun River defines the heritage value of the forest. Local communities have their own rules prohibiting reckless harvesting of timber and game, which have protected the sacred forests over many generations. Ironically, what was once condemned as fetish—and often destroyed—are now recognized as central to the preservation of the rain forests of west Africa. Research (Campbell 2005; Ceperley, Montagnini, and Natta 2010) increasingly demonstrates how these heritage sites are rich biodiverse areas and carbon sinks, often better protected by the very nature of their sacred value than the formal government protected areas.

Among the Moaga of Burkina Faso, a tree is the living image of man (Yameogo 2015); for instance, entrusting a child to the locust bean tree (Parkia biglobosa), also called néré, confers on the child the characteristics of an entity that possesses mysterious beneficial virtues. In some communities in the Lake Chad region, when the remains of a deceased person cannot be brought back to the village because of excessive distance, drowning, or during conflicts, their remains are replaced by a symbolic piece of wood from a very specific tree species such as Vitex doniana or Adenium obaesum (Seignobos 1997).

In the Gambia, the Kachikally pool, located close to the capital city of Banjul, is revered for its sacred crocodiles and its associated fertility properties. It gives the local community an ontological security that ensures that water as an entity on its own is not harmed, and that the community is not harmed by the landscape.

The mainstream heritage discourse drives the divergence between intangible and tangible heritage (Rudolff 2010). Within the formal, global perspectives of heritage, “intangible” practices are objectified, as with the Kankurang or Manding initiatory rite of Senegal and The Gambia—associated with sacred forests—which was named a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2005. De Jong (2007) argues that that such commodification and international recognition might be mutually beneficial, even if there are perceptions that such recognition trivializes the sacredness of the Kankurang.

A significant aspect of west African cultural heritage is its urban heritage, which can be categorized into three major types: precolonial, such as Djenne in Mali or Chinguetti in Mauritania; hybrid towns emerging from colonial add-ons to existing African towns such as Segou in Mali (Dembele 2006); and new cities of the 20th century, including Abuja, in Nigeria, and Bamako, Mali. The variety of this urban heritage and its continued utility and adaptability to contemporary life over time, has often led to the challenge of first recognizing and then appreciating this built heritage.

Urban areas of the first type, such as Djenne and Kano, illustrate the careful choices that are made to conserve them—adapting to change sometimes through the destruction and reconstruction of the existing urban fabric. The conservation of this urban heritage was primarily the responsibility of the inhabitants, even when they had turbulent periods in their histories. In Djenne, Mali, the annual crepissage festival of the central mosque is a major event that has taken place for over a hundred years. The festival mobilizes the entire community to plaster the mosque with earthen plaster within a single day, under the guidance of the masonry guild, the barey-ton. Such federating sociocultural events testify of the choices made by the various societies that inhabited and continue to inhabit these settlements.

The example of Djenne contrasts sharply with that of Kano, in the eastern part of the Sahel, where the change in the political economy largely affected the conservation of Kano’s famed city walls and its earthen architectural heritage. Following the Fulani Jihad of the 19th century, the political economy of the northern Nigerian city of Kano, allowed for the conservation of huge civil works of the city walls and the palaces of the emir, as well as the conservation of domestic residences around the city. Labor for the public works was assured through the mobilization of communal and enslaved labor, overseen by a professional guild of masons (kungiyar magina) and the near absolute power of the emir. The annual maintenance works were also an opportunity for the master masons (babban gwani) to display their creative prowess not only in construction but also in the finishing of the wall plasters that adorned the completed walls. The arrival of the British in Kano at the beginning of the 20th century, initially led to the weakening of the emir’s powers and the establishment of the indirect rule model, through the “native administration” within the walled city, or birnin. With the sarki’s powers greatly diminished under the colonial administration, and no longer able to mobilize voluntary or forced labor, the once regular annual maintenance of the city’s urban heritage could no longer be guaranteed (Sa’ad 1989).

Timbuktu in Mali presents an interesting example of the scope of conservation from the perspective of communities and mainstream international heritage practice. Prior to the colonial period, Timbuktu was a cosmopolitan urban center that brought together various groups from across the region for the purpose of learning. The existence of this heterogeneous urban center is contrary to the claim that the colonial period enabled the formation of plural societies under the benevolent eye of the colonial protector (Freund 2007). The citizens of Timbuktu were primarily responsible for the conservation of its rich educational heritage, particularly its mosques and famed manuscripts. The conservation of the mosques was carried out through annual festivals in which the entire community was mobilized while manuscripts were often jealously guarded in private homes and libraries. These manuscripts gave Timbuktu its international renown and contain important information on the history of the west African region. The Malian government established the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research (CEDRAB) in Timbuktu in 1973, for the preservation of Timbuktu’s Arabic scripts. In 1988, Timbuktu became a UNESCO World Heritage site, becoming firmly entrenched in the international heritage discourse. Following its inscription on the list, the South African and Malian governments collaborated on the Timbuktu Rare Manuscripts project for the conservation of African heritage. This cooperation resulted in the construction of a new building for the Ahmed Baba Centre for Advanced Study and Islamic Research. With the growing agitations in the Sahel region, the town experienced a difficult period in 2012, when rebels took it over and occupied it for several months. During the 2012 occupation, the massive destruction of heritage was widely reported. While the world feared for the heritage, the community was strongly involved in the safeguarding of its precious manuscripts, finding ingenious ways to smuggle them to safety.

Following the liberation of the town, the perpetrators of the attack on Timbuktu’s cultural heritage were prosecuted before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on account of the destruction to this World Heritage site. The entire process exposed once again the divergence between approaches of the international community, the state, and the local community regarding cultural heritage, values, and conservation. The community on whose behalf the proceedings were carried out at the ICC perceived that the destruction of the shrines was upheld more than the atrocities committed against those who owned and cared for the heritage.

Another example of an urban center that encompasses the precolonial urban center is Ibadan, which was created in 1829 as a city-state whose positions were reinforced during the colonial era, with “add-ons” to accommodate colonial activities. The historic core of Ibadan is densely populated and consists of the oldest residential neighborhoods in the city with passageways and alleys that separate large compounds inhabited by extended families, with strong social connections. The land and buildings—many of which are earth buildings—are considered sacred, and are often at the center of the identity of the families that occupy them. Though characterized by high levels of poverty, the residents of this historic core reject the classification of “slums.” Their attachment to the area is linked to place dependence and place identity, which is central to their very existence.

In Ghana, the Ga urban traditions—dating from the 16th century—founded the modern city of Accra. With the establishment of British colonial rule, the colonial city grew, reducing Ga influences and establishing large commercial and administrative areas.

The capital of Sierra Leone, Freetown, was established in 1788 as a center for former slaves returned to Africa. By 1864, the Fourah Bay College was central to the education of a new crop of intelligentsia on the west African coast, producing several professionals who eventually served in the British colonial service across west Africa. By 2021, the Old Fourah Bay College building was no longer in use but gives its name to a modern university that bears its name. The original building, mostly in ruins, is on Sierra Leone’s tentative list of World Heritage sites. Known as the Saro, the Sierra Leoneans, served in various parts of west Africa, up to northern Nigeria. In Lagos, the Shitta-Bey mosque was financed and built by a Saro, and its conservation is guaranteed primarily by its continued use and its inclusion on the Nigerian national heritage register.

The state of urban heritage in the region leaves much to be desired. Whatever form and type in which this heritage presents itself, its conservation is hampered by various factors such as lack of continuity of use of buildings from the various historic periods, weak synergy between the various policies and frameworks that regulate urban spaces leading to confusion, the lack of relevant public planning tools and, most importantly, the indifference of the urban stakeholders to the built heritage of their urban environment.

Communities at the Heart of Cultural Heritage Conservation in West Africa

The role of women in heritage conservation in west Africa is important, even if it is often less visible. At the community level, women often play a significant role in the transmission of cultural heritage—as in the case of Yoruba women who are said to have “carried the state and their households on their heads, in their wombs, and on their backs.” (Ogundiran 2020)

In Igbo societies, women also play a major role in the conservation of the practices and production related to rites of passage. In the Abakaliki area, they are involved in the production of pottery for ritual purposes and continue to play a critical role in the conservation of practices, such as the production of raffia fiber cloth for sacred rituals.

In matrilineal societies such as the Bijagos in Guinea Bissau, the role of women in heritage conservation is even more nuanced through association with spiritual roles that impact on economic issues, and ultimately in the management and conservation of the natural resources. Women negotiate their positions in society through everyday acts such as fishing, gathering crustaceans, and their processing and sale, which are essential to sustaining their ways of living while reinforcing continuity with the past.

In Benin, the descendants of the legendary Amazons of Abomey, who were famed for their military and leadership exploits, continue to play a ceremonial role in Abomey by taking part in religious rituals and being an integral part of the cultural life of Abomey. The royal palace of Abomey has mostly been uninhabited since the late 19th century. However, one section, the Dossoémé, which has been likened to a convent (Joffroy, Ahonon, and Djimasse 2013) is inhabited by the Dadassi, women of royal lineage who carry out rituals and embody the spirit of the dead kings. Their continued occupation and presence in this section of the Abomey palace is the only remaining evidence of the spatial organization of the Abomey palaces. Kassena women in Burkina Faso and Ghana annually renew the mural decorations of their buildings, just before the start of the rainy season.

Whether conservation activities are carried out along strict lines of division of labor between men and women or as gender exclusive, their communal nature fosters a sense of community, strengthens social cohesion, and presents an opportunity for the transmission of technical knowledge from older to younger generations, thus guaranteeing continuity.

Since the late 20th century, several African and Africanist researchers have begun to look closer at the traditional management systems in Africa. ICCROM and the AWHF have supported some of this work, encouraging researchers and heritage practitioners to explore traditional management systems to promote inclusive heritage conservation.

Heritage Conservation in the Face of Development Needs

Several authors (Baillie and Sorenson 2020; Ndoro and Wijesuriya 2015) have highlighted the tension between heritage conservation and development. Although the clear poverty and need for basic infrastructure has to be considered amid the much-touted “wealth” of African heritage, African and non-African heritage experts consider that the development process is often a threat to heritage; at the same time, the development discourse considers that African cultures and traditions constitute a barrier to “development” (see Decker and McMahon 2021). These opposite views are paradoxically similar as they parachute ideas from elsewhere into the African context. And so, even when the communities in need of the infrastructure show a preference for an opportunity to improve their livelihoods and access to basic social infrastructure, the heritage expert does not consider this expressed need; and when the community expresses a preference for saving their heritage, their voices are not heard by the development expert, as economic returns on investment could be the deciding factor. With the focus on sustainable development, there are arguments against the development of large dams in the region on the basis that heritage will be destroyed and that renewable energies be promoted instead. On the other side of the spectrum, today’s infrastructure is tomorrow’s heritage (see Ndoro and Wijesuriya 2015) in much the same way that industrial sites in developed countries—such as the Nord-Pas de Calais Mining Basin in France—are today considered to have universal significance, despite the harm they might have caused to the environment (including to cultural heritage) during their active periods.

In the face of growing infrastructural development activities, the risk to heritage resources in west Africa is very real. This risk can be managed through careful planning. Development activities could be considered an opportunity and a threat: development activities could either make available scarce resources for the eventual management of heritage or lead to their destruction. The aspirations for “modernity” and comfort in these historic centers often lead to neglect or the outright destruction of built heritage. In Kano, the change to the historic urban fabric has been rapid with the destruction of the historic earthen gates leading into the historic urban center; this demolition was carried out despite a lack of clear conservation policies and implementation for this nationally significant heritage.

The conservation of heritage in west Africa has also benefitted from initiatives such as the CultureBank (banque culturelle) that explore the relationship between conservation and microcredit. The scheme was first initiated in Fombori, Mali, in 1997, to conserve cultural heritage through the provision of microcredit loans. Citizens could apply to obtain credit to support small enterprises using cultural objects as collateral; these objects were then later conserved and exhibited in a community museum collection.

Challenges and Perspectives for the Future

African countries might be involved in the international heritage discourse, through adhesion to UNESCO, ICCROM, or ICOMOS, however the impression is that they—or their designated experts—continue to dance to a tune whose music they are unfamiliar with. The outcome of this is that there are growing challenges to heritage conservation that the official sector is unable to address. At the same time, there is an increasing movement to decolonize the heritage discourse in Africa, to “kill” Western models of conservation (Wozny and Cassin 2014), and to look closer at customary practices to promote inclusion. The communities that actively conserved, and continue to protect, their heritage before they were “discovered” by Europeans or “officialdom” are conscious of their own heritage.

As west African heritage institutions grapple with the notions of heritage and conservation set up by national heritage legislations, the dichotomy between the formal and informal expands. The regulatory frameworks are often geared toward the creation of a “national” heritage identity, established as they are in nation states comprised of several ethno-nationalities. This central vision targets national unity but is unable to reconcile the primary identity of citizens first as members of their cultural groupings, then as members of a national group. Heritage is at the heart of every community’s identity, serving to make the distinctions between different groups. If the heritage is directly linked to the cultural identity of the group, its conservation can be assured, with the concerned community defining its form and methods. The notion of space as defined by a society could be static, yet the planes and materiality that define these spaces are dynamic. Where space has a significant spiritual value for the concerned society, its conservation can be guaranteed. In a rapidly urbanizing context, the challenge for both citizens and the states will be how to leverage heritage for societal and national identity while avoiding the pitfalls of nationalism or “ethnicism.”

We cannot overlook the fact that the growth in urbanization will have a significant impact on the protection of cultural heritage, especially for smaller communities. It is this dilemma that mandates a different approach to heritage conservation in the region—one that responds to the context(s) and is relevant to the people it seeks to serve. To do this, the formal must meet the informal on equal terms, encourage creativity and be open to adaptation, particularly as part of the intergenerational exchanges that are critical for heritage conservation. An outreach to stakeholders in the heritage sector is important to build the critical mass to support heritage conservation, with the desired effect of breaking existing molds to embrace new ideas from all sides. It is possible to develop new methods by integrating Western approaches with the knowledge from other, non-Western, knowledge systems (Chirikure, Ndoro, and Deacon 2017).

The heritage of the region provides a picture from the distant past; it shows the evolution of ideas over time and is crucial in building a future. It contributes to our understanding of the history of west Africa, the relationships between its different peoples, and their understanding of the various landscapes they settled in. The famed kingdoms and empires of the west African past were created by these ideas and their understanding of the landscape. Connecting the dots and decolonizing the history will require reliance not only on written sources, but will also draw upon rich oral traditions.

Much of the heritage in west Africa is functional in nature—even when it is of a spiritual nature. As long as the heritage is functional in the daily lives of the communities, its conservation can be ensured—this is particularly the case for built heritage. The interruption of the sociopolitical methods of production and conservation led to changes in political economy. That which is not used will decay and could be lost.

Cultural heritage conservation in west Africa also faces the challenges of loss of objects due to the illicit global trade in African cultural property. Cultural objects forcefully obtained as bounty from Benin, Ashanti, Abomey, and other west African places end up in markets where they command large sums. The attendant multibillion-dollar global trade has the perverse effect of inducing looting. The cycle of demand and supply, coupled with weak enforcement of legal frameworks, perpetuates this illicit trade. As long as the objects remain part of the daily life of the custodian communities that produce them, they have no monetary value. However, they garner incredible value once on the international market, a value that does not in any measure return to the communities. As pieces are lost or stolen, the knowledge systems that are associated with them invariably disappear over time. This has an impact on other aspects of the heritage, including intangible aspects such as language. The debates around the relevance of museums in Africa, in their current forms, is gaining ground—to develop ways in which the role of museums in contemporary Africa society goes beyond housing objects to relating objects to place, creating community spaces in the multicultural contexts of west African urban centers.

The protection of cultural heritage resources is not a priority for many African governments. This has led to the commodification of heritage, particularly through tourism—where cultural heritage becomes a commodity to be sold to an international audience. The public health emergency of the global Covid-19 pandemic obliges a rethink of this form of commodification.

The fine line between conserving for posterity, and governments faced with the task of providing basic services for their burgeoning populations, will continue to require dialogue. At the micro level, communities constitute the critical mass of heritage custodians responsible for frontline decisions on the selection of that which will be passed on to future generations and how that heritage will be conserved. With the myriad “communities” that make up the national “macro” community, the challenge becomes that of federating these conservation perspectives with a view to advancing a distinct approach to heritage conservation that best serves local and national communities.

Further Reading

  • Abungu, George Okello., Ndukuyakhe Ndlovu, Foniyama Thiombiano, John Zulu, and Souayibou Varissou, eds. 2016. Traditional Management Systems at Heritage Sites in Africa. Midrand, South Africa: African World Heritage Fund.
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  • 1. Reference to Africa in this paper refers to countries south of the Sahara. It excludes North African countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, and Tunisia.

  • 2. Ghana and Nigeria were the first African countries to adhere to ICCROM in 1958 and 1961 respectively.

  • 3. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart gives us an insight into the place of the evil forest in Igbo society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.