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date: 26 October 2020

Heritage Management in West Africa

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Please check back later for the full article.

The definition of heritage in West Africa has to adopt a wider perspective to incorporate tangible and intangible heritage as recognized and defined by UNESCO. In general terms, the West African region does not feature monumental heritage, as elsewhere in Europe and the Americas. The few monumental heritage properties belong to the historic period and are located in the Sahel zone (Mali, in particular), while the coastal regions include monumental heritage properties that were essentially relics of the European contact period and colonialism (Benin Republic, Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal). Heritage resources in West Africa are therefore essentially discrete and non-discrete prehistoric and historic archaeological sites that include rockshelters, relics of ancient settlements, mounds, earthworks, industrial relics such as furnaces and surface finds, isolated historic buildings and spaces, and tangible (traditional architecture and artifacts) and intangible (language, poetry and songs, dance and festivals, beliefs and value systems) ethnographic resources. Some studies in the 2010s considered all archival materials, such as audio-visual recordings of events and entertainment of the colonial and the early postcolonial periods, to be heritage resources.

Heritage management in the West African region had been problematic due to various factors that could be both historical and attitudinal, such as colonialism, intrusion of foreign religions and ideologies, economic and social conditions of the people, insufficient and ineffective legal and policy frameworks for the protection and conservation of heritage resources, and a general lack of awareness and interest in matters of heritage by the populace. In spite of the foregoing, there have been some efforts at managing heritage in manners that can be interrogated. Government efforts to promote heritage seem to be more evident in the areas of cultural festivals, dance, and music, with the establishment of cultural troupes at various political administrative levels, thus creating the impression that heritage is limited to the intangible cultural resources. Museums are few and far between, priceless artifacts are still looted and illegally exported to foreign museums to join those looted during the colonial era, facilities are limited and not standard, while the staff is poorly trained and unmotivated. In the face of expanding infrastructural developments and urbanization, the most appropriate management strategy and practice would be conservation by recording of archaeological sites and historic properties.