A digital perspective to African cultural preservation.

My passion for heritage and culture was one that evolved from child like curiosity, to feverish passion and later on to an uncharted career in digital heritage.   Growing up in Kenya, societal attitudes often portrayed history and culture as something of minimal importance and even less value, it was simply not something that successful people did. Yet the turning point for me was this recognition that heritage and culture is the main conduit through which we express every other aspect of our lives and should be treated as such. In 2015, after completing a BSc in Computer Science, I decided to focus on creating technologies and tools for cultural heritage, and the journey continues to this day.

 

I speak from an African perspective  where colonial portrayals dominate historical narratives, and the lines between biased characterisations and authentic  representations become severely blurred.

 

Who are we? How do we see ourselves?  These questions are as straightforward as they are complex . Undoubtedly, the burden of what we know as African history is that it has always been told to us, not so much for us to appreciate and feel proud of, but to accept and not question. In many ways this is still reflected in our school curriculum and cultural institutions, but in the face of changing media and technology, I see an opportunity to change this, even in the slightest of ways.

 The situation we find ourselves in today is peculiar, as we see the power balance shifting from institution to individual.

Easy access to  blogs and social media presents an opportunity for us to explore multiple meanings of  things that were  taught and perpetuated through singular narratives. So what does this mean for cultural preservation? It means that we can drive preservation by promoting access; the more people are aware of the importance of something, the more they are compelled to use it, value it and  preserve it. My first and major attempt at using digital media as a historical preservation and awareness tool was through the Save The Railway project ( 2012 – 2016). An initiative started to campaign for the preservation of Kenya’s antique railway stations and to appreciate the stories of those who were associated with it. The opportunity to carry out this project was illuminating in helping me understand how we ourselves as Kenyans view our own history.  In some situations, passers by would out-rightly tell me to stop wasting my time on “ these useless buildings”, while other situations were fraught with suspicion and distrust (because documenting history was not a legitimate enough motive).

This, coupled with institutional bureaucracies  and the immense difficulty in finding local funding was evidence of a much greater need to change how  we actively encourage individuals and communities to engage in preservation programs and what measures we put in place to facilitate this.  In hindsight, I believe that as much as the save the railway project focused on one historical subject, it was also reflective of the need to pay closer attention to the stories and treasures we have as a society, but wittingly or unwittingly ignore .

Scenes from the Save The Railway trip (www.savetherailway.com)

By directly linking tangible aspects such as the ruins and buildings we see,  to everyday lives and stories , the narrative begins to inherently possess more value, as the past and the present come together to create a bigger picture. Digital media/technologies provide us the opportunity to today facilitate this and more.

As I continue to explore heritage and culture through the rapidly changing lens of technology, I begin to realise more and more the potential for reframing narratives that exist and writing new ones as a whole. Having the opportunity to travel to museums around the world has shown me the  immense potential that cultural institutions have to influence public perceptions of culture and  promote community participation. At the same time, it has exposed me to the most recent advancements in museum technology and digital preservation. As I one day envision this for our very own institutions, it is important to acknowledge that African cultural institutions remain severely underfunded in comparison to their western counterparts making it difficult to compare them on a global scale. Still I choose to look at this as more of an opportunity than a setback.

While aspects of government funding and budgetary allocations are well beyond our control, opening up access to heritage  is not. There remains immense potential through digital media to share, to reimagine and redefine.

This is not necessarily tied to large scale projects but even to the little things we come across, the stories we share in our homes and the memories that are passed on to us.  While institutional wheels turn slow, a lack of change is not reflective of a lack of value or more so a lack of cultural wealth, variety and human ingenuity. Currently, the digital heritage scene in Kenya and largely in Africa is still very young, but my belief in its potential is unwavering and one that I aspire to reflect through my work and projects to come .  It is my hope that the future brings with it more funding and opportunities to facilitate in depth exploration in the field, and  to allow more individuals to spearhead projects on local, national and continental scales.

 

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