Intangible Heritage Invite the Elders to the Schools!

The Prince of Wales watches a traditional dance in the Ugandan capital Kampala during a Commonwealth Meeting
The Prince of Wales watches a traditional dance in the Ugandan capital Kampala during a Commonwealth Meeting | Photo (detail): Lewis Whyld © dpa

The oral transmission of traditions was and still is a central component of the African cultural heritage. An interview with Abiti Nelson, curator of ethnography and history at the Uganda Museum, on the challenges and opportunities for knowledge production and knowledge transfer in oral cultures and how such societies can be successfully integrated into the global knowledge society.

African cultures and traditions were and are still largely oral based. To what extent does this make it more difficult, if at all, to safeguard African cultural heritage?

Orality has always been an integral part of African cultural heritage and it has been instrumental in safeguarding African cultures, especially the knowledge and practices of healing, marriage, funeral rites, (re)burials, knowledge of the universe as well as land and nature preservation. These were conveyed through storytelling, dialogue meetings, dances, poetry and riddles. However, African cultural heritage faces some challenges especially due to the fact that the spaces through which these heritage practices would be transmitted are being destroyed. For example, some of the important cultural sites are being vandalised in the name of development.

The idea of modernity being viewed from Western development lenses alone has sometimes given the false impression that African cultures were inferior. The numerous conflicts and incidences of violence that disrupt social and family structures often make it impossible for elders to transmit the oral based heritage to the younger generation. Some of the artefacts and objects used for disseminating and safeguarding cultural heritage orally, like musical instruments and games, are no longer being made. This is also because of the climate change and environmental degradation which has led to massive depletion of raw materials.

These issues pose fundamental challenges to the safeguarding of oral heritage in African societies. Most of the oral heritage is not documented in written form and when we lose the elders, the knowledge and skills of cultural heritage are lost. It is like when a library burns, the knowledge stored in the books is gone.

How can the orality of African cultures be integrated into the modern knowledge society, particularly with regard to safeguarding and dissemination of cultural knowledge?

Oral transmission of cultural heritage is one of the ways through which the society can bond together and forge a common future.

The most important prerequisite is to ensure we have spaces where performances are undertaken. For example, in Uganda we encourage the traditional kingdoms to practice their cultural ceremonies and invite elders, the youth, women, children and all visitors to witness coronation ceremonies of the kings. Here people listen to old stories recited, dances and songs. People eat and feast. People feel loved by the leaders and we know there is a future. The traditional kingdom palaces are important places for safeguarding intangible heritage and promoting viability of oral heritage amongst the communities. But the moment modern society tries to abolish the traditional society, we lose the knowledge and skills of elders and transmission of knowledge stops.

“Oral transmission of cultural heritage is one of the ways through which the society can bond together and forge a common future.”

Using modern technology, it is possible to have some of the oral knowledge preserved in digital form and disseminated to a wider audience. The use of portable devices has penetrated every corner of the African society. The young population uses a lot of social media. By integrating oral heritage into technological platforms, the youth would become active agents in safeguarding their heritage. In so doing it is equally important to protect the patent rights in cases where knowledge and skills are shared on new platforms.

The schools should also promote oral-based learning by inviting elders to narrate their old stories to the pupils. Traditional African societies had ways of resolving conflicts using practical laws that were not documented in writing. Scholars should look into these methods and see what is workable alongside modern legal systems.

Are there alternative forms of safeguarding cultural Heritage in Africa that would be sustainable – outside of the setting of the modern museum?

Yes, it is possible to use new media to sensitise the public or to bring out some of the elements of cultural heritage that are significant to the society. For example, the ceremonial and ritual practice of initiating reconciliation and peace in the community through the Mato Oput ritual process in Northern Uganda helped to integrate and resettle offenders back into the society. The media was able to broadcast this important cultural heritage on television, radio and in print and it has now been integrated into the transitional justice mechanism of the Acholi people.

Wrestling match at Abènè Festival, Senegal Wrestling match at Abènè Festival, Senegal | Photo (detail): K. Hennig © picture alliance / blickwinkel

Local communities are also encouraged to document and revive their traditional practices. The traditional way of making textile cloth from the bark of tree species ficus natalensis has now been integrated into the educational curriculum for Ugandan schools. These alternative methods of documenting the knowledge and skills help the communities to safeguard their cultural heritage. It is even more crucial that the communities document the knowledge, practices and performances in their own local languages. Another form of safeguarding cultural heritage is through the promotion of creative industries. Visual artists should be encouraged to make artefacts and cultural objects, traditional dancers should be given space to market and make a living from their performances.

The interview was conducted by Eliphas Nyamogo, online editor at the Goethe-Institut in Munich.

Interview with Abiti Nelson during the "Museum Conversations" 2019 in Namibia: