Preserving Africa's intangible cultural heritage - Museums Association

Preserving Africa’s intangible cultural heritage

With the growing number of museums in Africa, it is time for more investment in capturing the community stories of the continent
Thembi Mutch
A seaweed farmer at Tanga Photos by Jenny Matthews, Panos Agency

In 2011, I sat on a grubby, unpromising, working beach in Tanga, a small port city in Tanzania, east Africa, watching fishermen unload paltry catches from small hand-carved boats.

A group of exhausted women then loaded the fish into buckets, which they carried on their heads and took to market – there were no iceboxes, lorries or processing factories. The local cement and fish factory had just shut down, and evictions were underway.

This coastal community, with unreliable electricity and no internet coverage, was earmarked for development as an oil and gas processing plant.

As a result, the community was changing and I decided to try to record some of their views, hopes and opinions. The people were mostly squatters, and officially “precarious” – their jobs in farming, fishing and a range of entrepreneurial activities existed under the radar.

The beach had been used to trade boats, food, building materials, fish and even people until as late as the 1940s. I wanted to celebrate and honour the people in this community.

The stories of communities, such as these fishermen at Tanga, Tanzania, may be lost as developers roll in Photos by Jenny Matthews, Panos Agency
Freeing the mind

Joel Negamile, the dynamic unpaid curator of the local Tanga Urithi Museum seven miles away, helped with planning, leads, ideas and training.


“Our museum is an ex-German colonial customs house,” Negamile said. “Our items are mostly German photos. But we need our own material, gathered in our own communities. Unless we understand our own past, it’s another form of enslavement. We are only free when we are mentally free and understand our pasts and educate our next generations.”

He funds the museum by showing the occasional tourist around and selling his paintings. With funding he would happily galvanise his team of volunteers to do oral histories on topics such as the insurrection against the British, enslaved people who escaped and set up extended families and farms, colonial sisal plantations and the failed cashew and groundnut farms that provided work for thousands of Tanzanians.

This veneration of the ordinary, the embrace of the working world, interest in the mundane, and recognition that so much of interest lies in the chatter on the bus and in markets, is all classed as intangible cultural heritage (ICH).

In 2003 in Paris, the value of ICH was acknowledged by Unesco with its Proclamation of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Nineteen categories were identified, including rituals, folklore, handicrafts, customs and art.

In Africa, the proclamation helped the acceptance of oral history and broadened the definitions beyond buildings, ruins and masks. It gave weight and value to henna decorations on hands, puberty rituals, ways of cooking and working.

Bi Asha (Asha Juma), seaweed farmer, Tanzania, Tanga Photos by Jenny Matthews, Panos Agency

For many southern and eastern African governments the choices are stark: fund education, water and sewage provision and food production, or fund museums and cultural heritage. It’s easy to see why ICH has taken a back seat for so long.


Our project set out to gather ICH. We knew there are still massive obstacles, including colonial legacies around institutional, private and government ownership of the past. Those who own history get to control it, define it, feature in it, make it, keep it, profit and benefit from it.

ICH is hard to collect, and even harder to pin down. The voices and ruminations of “normal” people from the continent are challenging to access; people (particularly farmers) are busy and places can be flooded or exhausting to reach. In Tanzania, which is focused on modernising and the future, rural crafts are often considered backward, except by a small, but growing, number of political decision-makers.

The 80-something-year-old basket weaver and rug-maker Mama Mwanamvua has impressive skills taught to her by grandmothers and aunties, for example. But she has no-one to pass them on to. None of the successive generations think this is lucrative, and in a way they are right. Mama Mwanamvua has seen demand for her food covers and floor mats dwindle.

A call to be proactive

In a radical move in May 2022, the new minister of tourism and natural resources, Pindi Chana, emphasised the role of rural crafts in her visit to the national museum in Tanzania’s former capital, Dar es Salaam. Chana exhorted people to be more creative.

“The commercial and patriotic [has] double benefits for society,” she said. This is the first time in Tanzania that there’s been a public ministerial and governmental acknowledgement that ICH is important and can exist alongside other priorities.


This shift in mindset is momentous and has been embraced by the heritage sector. It signifies a move away from the “essentials only” agenda of water, agricultural productivity and excavation, although these are extremely important. It shows a recognition of the importance of ICH, and a more holistic approach to tourism, private investment, heritage and environmental protection. This includes recognising land, burial grounds and sacred grounds as important cultural narratives.

Young men hanging out in the village and playing Chinese slot machine, Tanzania, Tanga Photos by Jenny Matthews, Panos Agency

In 2017, Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania was visited by almost 650,000 tourists and generated around $56m in entry fees. But if it was viewed as an important cultural resource for the local Maasai people, this money could be used to value their contribution as custodians, and promote their perspectives on the landscapes.

Museums are blossoming in Africa and many are embracing ICH. The biggest is the Museum of Black Civilisation in Dakar, Senegal, complemented by a programme of public historical art. In Ethiopia, there is the Zoma Museum and in South Africa the new galleries of Wits Art Museum. Many feature inventive displays of collections that allow for subtle interpretation.

In Kenya, the Museum of British Colonialism – a joint venture between University College London and Kenya – faces the complexity of ICH head on. Run by volunteer women activists, it is a multi-site digital museum that unflinchingly looks at British brutality in the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellions. It sidesteps the problem of destroyed or disappeared British records by interviewing relatives of people tortured and killed by the British and visiting the Kenyan sites of the torture and detention.

Gabriel Moshenska, one of the founders, says in the New African magazine: “Museums are not repositories for a nation’s unwanted junk, nor are they analgesic spaces where controversial histories can be rendered safe and printed on souvenirs. Museums should be spaces for learning, discovery, and the bringing together of objects, people and stories.”

Our culture will not grow if we don’t have access to this aspect of our cultural heritage beyond the sculptures and artefacts.

Professor Joyce Nyairo

However, the training, funding, infrastructure and personnel do not yet exist to comprehensively transcribe, document, catalogue and store the views of makers and ordinary people. But signs are positive, given how many individual projects are springing up. Unesco has provided numerous online manuals in local languages to help train local curators.

At the British Council’s 2022 Culture Grows Symposium in Nairobi there was broad recognition that oral history and ICH are as important as masks and bronzes. Cultural commentator, professor Joyce Nyairo, said: “We must pay attention to sound and visual recordings, and advocate for the return or sharing of these. Our culture will not grow if we don’t have access to this aspect of our cultural heritage beyond the sculptures and artefacts.”

Community knowledge

Our project in Tanga uncovered a body of specialist knowledge in the community: understanding of coastal marine life-cycles, shoal movements and tides and particular resin-heating techniques to fireproof mangrove canoes. Elders talked for hours about changes to the climate, and skills that are disappearing such as pottery, rug and basket making, and weaving.

We built up a small team, got funding, and now we have a small photographic exhibition, a short film and several hundreds of hours of audio of this small patch of Tanzania. We trained Tanzania’s first ICH researchers to be skilled in the techniques needed for good oral history interviews – a new generation who are passionate about cultural heritage.

Researcher Neema Mtenga says: “When I started interviewing, I was concerned that local people will think I am being arrogant, or rude, and I was aware I was asking elders delicate things that normally someone my age would not ask. But people from Tanga were kind and open, and the informal discussion way of interviewing made it natural and easy. Also, working in Swahili was a great advantage because we all understood each other. I learned a huge amount about different tribes here, and knowledge we have that we must value, such as our knowledge of medicinal herbs.”

Funding for the pipeline, port and gas processing plant has stopped. For the time being, the villages where we worked are still there. The challenge for our project now is to find a non-university site in Tanzania where the collection will be permanently accessible, so that even the poorest can have their stories heard.

Thembi Mutch is a research fellow at SOAS, London, and a writer and trainer

Let their voices be heard

This AHRC-funded project (Historia Iliyofichwa ya Ardhi na Bahari/Hidden Histories of Land and Sea) started life in 2007 under a baobab tree in Tanga, a port city in Tanzania. Through a broken fence at the end of a house by the tree we heard lots of noise, card games, arguments about football, and discussions about fishing rotas. I wanted to understand this marine cultural heritage.

I started spending afternoons on the beach talking to the older Wzee (elder men) about their lives as fishermen, and noticing how many women came infrequently to sell knick-knacks from trays. There were also regular wholesale fish buyers who would turn up daily and take their catch on for resale to the market stalls. No one had cars or fridges – this was all done by buckets and bicycles.

Tanga days are hot and humid, all year round. In the afternoon, it is too hot to do much except chat. Despite this, it took several years for people to trust us and open up. The AHRC project tries to capture the sense of real people, with many different approaches, perspectives and histories.

We only interviewed 23 people, and the Tanzanian researchers and me lived in the same house while doing the work, interviewing people in their homes or on the shady porch by the baobab tree. We tried to “co-create” the project with the interviewees, teaching them how to use small handheld recorders, giving them choices about what we talked about, how and when, and inviting them to think about how they wanted to be represented by photographs.

We wanted to show how transient and insecure this way of life is, in all senses – from the over-farmed, exhausted soil, to the over-fished seas, and the communities who are squatting on prime land that will inevitably get swallowed up for tourism and oil and gas developments if current plans ever reach fruition.

But it’s not a hopeless place: there is a deep sense of pride about the marine cultural heritage, and a nuanced understanding about how rich this environment is.

People described what Tanga had been like in its heyday, full of factories for cloth, sand, cement, bricks, paint and cosmetics. These days the work available is informal, precarious and unstable.

In the face of these challenges, some people are resolute, determined and resilient. Others are beaten, resentful, tired and feel like they’ve failed. And a few, such as the dope-smoking boda boda boys, create fantasies of “mwini” – being a sultan – to over-ride the lack of opportunities to escape their problems.

The project, Hidden Histories – Untold Stories of Piplines, People and the Sea in Tanzania, has been put together by Thembi Mutch,  principal investigator; Aida Mulokozi, co-investigator; Neema Mtenga, researcher; and Julius Mkway, researchers

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