Countee Cullen penned the seminal poem “Heritage” at the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. It was a time of great reflection among African-Americans in their passionate search and thirst for history and increased knowledge of their ancient homeland — Africa.
“Heritage” has great meaning behind it. It is a stark review of what it is like being an African-American in America. Cullen recognized a state of “double-consciousness” among the African-American people in illuminating that they are forced to see themselves in the eye of others. African-Americans, he surmised, are torn between two cultures but cannot be fully true to either.
‘What is Africa to me?’
Cullen repeatedly asks the question: What is Africa to me?” In his eyes, the romantic vision of a beautiful garden blooming with a diverse birthright that African-Americans constantly miss. Even 6,500 miles away in America, Cullen wants to hear the same song of African birds, the same music of African drums, and the same majestic vista of the “Motherland.”
Cullen, in many ways, saw Africa as a book with different “chapters” that represent different traditions, cultures and diversity. The diversification of Africa far outweighs the historic monotype of the African-American viewed largely by the world as an indentured transplant with no valuable history—nor cognizance—of their place in modern civilization.
American media shapes perceptions of Africa in a variety of ways. In fictionalized portrayals, films such as “The Gods Must Be Crazy” or “The Air Up There” and others portray Africans as happy, simple people living in humble conditions. Other portrayals of Africa tend to focus on the negative aspects of life on the continent such as poverty, war, famine, corruption and other ills.
The West perpetuates negative stereotypes of Africa
The news media also promotes negative stereotypes of Africa. And while fictional portrayals may be easily dismissed as flawed or embellished, due to its position as the authority on what is true, media depictions of the continent carry much more weight than what you may see on the big screen or television programs.
The late United Nations Secretary General and Nobel Laureate Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana, once said: “We recognize that we are the products of many cultures, traditions and memories; that mutual respect allows us to study and learn from other cultures; and that we gain strength by combining foreign with the familiar.”
Annan was speaking to the power of the narrative. On this day, May 5, African World Heritage Day is proclaimed to be of outstanding universal value to ensure that a great legacy of world history is passed on to future generations.
As declared in 2018 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), African World Heritage Day is an opportunity for people around the world—and particularly Africans and those of African descent—to celebrate Africa’s vibrant and unique cultural and natural heritage.
Two years prior, the Ngorongoro Declaration (a region within the Crater Highlands of northern Tanzania) affirmed that safeguarding African World Heritage is a “central driver” for sustainable development thereby spotlighting an urgent need to build capacity for “heritage conservation and management” in the region.
International efforts to preserve ancient culture
From vestiges of civilizations past to centuries-old churches and mosques and rich cultural landscapes, heritage sites across Africa span all of human history. Yet, many of Africa’s wonders risk losing their outstanding universal value.
For the past four years, UNESCO has worked to harness international efforts to draw on the potential of Africa’s cultural and natural heritage as a force for poverty reduction and social cohesion. It can serve as a catalyst for sustainable development and innovation.
UNESCO’s goal is to increase global awareness of African heritage—with a special focus on youth—and to mobilize enhanced cooperation for its safeguarding the many sites of antiquity not only on the local and regional, but global levels.
Regrettably, African heritage is largely underrepresented on the World Heritage List. Of the 54 nations within the continent, it represents only 12 percent of all chronicled antiquity sites. More common, Africa is disproportionately represented on the List of World Heritage in Danger (39 percent of all sites in danger).
Civil unrest and instability, uncontrolled development, a lack of investment in safeguarding and new threats of climate change are all factors in the endangerment of world heritage in this region.
The treasures of the Sahel region
Africa is the bedrock of a range of subjects: From mathematics to science, as well as philosophy, theology and venerated manuscripts not often studied in the Western world. For instance, UNESCO has worked to preserve ancient manuscripts in the Sahel region (between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian savanna to the south) and promote public access to these treasures in an effort to strengthen natural cohesion, tolerance and dialogue.
UNESCO has gone on record in maintaining that the “protection, accessibility and promotion of ancient manuscripts can serve as a basis for building just, inclusive and peaceful societies in the Sahel.”
Audrey Azoulay, director-general of UNESCO, has encouraged more worldwide engagement with Africa’s cultural and natural heritage in noting how crucial such connections are for humanity.
“This engagement helps us to be more connected, more resilient, more able to protect the legacy of the past and hand it down to future generations,” she said. “African World Heritage, which we celebrate every year on this day, is essential in this respect—not only for the people of Africa, but for all of humankind.”
Many sites at risk of disappearing
Last year, the African World Heritage Fund organized a series of events anchored in the theme sponsored by the African Union. A special webinar “Arts, Culture and Heritage: Levers to Build the Africa We Want” provided an opportunity to highlight the role and contribution of [African] culture to the various nation-state economies and related sustainable development.
African World Heritage Day is also an opportunity to mobilize local communities worldwide to raise awareness about the urgent need to protect African heritage. Irina Bokova, former director-general of UNESCO, said that of the 23 African sites on the List of World Heritage in Danger, “all are threatened and are at risk of disappearing if we do not act quickly. We each have a role to play.”
The hard work is beginning to pay off. The Lake Chad Basin has long faced multiple challenges in serving as an important source of fresh water for more than 45 million people. More attention is being paid to this vital body of water which was once reduced by 95 percent of its capacity because of decreasing rainfall which has led to significant imbalances in ecosystems.
African youth work to protect history
UNESCO and the Lake Chad Basin Commission in 2017 implemented “Biosphere and Heritage of Lake Chad” which includes a wide range of activities from setting up an early warning system for droughts and floods, to restoring degraded ecosystems such as spawning grounds, spirulina (a vitamin- and mineral-rich food source) and the Kouri cow, an endemic species that plays an important role in social cohesion in the region.
In Gambia, UNESCO World Heritage sites are said to have great potential to improve livelihoods and support strong and sustainable resilient communities against hunger, unemployment and the negative effects of climate change.
These and other sites can help to equip youth, women and marginal groups with skill sets such as tour guiding, souvenir making, cultural performances, gardening, and arts and craft. Residents there are learning more to leverage their interpersonal and intercultural dialogue skills to respond to the needs of the visitors and to enhance income generation.
The youth are more engaged in recognizing and protecting African heritage. In 2016 in Cape Town, South Africa the African World Heritage Regional Youth Forum invited young people from 23 African countries to increase youth involvement in the “promotion and protection” of African antiquity.