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Challenges Facing World Heritage in Africa Today

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Africa is a magical continent with rich history and diverse living heritage, but most countries are facing major challenges to preserve their cultural heritage sites. I recently visited the Kenyan coast to see how a relatively prosperous Kenya is managing its global heritage.

We visited two global heritage sites on the Indian Ocean -- Lamu Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Gede National Monument on the UNESCO Tentative List. Lamu is Kenya's oldest continually inhabited town and Gede is an impressive Swahili settlement with hundreds of structures and great public architecture from the 14-17th centuries still preserved in a lush jungle setting.

The state of heritage preservation can be characterized as down trodden, with some glimmers of hope where collaborative work by local communities have rallied funding, enforced better protection, and shown potential for sustainable development of heritage in Africa.

Lack of expertise and experience in heritage management in government and the workforce plagues Africa. At the same time, Africa has few monumental archaeological sites south of the Sahara desert, and nothing on the scale of Libya, Morocco or Egypt. Derelict Great Zimbabwe is one of the only major indigenous ancient sites in sub-Saharan Africa, which is twice as large as Europe. African Rock Art is quite amazing if you know where to find it deep in the mountains, but historic towns and large-scale architecture either have been destroyed or never existed.

The sites of Lamu and Gede provide an excellent barometer of the overall state of heritage in Africa and the challenges facing nations and local communities to ensure their long-term survival.

Lamu Old Town is one of the original Swahili settlements along coastal East Africa. Chinese ships of Zheng He's fleet were reported sinking near Lamu Island in Kenya in 1415. With more than 700 years of continuous development, it was once the most important trade center in East Africa, before being overtaken by Zanzibar. Its stunning buildings display the long history and development of Swahili technology.

A massive new port is being built next to Lamu, and unregulated construction is damaging the integrity and authenticity of this unique UNESCO World Heritage site. New concrete constructions dwarf the indigenous architecture dating back to the 12th-century AD. Entire historic homes have been disassembled and sold off for their rare carved doors, windows and interiors. Lamu faces serious water shortages due to mismanagement, lack of sanitation and pollution caused by hundreds of donkeys running through the streets and raw sewage flowing into the sea.

Many foreigners and Kenyans have been restoring historic properties to positive effect by encouraging the preservation of traditional artisan skills through the restoration of buildings by traditional craftsmen known as "fundis." Young people are carrying on ancient traditions such as wood carving, furniture making and plasterwork because there is demand for these skills.

Gede National Monument is under the management of the National Museums of Kenya, and is an enchanting sites in a lush jungle spread out over 45 acres within ancient perimeter walls.

In its flourishing era around the 15th century, Gede was inhabited by thousands of people and trade with China, Asia and the Middle East is clearly evident in archaeological findings of imported porcelain, jewelry and metalwork. Like Lamu today, Gede was abandoned due to poor water management and even the deepest of wells could not reach the water table after it was depleted.

The scale and beauty of the mosques and public buildings is impressive, and the site is well-run and clean, despite having no signage or guidebook and a gateway road better for donkey carts rather than visitor transport. A local community group has built a tree house platform for overlooking the site, requesting a small donation for its upkeep. The site remains very well preserved and seems to be under good care by the National Museum, with good maintenance, cleaning and visitor pathways.

Despite its size and impressive history, and central location in Malindi, a popular tourist destination, there are few visitors and Gede still remains a secret and the region has only begun to take advantage of its potential for heritage-based development and employment generation.

The challenges for Sub-Saharan Africa to build on its limited archaeological heritage and help fledgling economies benefit from sustainable development of these important assets is largely due to lack of expertise and available experience. Combining Africa's vibrant living heritage -- dance, music, food and art into the historic towns and archaeological sites can provide additional opportunities for heritage preservation and economic development.

Political instability, kidnappings and perceived security issues continue to setback heritage tourism, and most visitors coming to Africa are more focused on wildlife safaris, natural heritage and beaches. Better interpretation and promotion of Africa's last remaining built heritage sites could help. While we love being off the beaten path, the road could be so much more interesting in Africa if its global heritage sites came alive through well-documented history, writings and images, and integrating living heritage to make it more relevant today.

Africa is magical and its rich indigenous history needs to come out of the shadows of later colonial occupation and the architectural heritage left behind. Lamu Old Town and Gede National Monument a two major sites where hope for African heritage is still strong and beckons the world to come and experience.