Snapshots of cultural heritage in contemporary Kenya

I’m delighted to be working with Lotte and her research team again.  I have worked on Lotte’s projects since 2008, in particular creating an archive of all the photographs taken in the course of research – both by me, the researchers and Kenyan contacts.  There are some fascinating and beautiful images, of peace museums and the artefacts in them, of informants at home, events in peace museums, cultural visits and conferences.

The photos are an excellent resource, they have featured in the book, we put some of them online for people outside the project to see, and I used them to create the header image for the new project website.

For the header I tried to create a montage of photos which draw on the themes of cultural heritage that the researchers are investigating.  Most importantly I wanted the header to be as representative as possible, so there are photos of rock art, heritage landscape, ritual, dance and clothing, children learning about cultural heritage practices, peace museums and their artefacts, and women taking part in a religious crusade.

I only used parts of the photographs in the header, so my project colleague Nicola suggested showcasing the complete images and saying a bit about them.  The first image (far left) is part of a photograph of concentric circles painted in red and white at Kwitone Shelter on Mfangano Island; it was taken by David Coulson of the Trust for African Rock Art (TARA) in 2008.  The rock art is on an island in Lake Victoria, where Annie Coombes (Co-Investigator on Lotte’s previous project) was doing research on the activities of the Abasuba Community Peace Museum. They have long had links with TARA. David Coulson is TARA’s Chairman and an internationally known expert on African rock art.

concentric-circles-mfangano-island-kwitonen 2






(click on individual images for larger image)

Moving from left to right, the second image is part of a photograph of Giriama elders, taken by Karega-Munene during a visit by peace museums’ curators to Akamba Community Peace Museum, Kyanzasu, that he and Lotte organised in 2010.  Karega was part of the previous project team. The event was one of a series of inter-ethnic exchange visits to different community peace museums in Kenya, funded by the British Academy.  The third image taken by Lotte is of school children taking part in activities to mark an alternative World Environment Day in June 2008, at Karima Sacred Forest, Othaya District, Kenya.  The event was organised by a Kenyan NGO, Porini Association.

Kyanzasu Visit 009 2alt world herit 2





I took the next image during a visit to Agikuyu Peace Museum, Nyeri, in 2010.  It is the late Paul Thuku Njembui reading about himself in Understanding the Politics of Heritage, Open University teaching material Lotte contributed to, in which she quoted her research informant.  It was taken during a trip to the museum, where Professor Terence Ranger had an audience with elders Kimunyi Githua, Paul Thuku Njembui, and Beatrice Wanjiku, where they talked about Mau Mau.

thuku peace museum 2

The final image was kindly provided by Greg Deacon and was taken in May 2008 in the market place of a village in Ukambani.  A small church from a Nairobi slum, whose members were from the village, was holding a Pentecostal crusade or “open air”. This service was followed by dinner and casting out of demons from a church member’s rural residence that was believed to be afflicted by spirits due to a charm being hidden in the house. The charm (suspected to be a pot) had been given to a relative by an mganga or witch doctor.

Greg Deacon Crusade 2

As you can see the archive contains some interesting stuff; it’s a small snapshot of cultural heritage in Kenya over the period.  Sadly the archive also contains images of colleagues and friends who have passed away.  In a way it’s comforting that the role they played in cultural heritage is remembered, but it also raises questions about what kinds of cultural heritage are being passed on to the next generation, which is why I was keen to include the image of children in the website header.

For me cultural heritage comes with a responsibility, it needs to be inclusive and represent the diversity of cultural practices, but it also raises some difficult questions which the project poses, about harmful  cultural practices like FGM, as well as who is being left out of formal cultural heritage practices through lack of representation.  I look forward to seeing what comes out of the project and I hope it has a positive impact on cultural heritage for Kenyans.

Header image credits, left to right:

  1. Concentric circles painted in red and white at Kwitone Shelter on Mfangano Island, David Coulson TARA 2008;
  2. Giriama elders at Kyanzasu, Karega-Munene, 2010;
  3. Karima Sacred Forest visit, Lotte Hughes, 2008;
  4. Paul Thuku Njembui in Agikuyu Community Peace Museum, Heather Scott, 2010;
  5. Women taking part in a religious crusade village in Ukambani, Greg Deacon, 2008.

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