Project Description

This research project, which started in September 2014 and ran for three years, was the first to document and analyse the impact of cultural rights provisions in Kenya’s new constitution on Kenyan society and its heritage sector, producing analysis, policy recommendations and empirical data that we hope will be of use locally and internationally. It was based at The Open University (UK) and funded by the ESRC (Economic and Social Research Council). It has now ended, and all team members have left The Open University. (Some new contact details are given under Contact Us.)

Led by Principal Investigator Dr Lotte Hughes, the research team was made up of British, Canadian, South African and Kenyan scholars, from different disciplinary backgrounds including history, anthropology, human rights law, museums and heritage studies (see People). The project was affiliated to the University of Nairobi, which we warmly thank for their support.

New rights

The 2010 constitution, approved in a public referendum in August 2010, enshrines rights to cultural heritage which Kenyans have never previously enjoyed. The constitution has the potential to democratise and decentralise heritage management by devolving powers to 47 new county governments; this process began in 2013 and is still underway. Our study aimed, as implementation proceeded, to examine connections between the ways in which citizens exercised cultural rights, and social cohesion and national peace prospects. Devolution became a central focus.

When we began the study, civil society groups were planning to use the constitution to assert rights and make a variety of claims; for example, for the return of ‘ancestral’ land, access to sacred sites, safeguards for intellectual property, and protection for endangered languages. Conversely, some groups such as Councils of Elders were unhappy with the constitution’s ban on harmful cultural practices, for example, and wanted to see that reversed. They were also unhappy that the constitution did not hand them greater powers.


While positive in some respects, since culture can be a tool for development and peace building, there are dangers that claims to cultural rights could lead to the further concretisation of ‘tribe’ and essentialised ethnic identity, the promotion of sub-nationalist (‘tribal’) identities, a clash between human rights and cultural rights (especially where women’s and children’s rights are concerned), a retreat into deeper ethnic enclaves and the hardening of ethnicised territorial boundaries. (Some of this has come to pass.) Any of these may exacerbate social tensions and sabotage peace and unification efforts. Yet the aim of the constitution was the exact opposite: to unite the nation.

The research set out to examine and analyse these processes and the public debates and discourses around them, mapping the impact as constitutional provisions are both implemented and interpreted. It involved multi-sited fieldwork and archival work in the UK and Kenya.

Summary of project-Cultural Rights and Constitution