Unesco pledges to protect Lamu’s heritage status even with new port

File | Nation
Local dhows, or traditional Swahili boats, compete in a race near Lamu during a past Lamu cultural festival which showcases traditional Swahili dances, poetry, donkey and dhow races. Unesco wants to town’s status as a cultural heritage maintained.

What you need to know:

  • UN agency boss says the town’s standing in the world must be maintained even as it modernises harbour

A UN agency is closely monitoring the planned development of a multi-billion shilling port in Lamu to avoid interfering with the town’s heritage.

Unesco’s director-general Irina Bokova said her organisation got the report of the planned construction of the port early this year and got assurance from the government it would not interfere with cultural heritage.

Endangers the town’s heritage

“We are following the development and if it endangers the town’s heritage, we will inform the government,” she told journalists on the sidelines of the ongoing Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) conference in Nairobi.

Lamu, one of Kenya’s oldest towns, is one of the original Swahili settlements along the East African coast.

It was built using coral stone and mangrove timber and is characterised by simple structures with features such as inner courtyards, verandas, and elaborately carved wooden doors.

It is the first time the conference, that brings together delegates from all over the world, is being held in Africa.Ms Bokova said developments that are key to socio-economic growth should not be embraced at the expense of cultural diversity.

She said: “Governments should withstand the pressures of modern economies so as to safeguard their heritage and ensure its sustainability.”

She said plans by Tanzania to build a highway in Serengeti was also being discussed at Unesco (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) and appealed to governments to protect world heritage sites by integrating culture in development.

She said the Kayas community in the coast will get US$136,000 (Sh10 million) funding from Unesco to protect the endangered culture. Kaya forests are on world heritage list.Ms Bokova hailed Kenya for its recent adoption of a national policy on culture and heritage that integrates development policies and cultural heritage to ensure its preservation and promotion.

Vice President Kalonzo Musyoka who opened the conference said that ICH should be integrated in the country’s national policy formulation since the new constitution acknowledged the importance of culture.

“Our nation is undergoing a renewal following the recent promulgation of a new constitution that recognises the value of culture in national development.”

Mr Musyoka promised the delegates of the continued implementation of the convention. He said the ICH is important to Kenyan communities as it contributes to the visibility of their diverse cultural values and promote mutual respect and dialogue among them “thus creating the needed atmosphere of unity and cohesiveness at the national level.”

During the five day meeting, more than 400 delegates from 129 countries are expected to discuss nominations for inscriptions in 2010 list of ICH.

The committee is also expected to discuss and amend rules and procedures of the working of ICH, criteria of inscription and how to encourage the contribution of non-governmental organisation from the developing countries, among others. The event was also attended by the Minister of State for National Heritage and Culture, Mr William Ole Ntimama, and his education counterpart.

Ms Bokova said the responsible committee was on high alert and would ensure the port remained a cultural heritage.

“The port of Lamu has been for a long time a Unesco world heritage site. The ICH committee is very keen and will take the necessary steps to ensure it remains as so.”

Port’s destruction

She said Unesco was aware of modernisation projects taking place that may lead to the port’s destruction and was monitoring its progress.

“We will alert the Kenyan government if Lamu port is in danger of extinction so that they can stop the process.”

Unesco says one of the challenges Africa faces is the capacity to present its cultural heritages since it is not in the Representative List if ICH of Humanity that has 166 elements from 77 countries, neither is it in the 12 in the ICH in Need of Urgent Safeguarding list.