The most prestigious heritage status is the Unesco World Heritage Site. A heritage site is an official location where pieces of political, military, social or cultural history have been preserved due to their cultural history value. Such sites are usually protected under the laws of the host nation but the status is awarded by a team from Unesco who review suitable sites, submitted by Party States, annually .
Currently there are 1,052 World Heritage Sites located in 165 Party States. Of this number, Kenya hosts six sites: Fort Jesus, Lamu Old Town, Sacred Mijikenda Kaya Forests, Great Rift Valley, Lake Turkana National Park and Mount Kenya National Park/Forest. Several other sites have been submitted for consideration and are on the Tentative List, awaiting ratification.
Strangely enough, World Heritage Sites trace their origins to the construction of the Aswan Dam mega project in Egypt in 1954. Realising that the resulting reservoir would eventually inundate a large part of the Nile Valley containing cultural treasures of ancient Egypt and Nubia, in 1959, the governments of Egypt and Sudan requested Unesco to assist their countries to protect and preserve the endangered monuments and sites.
In 1960, Unesco launched an appeal to member states for an international campaign to save the monuments of Nubia.
This initiative led to the excavation and recording of numerous sites, the recovery of thousands of objects, as well as the salvage and relocation to higher ground of a number of important temples. Unesco then initiated, with the International Council on Monuments and Sites, a draft convention to protect the common cultural heritage of humanity in 1972.
The campaign, which ended in 1980, cost $80 million (Sh8bn) and was considered a spectacular success. The success of the project led to other safeguarding campaigns notably Venice and its lagoons in Italy, the ruins of Mohenjo-daro in Pakistan and the Borobodur Temple Compounds in Indonesia.
The World Heritage Convention makes it clear that being on the list comes with its responsibilities; the main one being looking after the site and “the outstanding universal values” it is known for. However, host States are not expected to go it alone. In recognition of the fact that many world heritage properties are in impoverished countries, the Convention says “it is incumbent on the international community as a whole to participate in the protection of the cultural and natural heritage of outstanding universal value, by the granting of collective assistance which, although not taking the place of action by the State concerned, will serve as an efficient complement thereto”.
The greatest benefit for host States is that once a site is on the list, tourism and global recognition are assured. Tourists’ expectations are that they will have a unique experience by visiting the site and at the same time, the tourism industry is provided with a product that is easily promoted as a fail-proof destination.
In Kenya, our prehistoric heritage not only tells the story of man’s origin and evolution but also contributes to the understanding of the earth’s history. Fossils and artefacts spanning more than 27 million years have been discovered and conserved by the National Museums of Kenya. Demand for African art has surpassed that for antiquities of Roman, Byzantine and Egyptian origin giving rise to a steady increase in prices. The market value has also been influenced by looters, traffickers and criminal networks in African countries experiencing conflict.
Due to our heritage legislation having been deeply rooted in our colonial past, most of the gazetted sites and monuments consist of colonial buildings. The foreign values, principles and theories used to identify monuments were limited and in many cases incoherent to the cultural values, economic status and politics in Kenya. It was not until the 1980s that the law began to recognise indigenious sites as national monuments.
The current legislation is guided by the National Museums and Heritage Act (CAP 216) of 2006, which extends authority for the management of Kenya’s cultural patrimony to the National Museums of Kenya. However, this Act merely transforms cultural heritage management into a framework of policy abstractions, which are nearly irrelevant and unresponsive to changing local and international circumstances.
What is needed is a comprehensive broad-based cultural resources management framework that recognises local ownership and meets international standards.
Kenya is endowed with, arguably, some of the very best heritage sites in the world. The traditional tourism circuits have witnessed a downturn in recent years and there is growing competition from other African destinations such as Seychelles, Mauritius and Botswana. It is incumbent upon us to take advantage of our unique selling point to place our nation in its rightful position as the number one heritage destination in the world.