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Policy shifts in Kenya’s cultural, heritage scene

Museum

The Nairobi National Museum. PHOTO | POOL

Cultural and historical heritages are vital for national pride and the existential question of human survival.

In Kenya, the institutions mandated to safeguard our national heritage through preservation and conservation efforts include among others, the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Services (KNADS), the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), the Bomas of Kenya and finally the Kenya National Library Services (KNLS).

However, it must be acknowledged that our national heritage in the form of artefacts, rare documents, historical materials, audio-visuals and, in some cases, their digitised formats, are held by different stakeholders spread across the country: institutional, community and private holdings, libraries and heritage centres.

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It is in this context that recent joint field research carried out at the end of last year under UNESCO’s Information For All Programme (IFAP) and the University of Nairobi’s Department of Library and Information Science, recommended, among others, intervention at the policy level in order to preserve Kenya’s cultural and historical heritages.

The study titled Mapping, Identifying, Documenting and Preserving Kenya’s Cultural Heritage was carried out at Robert Ouko Memorial Community Library, and the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) Audio Visual Library.

In 1928, Kenya’s pioneer broadcaster KBC (previously Voice of Kenya) began broadcasting.

It was nationalised through an Act of Parliament Cap 221 in 1964. The Dr Robert Ouko Memorial Library is located in Koru Kisumu county.

It was established through a partnership between the family of the late Ouko and the Kenya National Library Services in memory of Kenya’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs.

The facility carries books and non-book materials such as artefacts, carvings, photographs and personal memorabilia.

Among the study’s objectives were to identify the cultural heritage materials held by the two key institutions and to establish how the public currently interacts with the two facilities.

Using structured interviews and questionnaires, it was established that whereas the two institutions held rich cultural materials in varied formats, they were at risk of destruction or obsolescence.

Further, members of the public were found to be reluctant users of the facilities due to a lack of proper structures of engagement between the facilities and potential users.

Although the rare materials are of high cultural value, some dating back to Kenya’s pre-independence era, their backup does not assure access in perpetuity.

Clearly, there were issues of inadequate financing. This aspect had ripple effects on storage, safety and staff capacity to undertake digitisation.

As a result, the visibility of the materials and the related information services through marketing and promotional activities were highly constrained. These factors deny the institution some revenue which could be derived from external online users and walk-in visitors.

The government, through the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage could devise its policies through unbundling by way of separate acts of parliament through, which public and private entity partnerships could play a part in Kenya’s cultural heritage.

The global family of nations is focused on sustainable development goals and in that context cultural heritage has become an important nexus in development. Conflict resolution and peacekeeping can be achieved through cultural practices that are promotive of the communal human bond.

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The linguistic dimension has also become handy. Kenya’s national language of Swahili has gained traction and currency among several African nations in recognition and adoption.

There is a need, therefore, for enhanced effort towards translation and digitisation to encourage appreciation of cultural diversity while highlighting shared national goals and outstanding achievements.

Further, the study team acknowledges the recent steps taken by the Government of Kenya to unveil Uhuru Garden’s Freedom Museum under the Museums and Heritage Act of 2006.

The facility, which is located along Lang’ata Road at the former Uhuru Gardens shall be managed by the Kenya Defence Forces. It was first opened to the public on Madaraka Day this year (2022).

Additionally, the government of Kenya recently reaffirmed its commitment to preserve and conserve Kenya’s cultural and historical heritage by establishing, through a gazette number 4966 of May 6th 2022 a task force to develop policy and draft a bill proposal on libraries.

The writer is a lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Department of Library and Information Science.

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