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Kenya to build first underwater museum in sub-Saharan Africa

Bita Caesar
Head of archaeology at the Kenya National Museum, Bita Caesar fits the diving kit before heading into the Indian ocean for excavation. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The construction of the first underwater museum has started to take shape as archeologists step up their efforts to discover more shipwrecks along Kenya’s Coastal line.

Head of archeology at the National Museum Kenya, Coast region, Dr Caesar Bita, said underwater museum is going to be a major boost in the country’s economy and is in line with the blue economy’s vision.

“We are trying to develop projects that relate to blue economy, and that are cultural. Cultural heritage is one of the biggest attractions in Kenya. We have many tourist attraction sites near and under the sea,” said Dr Bita.

The museum, that will be the first in the sub Saharan African, is set to be built at the site of shipwreck at Ngomeni, a historical fishing village in the North Coast.

“The country is pushing for the implementation of the Blue economy for sustainable economic development. The museum will attract more tourists who will in turn improve our economy,” Dr Bita said.

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In a bid to see the success of the project, NMK is developing some of the underwater sites, so that they can be packaged as tourism products to boost the country’s economy

“We want to develop these wrecks in a way that tourists can visit them under water,” he said.

Some of the wrecks, Dr Bita said cannot be brought out of the water because they might be broken or decay.

“The sea offers a conducive environment for their survival. I brought out they can decay,” said the archaeologist.

The museum will be Africa’s educational centre for underwater archaeology.

“The government of Kenya, through the NMK, has started to develop the Ngomeni shipwreck site into an underwater museum, the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa,” Dr Bita noted, adding that underwater heritage is unexploited, and the museum will provide an opportunity for both local and international tourists to enjoy the discoveries.

Currently, Kenya has displays at the Ngomeni, where people see the wrecks on land. However NMK wants to give opportunity to tourists who want to explore the wrecks under water.

Dr Bita said underwater museums have become major tourist attractions in other countries adding that Kenya must tap into the industry.

The project will be boosted by the discovery of several shipwrecks in Kenyan water.

Dr Bita said studies have revealed that the shipwrecks are “highly exploitable for scientific research and as tourist attractions”.

The archeologist said currently only a few people are able to access the shipwrecks in the ocean. “Once the museum is complete, we will have tour guides who will be guiding people under the water. Each wreck will have a placard that tells its history,” said Dr Bita.

Coast region boasts 33 ancient ship wrecks that are documented though the archaeologists believe that there could be more.

“Mombasa has 22 shipwrecks, Malindi eight, and Lamu three. Most of these wrecks are made of wood or metals. Some of the ships were carrying ivory, cinnabar and copper. Because of the conducive underwater environment these objects are still intact,” said Dr Bita.

NMK has derived ways to shield them from strong waves that could sweep them away.

“The sea is dynamic, we have studied the waves and how they move in order to prevent them from ruining the sites. We have built sand bag walls around some wrecks. The sand bags break the strength of the waves,” the archeologist said.

Other methods include special nets to cover their discoveries.

“For the sites that are not very exposed to the surface of the sea bed, we advise that they are covered with special nets. The net attracts small sand particles that over time form a mount over the sites. This prevents the wreck from being swept away or getting broken,” said Dr Bita.

Last year March 11, Unesco and the Kenyan Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, together with the NMk raised awareness on the ‘Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage for Sustainable Tourism Development in Eastern Africa and the adjacent Indian Ocean Islands.

According to Unesco, shipwrecks and underwater ruins have become increasingly accessible along the Indian Ocean coastline.

Unesco further named the fishing industry, the laying of pipelines, and other ocean floor activities among challenges that can damage or destroy underwater cultural heritage.

Once the fragile heritage is destroyed or removed, countries lose the opportunity to undertake research and to develop sustainable tourism linked to the sites, which could take the form of dive tourism or the representation of underwater cultural heritage in museum collections.

In eastern Africa, only Madagascar has ratified the Unesco 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage.

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