Tanzania's maritime heritage mapped

March 2009 -

For centuries, Tanzania's coast was East Africa's most powerful trade centre. Ruins on Kilwa Kisiwani and Songo Mnara are now silent witnesses of the coast's golden age with lively trade in gold, jewels, spices and slaves. These sites are now endangered and have therefore been included on the Unesco List of World Heritage in Danger. The government of Tanzania and Unesco are taking action to prevent further deterioration. The Netherlands Centre for International Hertiage Activities (CIE) has been asked to assist in mapping and protecting the sites that are located underwater. The ultimate objective is developing and protecting these sites sufficiently to remove them from the list.

Jesper Buursink is in Tanzania for Unesco to set up the project. He has high expectations for the maritime study: "We believe that many shipwrecks and commodities will be found under the water. That material will tell us more about who traded here, what they traded, where they came from and what their destinations were. Important history that should be recorded."

The project is a collective effort involving a variety of organisations in Tanzania and Zanzibar, including the government, the Dar Es Salaam university, the national museum, the Marine Park Reserve Unit and the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute. Jesper Buursink: "We are trying to include all parties that are involved with maritime culture. Initially we will focus on training researchers and students. Later the rest of the population will also be closely involved in the project."

In addition to mapping and conserving objects, the development of the region of the heritage sites has top priority. Increasing the standard of living there will contribute to the sustainability of the sites. Tourism can play a key part. Jesper Buursink: "In a few years, for example, underwater routes can be laid out that pass interesting sites, where historical information will be displayed under the water. Instead of safaris in the natural parks, cultural underwater safaris can be organised. The most interesting objects found under the water can be displayed in museums. This will make the local population aware of the importance of saving the heritage."