African Heritage threatened

March 2010 -

In March of 2010 a raging fire destroyed the mausoleum containing the graves of four Bugandan kings on the hills of Kasubi, just outside the Ugandan capital of Kampala. The graves, which date from 1882, have been on the Unesco World Heritage List since 2001 because they are considered an architectural masterpiece. Even though the cause of the fire is still unknown, many Baganda – Uganda's largest population group – believed that the fires were intentionally set. Riots followed, in which two people were killed.

The incident is all the more regrettable because Africa still leads the Unesco World Heritage List in terms of sites that are in jeopardy. Almost 40 per cent of the heritage sites that are in jeopardy worldwide, due to political unrest, natural disasters or overdue maintenance, are located south of the Sahara: 13 of a total of 31 locations. This while Africa is underrepresented on the World Heritage List. The continent only has 78 sites in 29 countries – a mere 9 per cent of the total world heritage.

African Heritage is under-represented in part due to a problem with definition. Until recently, Unesco's World Heritage Commission maintained criteria that African countries could not meet. These criteria have recently been modified: the term 'masterpieces' has been re-defined, and the category 'cultural landscape' has been introduced. This includes national parks, for example, which have cultural and spiritual value even though they do not contain historical monuments.

It costs a great deal of money to investigate a site and nominate it for inclusion on the Unesco list. According to the ICCROM expertise centre, there is a severe shortage of experts in Africa; not even enough to maintain the existing world heritage. Money for maintenance, restoration and protection is also a problem, now that international donor funds have dried up. African governments hardly allocate any funds at all for their heritage because culture does not have priority in their policy.