EU sends funds for Swahili rescue

April 28, 1995

Swahili culture in Kenya, under threat from urban modernisation, is to receive Pounds 2.5 million from the European Union towards its preservation. Most of the money will be used to restore historical buildings in the old towns of Lamu, Malindi and Mombasa.

Archaeologists from the University of Nairobi will work with national museum curators to decide on how best to conserve the art, carvings, buildings and other architecture of Swahili culture which flourished on the east coast of Africa for centuries.

The Commonwealth Association of Museums and Commonwealth Association of Architects have also promised to send experts if necessary to help on the project, which will be integrated with the United Nations Development Programme projects on rehabilitation of old towns on the east coast of Africa.

EU money will fund the compilation of a photographic index of the endangered architectural styles that date from at least the 16th century. Swahili is Kenya's national language. It is also spoken by many people in eastern and central Africa.

According to Omar Bwana, a leading Kenyan curator, building programmes and changing lifestyles have endangered most of the fragile designs found on old walls and doors. In Lamu alone about 200 doors, carvings and paintings are at risk, says Mr Bwana, who is a deputy director of National Museums of Kenya, and an expert on East African coastal archaeology.

Judith Aldrick, a 19th-century specialist on carved wooden doors of east coast old towns, has warned for some time of the threat to the material culture of the Swahili, a Bantu-speaking people who inhabited Zanzibar and the adjacent coastal areas. In her study of carved doors, rare motifs and other Swahili artistic forms, Dr Aldrick identified a variety of tastes and traditions of the Swahili people.

Simiyu Wandibba, an archaeologist at the University of Nairobi, says the complex relationships of Swahili culture, a fusion of Arabic, Hindu, and African influences, could only be studied and conserved through careful restoration of the existing infrastructure.

Urban modernisation, souvenir hunting and antique dealers have all had a harmful effect.

A historic building has been acquired as the project's headquarters. There training workshops will be given in masonry work, carved plasterwork and wood carving, harnessing the expertise of artisans who have restored old buildings in Lamu and Malindi.

There will also be workshops and seminars on Swahili history, motifs in carvings, designs and architecture, songs and folklore, says Mr Bwana. Experts will explore the factors that have made such towns as Lamu, Pate and Siyu, part of the Lamu archipelago, retain patterns of pre-industrialisation urbanisation.

Lamu, particularly, is expected to yield clues about why it fell into economic decline during the Portuguese occupation and the role of Oman Araba in the Islamisation of the East African coast and the Busaidi Sultans' introduction of their architectural designs.

According to Dr Aldrick, who studied at Durham University and is a former secretary to the Friends of Fort Jesus, the islands of Pate and Siyu with art forms on hard wood and stone, should give an insight into the relationship between local and Hindu art that flourished here in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The project will allow scholars and curators from the University of Nairobi and National Museums of Kenya to carry out a morphological study of the Bajuni people. These are usually regarded as the northern branch of the Swahili people and are credited for building dhows painted with geometric patterns and zigzag designs that are unique only to Swahili culture.

Historical sources reveal that old Swahili towns dating between the 14th and 15th centuries flourished before they went into decline, with little economic or artistic activity during the Portuguese occupation of the 15th to 18th centuries.

The project will also make a detailed map of Swahili heritage in Kenya. The researchers from the museums, the University of Nairobi and those from UNDP, are also expected to write manuals that show past glories of the east coast of Africa. This spans from Kenya, Tanzania and the rest of the East African islands, such as Zanzibar, Pemba and Comoros.

However, Mr Livi says the success of the project will depend on local people's awareness. He wants the government to launch a campaign on conservation as well as to discourage souvenir collecting by tourists. The EU estimates cultural tourism spin-offs from the project will increase National Museums of Kenya revenue by some 20 per cent.

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