Narratives of Cultural Heritage in Kisumu: Reflections on a Workshop

By Beth Perry, Urban Institute, University of Sheffield 

The baking Kisumu heat on a Friday afternoon was not enough to deter people from attending our first stakeholder meeting in Kisumu, on 5 April 2019. Held at KLIP House in central Kisumu, it was standing room only as 46 people joined for a collaborative workshop to map different understandings and meanings of cultural heritage.

People attended from city government, universities, regional and local cultural associations, and community organisations engaged in cultural heritage sites. This included key representatives from the four cultural heritage sites that we were due to visit in the next days: Dunga Beach, Kit Mikaye, Seme Kaila and Abindu Caves.

The meeting began with prayers, as is often the custom in Kisumu. Dr Michael Oloko welcomed participants to the workshop and gave a brief introduction to KLIP House, the centre of operations for the Kisumu Local Interaction Platform, a partnership between local universities, city officials and community representatives. Professor Patrick Hayombe set out the purpose of the workshop, handed out information sheets and introduced the Whose Heritage Matters team members.

We started with a brief warm up exercise to engage participants in thinking about the topic of the day. Each participant was given a coloured piece of card and asked to write their name and one word or phrase in response to the question: ‘what does cultural heritage mean to you?’ Participants were asked to introduce themselves and share their responses. Dr  Beatrice Atieno Abura gave a presentation on Kisumu’s cultural economy to set the scene and then I introduced the Whose Heritage Matters project and invited questions and reflections from participants.

We divided into four mixed groups to discuss the specific challenges and opportunities that are faced in Kisumu in relation to cultural heritage and the development of more sustainable livelihoods. Participants attending had variable levels of English language and some spoke in the traditional Luo tongue. With a commitment to explore visual methods, we invited participants to draw what cultural heritage meant to them and worked with translators to ensure that people’s views were heard.

The group came back together to share what they had discussed, chaired by Dr Fred Odede. We finalised the workshop with a listening session to understand people’s hopes and expectations of the Whose Heritage Matters project.

Throughout the day a number of key themes emerged. One of the most dominant narratives was around the need to conserve and preserve cultural heritage. Cultural heritage was framed as including both specific sites or physical structures (tangible) and beliefs, customs and experiences (intangible): ‘our old ways of life’ or ‘the intangible attributes of groups or society that are inherited from past generations’.

The focus on preservation and conservation was seen as necessary to ensure that future generations could carry forward the traditions of their elders and ensure that the ‘laws, rights and rules laid by our ancestors could guide the community’.

Linked to these narratives was the need to also develop and promote heritage sites and artefacts, through improving site management, branding or marketing. In one case, marketing was linked to the need for ‘modernisation’ to make sites more attractive to local and international potential visitors. 

These understandings were reflected in the visual record and drawings made by participants. Several participants drew specific sites. Other drawings of cultural heritage in Kisumu included fishing, traditional artefacts such as Luo gourds and pots, shields and spears, traditional homesteads and cultural practices, such as basketry, food and dancing. The traditional family was illustrated with a male and female parent surrounded by children, alongside costumes for dancing and the elder’s stool, on which the male head of the household would sit. In a few cases, the wider natural heritage was portrayed, such as Lake Victoria itself or the surrounding papyrus swamp, wetlands or birds. The value of trees in providing medicines for complaints such as stomach ache were drawn. In a few cases colonial architecture (the port) or the spatial layout of the city (Kisumu City) were depicted. All the images can be seen in our photo gallery here.

Given these understandings, the key value of Whose Heritage Matters for most participants was to educate and improve awareness amongst local communities of the importance of these identified cultural heritage sites, artefacts and practices. The need to ‘create awareness’ and make the case for why cultural heritage matters and how to ‘use it sustainably’ were central hopes for the project. This sat alongside some expressed hopes for the project to provide training, economic empowerment or infrastructure, in terms of roads or fences. Others hoped the project would directly produce new cultural experiences, such as ‘traditional musical exhibitions and shows’ or representations, such as documentaries. One person noted their hope that the project would enable them to ‘think differently’ about cultural heritage in the local context through doing the research.

This workshop was the first contact we had as a UK project team with many of the local stakeholders; our Kisumu colleagues had however had regular contact with those present and drew on their extended networks and previous work to bring the wide range of participants together.

I was left with many reflections, of which three stand out. First, whilst the literature suggests a failure to integrate the tangible and intangible properties of cultural heritage, the workshop discussion indicated more integrated understandings on the ground. There was a strong concern with specific sites – including Dunga, Kit Mikaye, Seme Kaila and Abindu Caves; however, this was in part a reflection of the participants invited to attend. At the same time, there was equal interest in intangible aspects of cultural heritage in terms of beliefs, traditions and cultural practices.

Second, the dominant narrative about cultural heritage which emerged at this workshop framed cultural heritage as existing in the past, in a fixed way, to be transferred and communicated to future generations in order to preserve and conserve it. The intergenerational dynamic positioned young people and future generations as needing education to preserve cultural heritage defined and set down by elders. An apparent consensus existed in these understandings.

In contrast, current academic literature emphasises that cultural heritage is ever-changing, constantly being made and remade, negotiated and contested.  Young people make their own cultural heritage, as will future generations. The relationship between the past and the future is not one way, but dynamic and inter-relational.

How cultural heritage is seen and the strength of a conservation narrative begins to reveal answers to our core question of ‘whose heritage matters’. It suggests a challenge and an opportunity for our project in opening up discussion about these questions, whilst recognising the deep-seated and pressing concerns around economic, social, cultural and environmental sustainability.  

My final reflection relates to the our ambition of ‘co-producing’ the project at a distance. Working with local partners with knowledge and relationships already in place is a key advantage and arguably a more ethical way to work, in place of Western academics parachuting in with their own assumptions and biases.

However, different considerations emerge in terms of the strength of pre-existing trajectories, language and access barriers and the need to manage expectations and open up discussions. Practices of holding and managing workshops, dealing with power differentials, for instance, between men and women, may be different according to cultural contexts. Furthermore, there are questions over the extent to which the ambitions of co-production can be realised, relating to the relationship between project aims to reveal competing and plural meanings of cultural heritage, and an expressed desire for a more pedagogical approach to educating communities about pre-existing understandings. These are issues we will continue to grapple with throughout the research.