Djenne: An Evolving Cultural Landscape

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Who manages a cultural landscape that has global importance? Does the United Nations have final say or the local community? It turns out a complex web of interests shape these evolving cultural landscapes, particularly if people still live there and they aren’t just outdoor museums. In a fascinating session at Dumbarton Oaks’ latest conference on cultural landscapes in Sub Saharan Africa, Charlotte Joy, an anthropologist at University of London, delved into Mali’s convoluted history with UNESCO World Heritage program and one local community’s efforts to preserve a cultural landscape people still call home.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was formed with the rest of the UN System in the mid-1940s. Its philosophy, said Joy, was always to “foster inter-cultural dialogue through education.” The idea behind the organization was to “construct peace in the minds of men,” not just through disarmament and economic development. The thinking was if cultures could better understand each other, they would go to war with each other less.

In 1972, after years of debate about what constitutes significant cultural value and the best ways to preserve the sites that embody it, UNESCO’s member states signed the World Heritage Convention and, six years later, formed the first World Heritage List. Today, the list, which includes some 962 sites, is seen as a critical tool for spreading knowledge about cultures. The current list includes some 745 cultural sites and 188 natural ones. Some 157 are combined cultural and natural sites. According to Joy, Africa has just 86 sites, mostly in the natural category. Just to note: Cultural landscapes are a special sub-set of world heritage sites. Within this group, there are “clearly defined, organically evolved, and associative” cultural landscapes.

Mali, a country in the north west corner of Sub-Saharan Africa, is home to four sites, two of which – Timbuktu and the Tomb of Askia – are critically threatened. In March of last year, a coup was started by an army officer, who was unhappy with the government response to a Tuareg rebellion. Soon after, the coup leaders attacked government sites in Bamako. Then, fighting with the Tuareg, who had partnered with an Al Qaeda affiliate, dramatically escalated. At one point, the Tuareg actually took control of Timbuktu, but they were soon repelled by French military forces, who have intervened in the conflict. Joy made a point of saying that Tuareg rebellions are nothing new in Mali, and have been happening at least since 1916. “There have been a large number of rebellions. Tuaregs are fighting for recognition, land, and self-definition.”

Mali’s economy has been devastated by both the conflict and the international community’s effective isolation of the new Malian leadership. Tourists aren’t coming to visit Mali’s amazing cultural sites because governments are listing the sites as unsafe. This is in part because many don’t have any formal communications with the new government.

Culture has always been big economic driver there. Joy said the cultural ministry even created a detailed “cultural map” of the country, with each region’s distinct art, music, and earth works. But all that amazing cultural heritage isn’t just for tourists: While there are many world music festivals that attract European tourists, local roots program radio stations and TV documentaries attract a wide domestic audience. Way before UNESCO created its list, “Mali was secure in its rich cultural heritage. This has always been a cultural landscape.”

In the relatively safe city of Djenne, south of Timbuktu, there is the UNESCO site Old Town. UNESCO put Djenne on the list because it’s an “authentic cityscape,” its “architectural whole is viewed as iconic.” Joy said “UNESCO loves Djenne because its African, monumental, and architectural.”

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But she said the bounded lines of UNESCO’s definition of the Old Town don’t tell the true story of cultural heritage in Djenne. “For locals, it’s always been about Djenne and its surrounding landscape.” Gardens around the old town are used for growing food, while cattle herders move their animals and farmers grow rice. “Djenne can then be conceptualized as a formal cultural landscape,” not just as a set of old buildings.

Djenne has always had political value to Mali’s leaders. The founders of Mali pointed to it as “evidence of the democratic roots of Mali.” Interestingly, it began as a non-Islamic civilization, even though there are many Muslims who live there now. Its cultural value has shifted over time, at least for the locals who live there. Archeological sites within the old town are now off limits to the locals who have lived there for generations.

Age-old building techniques and materials have also changed, for the worst. Square bricks were introduced by the French, changing the traditional building construction techniques. “Before, masons in Djenne used round, cylindrical bricks.” Joy said the masons think the new bricks are inferior to the old.

The mud used to cover the buildings, which has its own special chemistry, has changed over the years. Before, corn husks were worked into the mud to strengthen it. Now, those corn husks have to actually be imported at great expense from other parts of Africa. The river from which the mud came from used to be rich in fish. Dead fish bones added necessary elements to the mud. With the loss of fish stock, “they now make poorer clay.”

Before, all able-bodied men and kids came out to help apply a fresh coat of mud to the mosque and other buildings in an annual rite. But with increased regulation, created by UNESCO, locals weren’t allowed to do it for a period of time because layers of recent mud forms were deemed to be out of compliance with the original forms. UNESCO asked the old town’s elders and masons to remove mud to go back to original design. “For five years, locals couldn’t apply the mud.” The community is back at work applying mud to the facades once again this year, or at least when the town elders decide it has reached the right consistency.

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Joy said “there has to be a balance between regulating a place and actually living in it.” In effect, outside regulation can really interfere with locals’ ability to preserve their own cultural heritage, severing them from their cultural landscapes. She wondered how a cultural landscape that people live in can be trapped in time, particularly a time hundreds of years in the past. “People can’t live the same way indefinitely.” Also, can Djenne really ever be made to stay the same, “given the aquifers have changed, acid rain has affected the buildings, rice husks are now imported?”

She believes international organizations have an “ethical imperative to understand how people relate to a landscape” and adjust based on how that relationship changes over time. Joy also believes UNESCO missed the boat in terms of defining the cultural boundaries of the city. “The heritage is really found in the edge, in the periphery. What’s important is the symbolic relationship between the old town and the surrounding landscape.”

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Other presentations explored the challenges of cultural landscape heritage management in Sub-Saharan Africa. Innocent Pikirayi, University of Pretoria, South Africa, described UNESCO World Heritage Site Great Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe as a “power-scape,” a contested political terrain. “There have been so many meanings projected on to this place.” Today, it’s officially a “sacred, protected site.” But in reality this means the local community who could actually support its upkeep has been barred from using the site as a spiritual landscape.

Early settlers, from 900 – 1450 AD, brought the population of the Great Zimbabwe area to around 18-20,000, which made it “comparable in size to pre-industrial London.” Beginning in the 1550s, the civilization that created the site began to decline, as it lost out to other civilizations in the gold trade. For hundreds of years, the site was “largely silent, abandoned,” until it was “discovered” by Europeans. With Cecil Rhodes and the rise of European settlers in Rhodesia (the European name for what is now Zimbabwe), the site’s history was “appropriated and falsified.” Then, with the rise of African nationalism “there was a purge of European scientific archeology,” in favor of making Great Zimbabwe a “national symbol.” Long-time dictator Robert Mugabe has “manipulated the past for political gain.”

The end result, said Pikirayi, is this vital place has actually lost its “sacredness” because the “spirit of the place is now inaccessible to the local community.” Some locals believe the gods are upset by this, which is why there are now “bush fires and other natural disasters.”

Maano Ramutsindela, University of Cape Town, South Africa, then discussed “how regions translate into cultural landscapes.” He described how regions, which share geographic, political, economic, and cultural characteristics, make up Sub-Saharan Africa. In Mali, for example, these “cultural regions actually define the landscape.” Cultural regions also mingle with natural habitats, creating interesting “human-environmental relationships,” such as migratory routes. Today, he is looking at Peace Parks, those inter-border zones that transect political boundaries. The idea is to create regional national parks that aren’t separated by borders, given animals don’t know whether they are in Mozambique, Tanzania, or South Africa. Conservation then creates new layers in these regional cultural landscapes.

Image credits: (1) Djenne market / Wikipedia, (2) Mosque in Djenne / Bensozia, (3) Applying mud to mosque in Djenne / Key Africa, (4) Djenne fisherman / Flickr.

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