Decolonising African heritage practices

“The concept of heritage, promoted today by organisations dealing with the ’heritage industry’ from government departments to museums and cultural tourism organisations, has been constructed within the frame ofWestern consumer capitalism where ’culture’ is a part of the economy. Heritage is packaged, priced and sold to the public including the inheritors themselves.”

Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage ensures the continuity of cultural practices that culture bearers recognise as invaluable. The UNESCO 2003 Convention provides the platform for promoting these practices in order to, among other things, foster healthy relationships amongst nations which according to the convention, are referred to as state parties/member states. In simple terms, practices that are flourishing and need continuity or more recognition, after nomination and acceptance, are inscribed on the Representatives List for the nominating country, while the ones that are considered endangered are inscribed on the Urgent Safeguarding List. According to Article 2 (UNESCO 2003) in the Texts of the Convention for Intangible Cultural Heritage; Intangible Cultural Heritage, means the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage.

This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development” and these practices can range from oral traditions to performing arts, social practices, traditional craftsmanship etc.

Having established the meanings and foundations for Intangible Cultural Heritage, I proceed to the core of this paper, to appropriate and discuss, as mentioned above by anthropologists Gore and Grau, the “Western consumer capitalism” evident in the UNESCO 2003 ICH Convention, with specific reference to Nigeria, especially with the use of language in some of her inscribed practices.

According to the rules set out in the Convention, the nomination forms submitted to UNESCO by nominating countries must be in French or English. In my view, this requirement has colonial undertones as far as safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage is concerned because it assumes a level of privilege, prominence, and general acceptance of these selected languages over others.

A similar example to this language privilege by UNESCO ICH Convention is the prominence and commodification of certain colonial languages that also exist in academia. To be accepted to study in most universities abroad, especially in the United Kingdom, Canada or the United States of America, as a Nigerian, even with Nigeria being a former British colony, where the English language is the official language of teaching and learning across all academic stages from primary to tertiary education and English language is also the only common language spoken across all ethnic groups, I am still required to write an English Language pro-ficiency test of about or over 200 Euros. This also applies to many other African students who want to study abroad, a test of competence in the academic language of instruction judged by the level of Listening, Writing, Reading and Speaking.

Appropriating this experience of language proficiency into the Heritage industry, the same level of language scrutiny I and my other African colleagues receive abroad was not implemented for the video files in the first two inscriptions of Nigeria’s Representatives Lists on the UNESCO 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention.

The narrations on the YouTube video files (UNESCO, 2009) attached to the inscription for Nigeria’s items “Oral Heritage of Gèlèdé” and “Ifá Divination Systems” were not done by an indigene. These practices were originally proclaimed in 2001 and 2005 respectively, before being incorporated into the Representative’s List in 2008. The “Ifá Divination Systems” was inscribed by Nigeria on its Representatives List of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List, while the “Oral Heritage of the Gèlèdé” was jointly inscribed by Nigeria, Togo and the Benin Republic because all three countries have the same practice.

Nigeria is a country rich in oral traditions, so I find it ironical that a foreigner had to do the voice-over of a practice inscribed for Nigeria. Is there no qualified Nigerian, specifically a culture bearer from the community where the practice(s) are from, who is proficient enough in both English and Yoruba Language who could have recorded the voice-over? The requirement that the texts that have to be submitted for the nomination have to be in English or French is already problematic, although, there may also be a compelling argument about the practicality of this decision that UNESCO may not have the capacity to deal with hundreds of different languages from nominating countries. In the above mentioned YouTube video files, most of what was spoken were in English but there were certain Yoruba words the narrator had to pronounce and the pronunciations of these keywords were not sufficiently articulated in the tonality of the Yoruba language and the Yoruba speaking community. According to Chanta-Martin, ‘Yoruba like many other African and Asian ethnic languages is characterised by multiple tones and monosyllabic words. That means a specific word has a different meaning depending on how it is intonated’.

For example:
• igbá calabash
• ìgbà time
• igba 200
To further buttress Chanta-Martin’s claim, I would highlight a selection of the words pronounced by the narrator of both inscriptions. The narrator’s pronunciation ofwords like, “Ifá, Babaláwo, Òrúnmìlà, Odù, Gèlèdé, Ìyá-nlá,” are innacurate. For the benefit of non-native Yoruba scholars or readers, the musical intonations in the Yoruba language can be explained with the European tonic sol-fa (DO RE MI FA SO LA TI DO) in music and we can focus on just the first three, (d-r-m/do-re-mi). In the Yoruba language, these three are symbolised differently on top of vowel sounds, same for upper and lower case.
• d is symbolised as [à è ì ò ù]
• r has no symbol [a e i o u]
• m is symbolised as the opposite of d / [á é í ó ú]
For better clarity for non-native readers we can look at more examples with further reference to Chanta- Martin’s (ibid) examples:
• i-gbá [r-m] calabash
• ì-gbà [d-d] time
• i-gba [r-r] 200
The words poorly intonated and inaccurately pronounced by the narrator are:
• I-fá [r-m]
• Ba-ba-lá-wo [r-r-m-r]
• Ò-rún-mì-là [d-m-d-d]
• O-dù [r-d]
• Gè-lè-dé [d-d-m]
• Ì-yá-nlá [d-m- m]

This detail in symbol matters a great deal to the native speaker because if the word ifá [r-m] is wrongly pronounced, it can sound as or mean ìfà [d-d]. The change in the symbol affects the pronunciation and meaning and in this case, the meaning changes from a “divination system” to “luck or fortune”. It is the same spelling but the symbols on the vowels are different, which changes the meaning. Another example is the word ògùn [d-d] which means “medicine” and is different from ogun [r-r] which means “war” just as they are different from ogún [r-m] which is “property/inheritance”. To the Euro/American or other non-native readers, the complexity of accents and intonation may not mean much but it makes a big difference to the culture bearers, if indeed it is their practice, it should be expressed accurately from their point of view.

‘European colonising powers were ignorant of the complexity of the tribal compositions of Africa. They dealt with each tribe in the same way that the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have dealt with African countries in the latter half of the 20th century one cap fits all, one medicine cures all’.

I would even argue further about Omotosho’s claim, to say that what he posits in past tense with the phrase “were ignorant” in his above quote, still exist in present day dealings. There is still this ignorance about the complexities of the African composition by Euro/Americans in geography, politics, heritage, and academia as well as everyday life or as I like to call it a “crisis of consciousness.”

However, after a recent exchange with Emeritus Professor Egil Bakka, about this paper, he wrote to me yesterday and said ‘as far as I remember the video is the responsibility of the nominating country. I remember that when we evaluated nominations, we would sometimes advise the nominators to use the practitioners for the voice-over, and have the translation in subtitles’.

This conversation with Professor Egil Bakka made me realised that apart from predictably arguing colonial ignorance or misappropriation which is one side of the coin, it is important, especially in this context, to know that the other part of this argument is the colonial attitude of African nations like Nigeria. African states should also detach from this colonial attitude and be “conscious of this crisis” by decolonising their minds and champion their own heritage and linguistic rights.

If anyone should be aware of the ethnic complexities of Nigeria, or any country for that matter, it should be the country itself. Narratives about culture should be told by those who belong to that culture. In the examples mentioned above, I referred earlier to the narrator as a foreigner because it is obvious in his accent and intonation. However, in the context of the analysed inscriptions, not all Nigerians will qualify as an indigene. For these inscriptions even a narrator from Northern Nigeria that speaks Hausa/Fulani as a mother tongue or a Nigerian from the East that speaks Igbo as mother tongue may still fall in the categorization or classification of “foreigner” although they are Nigerians, they speak a different language and may not do justice to the intonations of the Yoruba language. If such complexity exists within Nigeria, imagine using someone of Euro/American descent or accent. The mispronunciation of those words could have been avoided if the narration had been done by a culture bearer of Yoruba descent, with subtitles. As a Nigerian, it is one thing to see a lot of linguistic, dressing, and cultural misrepresentations of Nigeria or the African continent in Hollywood movies, it is another thing to see such lack of attention to crucial detail on UNESCO Intangible Heritage narration representing the nation.

UNESCO’s intention, for Intangible Cultural Heritage is said to be very much situated in the community or the culture bearers and one should expect that there should be a level of cultural correctness from States Parties/Member States and UNESCO in the nomination and inscriptions as well as in the expressions of oral tradition which includes the narration.

I conclude by revisiting the quote by Gore&Grau, from the beginning of this paper, that, based on the YouTube video files analysed, these practices inscribed for my country have been constructed within the frame of Western consumer capitalism, packaged, priced and sold to the inheritors by a foreign narrator. Although the videos used are accurately from the cultural practices inscribed, the only problem is the narrator. It is completely unacceptable that such was inscribed by Nigeria, Togo and Benin Republic. International universities pay much attention to details of language proficiency as a requirement for admission, and UNESCO also insists on nominations to be submitted in English or French, the least detail an inscribed practice by Nigeria, Togo and Benin Republic on the Representatives List of UNESCO 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage deserves is not to be poorly articulated and narrated when the roots of that practice have rich orators that are educated and have an excellent grasp of both English and Yoruba languages with knowledgeable persons amongst the culture bearers.

African countries especially former British or French colonies should pay attention and do better in the independent development of their cultural practices especially in areas of proper documentation, presentation and representation of these cultural practices. African countries must not continue to fall into the trap of whetting the western, institutional, heritage, economic, political, archaeological, scientific, anthropological, and historical appetite which is deeply rooted in their colonial past and still evident in their present colonial attitude.
• The original title of this piece from Adeniyi is, Decolonising African Heritage Practices: Matters Of Language And Tonality In The Inscriptions On UNESCO 2003 Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention.


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