Safe guarding the living cultural heritage of Nigeria


By Adeleke Adelowo Olatunde

The need for preservation of the living cultural expressions of nations became a global Phenomenon at the 32nd session of the UNESCO General Conference in 2003. The living cultural heritage, which is also known as “Intangible cultural heritage” of nations across the world, received the greatest attention during the session. The resolutions reached at the meeting filled a gap in the legal system of international cultural heritage protection, which hitherto had been focused exclusively on safeguarding the tangible heritage.

Matsura (2005), notes without reservation that 2003 UNESCO General Conference broadened the scope of “heritage” to include intangible cultural values. Since all tangible heritage embodies intangible components such as spiritual values, symbols, meanings, knowledge, or the know-how of craftsmanship and construction, a broader and diversified definition of the term “heritage” is required, especially in the face of the threats posed by globalisation, multilingualism, cultural diversity and bioethics.

In August, 2004, UNESCO with other international stake-holders in culture and tourism organised a conference in Tokyo with the theme “Globalisation and Intangible Cultural Heritage: Opportunities, Threats and challenges” The conference further strengthened the need for the preservation of the living culture Nations and races worldwide. During the conference, two contrasting but seemingly linked trends were identified. On one hand is an ongoing process towards a homogenisation of culture, a tendency towards the development of “global culture”. On the other hand, the preservation of cultural heritage plays crucial roles in giving definitions to individuals and groups cultural identities.

While the world communities have for many years spoken one language in the preservation and conversation of cultural heritage sites and monuments, it is only recently that international consensus was reached to protect and promote intangible cultural heritage. Following the directives from UNESCO that nations should establish a system of living human treasures to enable them preserve their intangible culture, Nigeria began the process in 2004 and was expected to be institutionalised by 2006. The aims is to protect and perpetuate the nation’s living cultural heritage via a mechanism, which will formally identify, recognise and support persons with traditional know-how, skills and techniques that can be transferred to the younger generation.

The Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism was saddled with the responsibility of implementing the project. For effective implementation, the ministry sets up a committee, which comprises of culture administrators, experts, sake-holders and the academia.

Definition of terms

For proper comprehension, it becomes necessary to define the following terms as used in the paper:

Culture: Foster (1962) defines culture as the common learned way of life shared by members of a society, consisting of the totality of facts, techniques, social institutions, attitudes, beliefs, motivations and systems of values known to a group.

Heritage: This refers to things inherited, especially from an older person(s).

Tangible Heritage: Jekayinfa (2002) refers to tangible heritage as material culture which comprises of man’s industry and works of Art such as carving, painting, food, dress, pots, weapons, houses, cloths etc.

Intangible Heritage/Living Heritage:(2002) also refers to it as non-material culture which includes: Language, dance, religion, music, literature and moral values.

Importance of this study

Nigeria as a multi-ethic society is faced with the challenges of safeguarding her various intangible cultural values due to constant infiltrations by foreign cultures. The younger generations in Nigeria are fast loosing sense of cultural identity: such as effective use of their mother tongues. The situation of an average Nigerian therefore can be likened to a man who has the weapon to conquer the world, but unfortunately lacks the knowledge of how to use the weapon. To remedy this situation, the stakeholders need to act fast.

The nation’s intangible cultural heritage

With the emergence of the needs to protect the non-material culture of the people globally, the term cultural heritage has been given a broader meaning. It is no longer limited to material manifestations, such as monuments and objects that have been protected over time. It also includes countless living expressions that groups and communities have inherited from their ancestors and transmitted to their descendants, mostly orally.

Taking the leading position among such intangible expressions is “Language”. For instance, in Nigeria, there are varying ethnic nationalities with different languages and dialects upon which other intangible expressions are built. There we have the Hausas, Igbos, Yoruba, Ibibios, Kanuris and the itshekiris, to mention but a few.

One of the most battered intangible cultures in Nigeria is our local languages. The younger generation and elites have great difficulty using their mother tongues effectively, whereas worldwide, it is believed that no matter how vast one is in a foreign language, one reasons first in his or her local language. Little wondered why Nigeria has achieved so little in the field of technology and sciences. Since these are taught and learnt in a language alien to us.

Jekayinfa (2002) described language as the “pivot of culture” as it enables human beings to express themselves in a way which can be understood by others. Since all human cultures are based on language and all human languages are sufficiently complex in transmitting the full totality of a human culture, no society can go far without esteeming her language(s).

Other intangible expressions are oral traditions such as chanting, dancing, rituals, music, festive events (masquerades), social practices and drama. It also includes skills involved in production of crafts and artistic work, oral history folklore, oral literature, weaving (loom, raffia needs etc), performing arts (Jester, masquerades, actors etc).

Looking closely at the skills, technology and knowhow involved in carving and sculpturing using terracotta, stones ivory wood, metal and bronze or varying degree of pottery for domestic, rituals and musical uses, no doubt Nigeria would have become advanced if these had been the basis of our modem technology.

The living human treasures in Nigeria

The alarming rates at which the nation’s intangible heritage is fast fizzling into oblivion necessitated the need to recognise and honour the living human treasures in Nigeria in order to remedy the situation.

According to the committee set up in 2004 by the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism to see to the preservation of our intangible heritage, any Nigerian who is above the age 50 and possesses to a large extent skills and techniques linked to specific form of intangible cultural heritage, are those Nigerians who are crucial to the perpetuation of these skills and are willing to pass those skills down to the younger generations. Such people, as recommended by the committee, would be given national honours and the ceremony would be performed by the president and the commander-in-chief of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Nigerian museums and her intangible heritage

There is no doubt that Nigeria, because of her huge size and population, parades more museums both at Federal, states and communities level than any other nation in West Africa, if not in Africa as a whole. However, these museums are not as diversified as in the developed nations of Europe and America. Perhaps this is what prompted the Director General of National Commission for Museums and Monument, Mr. Abdallah Yusuf, to identify as one of his three points agenda the need to diversify Nigeria Museums; and shift away from the conventional ethnographic, historical and war museums known to Nigeria.

It is not an overstatement to express that Nigerian museums are strategically positioned to safeguard the nation’s intangible heritage, if the stakeholders saddled with the responsibility would discharge their duty with all sincerity. This is not to say that Nigerian museums have done nothing to perpetuate the nation’s intangible heritage. Great successes have been achieved. Among such achievement is the approval of “Osun Osogbo festival and Groove as World heritage site, documentation of many annual and biannual festivals across the nation and reviewing of the documented festivals to ensure that originality is perpetuated for the coming generations to see.

It is pertinent to also add that National Museum Ibadan, under the leadership of her amiable and versatile curator, Mrs. Sharon Ireti and Kola George has left no stone unturned in perpetuating the nation’s intangible heritage. One of such feats was the recent visit to Saki, Oyo State to establish a community museum. Once the museum is established in that town it will help in safeguarding the intangible compounds of the tangible heritage acquired by the museum.

Intangible heritage as a tool towards Nigeria’s technological advancement

The continuous search for self-identity is the greatest problem the British Colonial masters bequeathed to Nigeria. This quest for self-identity becomes more evident in the claustrophic postures of many Nigerian youths, which do not want to be mere spectators in the face of the technological wonders sweeping across the globe.

Science and Technology is taught in foreign languages in Nigeria. Nigeria can only advance in technology if taught in Nigerian languages. Students that are Yoruba should be taught science and technology in Yoruba language, while those that are of other tribes be taught in their languages. In Britain and America, science and technology is taught in English Language. In Japan and China, and technology it’s taught in their local languages. This is why they have great advancement in technology.

Oral literature, which comprises of poetry, drama, folktales and songs would go a long way in promoting honesty, diligence and patriotism in Nigeria. The intangible expressions in this category are already phasing out. Sad enough, home videos and football leagues have already taken the place of folktales that were often used in those days to teach a child honesty, diligence, faithfulness, love and patriotism.

Oral poetry such as “Ewi”, “Ijala”, Ekun Iyawo, etc as we have in Yoruba nations, helps in promoting moral. Museum education is strategically positioned to restore this culture back to the society through constant education of the society, especially the younger ones.

In conclusion, the roles of museums in safeguarding and perpetuating our intangible heritage cannot be over emphasized. It is high time our government and stakeholders in culture and tourism motivated museum professionals and the society at large to protect this already endangered aspect of our culture.

Adeleke writes from Ilorin

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