Special essay by MWAYI LUSAKA, Andrew Mellon Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Humanities Research of the University of Western Cape
Cultural heritage is normally placed along the lines of economic commodification and commercialisation. It is understood as cultural heritage tourism or what others have termed ‘heritage industry’.
Cultural heritage tourism in Malawi is a generally overlooked, neglected and underdeveloped sector, yet it has massive and maximal potential to contribute towards sustainable economic development.
This is as a result of a number of factors that include but not limited to historical factors for emergence of tourism, corruption, lack of coordination between the institutions responsible for promoting cultural heritage tourism, incomprehensive research coupled with lack of specified training programmes in the field of cultural heritage tourism in our institutions of higher learning and slow pace to embrace technological and digital transformation.
A summary of the myriad definitions of culture leads me to understand culture as what defines a community in terms of its history, memories, belief systems, traditions, customs and other social practices. The idea of heritage has also been variously defined and conceptualized. Some understand it in simple terms as something which we inherit from the past. For instance Hewson defines it as that which a past generation has preserved and handed on to present and which a significant group of population wishes to hand on to the future.
Others define heritage in terms of what it exactly constitutes or what it is made up of. On this, George Abungu is good example. For Abungu, heritage is a resource; thus a nation’s or people’s resources— both natural and cultural.
Cultural heritage (both tangible and intangible) include sites, architecture, remains of cultural, historical, religious, archeological or aesthetic value, as well as song, dance, music, language, dress, food and religion.
Littler and Naidoo have defined heritage as the use of the past as a cultural, political and economic resource for the present. Thus how does the present generation use the past in whatever form for political, economic and cultural benefit? The last term is that of tourism.
According to British Tourism Society, tourism refers to any activity concerned with the temporary short-term movement of people to destinations outside places where they normally live and work and their activities during the stay at these destinations.
Since the principle benefit of tourism is an economic one, it would also be advisable to understand that those people who travel are the ones who spend money not generated in these areas of their destination. So then what is cultural heritage tourism? According to World Heritage Tourism, it refers to movements of persons for essentially cultural motivations such as study tours, performing arts and cultural tours, travel to festivals and other cultural events, visits to sites and monuments and travel to study nature, folklore or pilgrimages.
Malawi may not have gold or diamond, but it has its own unique and unrivalled heritage, culture and history which can be turned into ‘gold’. Here, I am thinking of our cultural heritage sites, historical monuments, cultural festivals, traditions and customs and also institutions of public heritage and culture like museums. How as a nation have we capitalised on these resources that make and constitute our past for economic benefit through tourism?
Nkhotakota is one of the historically rich districts in the country. It is where Christianity and Islam first met, conversed, negotiated with each other and agreed to have mutual existence. Today, three important historical features are evidence to this encounter. The last standing wall of Bondo Mosque on the shores of Lake Malawi is the stark reminder of slave trade masterminded by Jumbe. Literature has documented that at Bondo Mosque, the captured slaves were rested, fed and cleansed before their embarkation to the world of no return.
Bondo Mosque is also a reminder of the birth of Islam in Malawi. Not very far from the mosque, there is a giant fig tree, the Livingstone Tree. Another one is found in the backyard of the Anglican Church. These two fig trees are the reminders of the birth of Christianity and the goodwill of Dr David Livingstone in ending slave trade and promoting his most touted three Cs—Civilisation. Christianity and Commerce. How best have we used these historical and cultural resources for the economic benefit of the community and the nation? Apart from the rusting interpretative signposts, there is no proper interpretation method on these sites. They have no tourist amenities, not even the simple benches for the tourists to rest.
Perhaps we seem not to know the magic that sites associated with colonialism and historical figures of colonialism unleash when creatively packaged as tourist products. As Ciraj Rassool and Leslie Witz remind us, in Southern Africa, tourism constructed its gaze around the Victoria Falls in an attempt to follow the venerated path discovered by the missionary-cum-explorer David Livingstone. Thus our colleagues in Zambia and Zimbabwe found the historical figure of David Livingstone and sites associated with the man to be an opportunity for their tourism. Today these places sell themselves massively through the name of David Livingstone and are swarm with flocks of tourists ready to spend the Euros and dollars on the surrounding communities. If the journey of Dr David Livingstone connects the Victoria Falls with Nkhotakota, is there no possibility to lure the thousands of international tourists, in search of Livingstone in Africa, from the Victoria Falls to the Livingstone Trees in Nkhotakota?
Today young people of Nkhotakota would not have been worrying about jobs and other opportunities with the foot prints of David Livingstone right in their neighborhood. So with proper packaging (that includes interpretation of the sites) and marketing, Nkhotakota with its historical resources, can be the strong hub of cultural heritage tourism. In Nkhotakota the nexus of the Livingstone heritage in dialogue with the Arab slave trade heritage and the view of Lake Malawi would provide a rare package of cultural heritage tourism unrivalled in southern Africa. But this seems to be another wasted opportunity. The community in whose these heritage resources are found intimated to me about the huge lack of interest from the departments responsible for promoting the sites.
Mangochi is another valuable heritage resource that suffers the same fate like Nkhotakota. The history of Fort Mangochi is situated in the wider histories of slave trade, military history , first World War and of course, colonialism. Located on the plateau of Mangochi Hill, this is where the Yao Chief Jalasi used to have a stockade of captured slaves who were waiting for dispatch through the lake to Zanzibar.
After Jalasi was defeated, the British built a fort to monitor and intercept slave caravans. Later, the site came to be used for military purposes during the First World War. Its location on the plateau of the hill offers a sublime view of Mozambique and the awesome stretch of Lake Malawi like Table Mountain Cape Town, South Africa.
Mangochi Fort is another stark reminder of Malawi’s past. Yet unlike the slave heritage sites in West Africa for example Goree Island in Senegal, the slave castles of Ghana and Cape Town, this potential site is out of tourism radar in Malawi. My visit to the site was welcome with tall bushes and overgrown grass. No facilities for tourists have been erected on the site. Earlier attempts to upgrade the site seem not to have been sustained by the community.
Poor focus and coordination
The pathetic situation at the sites that I have described is not an isolated case. Rather, it is replicated in most significant cultural heritage sites in Malawi. Why is that so? Historically, Malawi’s tourism has always been the preserve of the ‘sun, sea and sand’ and also the ‘pristine wilderness ready to be discovered’ as manifested by the wildlife and game parks. In other words, for a long time, tourism in Malawi has been focusing on promoting the lake and wildlife at the neglect of historical and cultural heritage. As the result huge chunks of funds for developing and promoting tourism have been channeled to these areas.
Again, there is critical poor coordination between the departments of culture and that of tourism in promoting these sites for tourism purposes. For instance, department of culture claims their mandate to only conserve and preserve the sites and not marketing. Likewise, the department of tourism claims their mandate is only to market the tourism products. Who is then going to enhance the heritage resources to be well commodified as the tourist product?
We are good at conserving and preserving cultural heritage for identity and posterity, but not for economic ends. When the funds are made available for projects meant for promoting the cultural heritage tourism, it seems more money goes somewhere than to intended projects.
How far we are willing to embrace technological innovations have also something to bear on the state of cultural heritage tourism. In this age of technology, our institutions of public culture like the museums have not embraced the technological revolution that would enable them attract more tourists and elevate the cultural heritage tourism.
Today, new museulogies are about the enhanced experience of the tourist aided by technological innovations of exhibitions. Such museums are frequently visited and in the process attract a wider audience. I acknowledge the strides Malawi museums have made, especially in efforts to digitise and document the cultural historical objects in all its branches, thanks to the Ambassadors Cultural Preservation Fund by the US government. This will ensure proper conservation of our rare heritage in case of unforeseeable circumstances like the inferno that gutted the Brazilian Museum recently.
But what remains to be seen is how the Museum of Malawi can use its digitised cultural history objects to reach the wider audience through virtual museum or websites on which they can showcase a sample of what Malawi has and, consequently, trigger interest for tourists to come and appreciate more.
Reluctant to modernise
Our museums seem to be reluctant to modernise and position themselves in the tourist route. They do not have proper mechanisms of advertising themselves or marketing themselves to attract wider audience. Visit any major hotel and see if you will find a simple brochure of a public museum.
The institutions of higher learning in Malawi are not spared. They too have their own contribution to the miserable situation of cultural heritage tourism. Not many offer mainstream programmes targeting cultural heritage tourism. This has to large extent contributed to lack of human and intellectual capital that can adequately theorise and deal with the practicalities of heritage and tourism in the country.
Having such programmes would enhance scholarship and productive research in the cultural heritage tourism that would inform proper innovation, policy and strategy and marketing of our cultural heritage resources by identifying research needs and opportunities both at the global and national levels .The programmes would also be useful in understanding the progress in the global construction of knowledge in this field. This will not only ensure the future of the past, but also the proper economic use of our past.
While this sad situation regarding cultural heritage tourism in Malawi persists, there is a silver lining in the cloud. We can still have a sense of optimism in the midst of despair. Some few developments inspire hope about the future of cultural heritage tourism in Malawi. The recent Malawi Growth Development Strategy (MGDS III 2017-2022) has outlined the government efforts to streamline cultural heritage tourism in its agendas. The document promises the nation of improved quality tourism services and products through promotion and conservation of culture and enhancing marketing of Malawi’s tourism products.
The department of tourism has also made grand strides and achievements by successfully hosting the Malawi Tourism Expo for two consecutive years in 2017 and 2018. If this tradition continues, it will expose more about our cultural heritage. Some institutions of higher learning are considering to explore tourism in specific terms of cultural heritage to their learners. For example, departments of history at Mzuzu University and Chancellor College are in the process of finalising curriculum and modules specific to this field. And the Tourism Department at Mzuzu University touches on some areas of culture and tourism. These initiatives will ensure a human capital necessary to drive the field of cultural heritage tourism. Currently the Museums of Malawi through the African Biodiversity Challenge (ABC) is digitising some of its heritage to make it accessible to all through local and international websites. Some communities like Gwirize (Owners of Gwirize Cultural village) in Salima have taken the notion of pro-poor tourism in their own hands by mobilising, packaging and marketing their intangible cultural heritage for tourism consumption to meet their dire economic needs. Cultural festivals like Lake of Stars, Sand Festival and those by ethnic heritage associations seem to point to the better future of heritage tourism in our country.
It is my colourful dream that the communities surrounding Bondo Mosque, Livingstone trees and Fort Mangochi will soon start benefitting from these cultural heritage resources to confirm the enhancement and marketing of Malawi’s tourism products as promised by the Malawi Growth Development Strategy (MGDS III 2017-2022).