“A person without knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”
Over the years, the continuous cycle of inscribing and delisting heritage sites has been gradually ongoing and has become a core part of our tradition. We all just have an idea that we have been inscribed as a world heritage site today and years later we will be fighting hard to save that site from being registered in the endangered list of sites. Mostly this of course owes to a vast changing climate we probably all believe we have little control over, on the other hand, it is the competing needs to balance development on the sites without disturbing their natural beauty.
As much as these sites have been so integral in our lives and that of our history, there is another factor which has tentatively threatened increasing their vulnerability. I have been coerced to believe that every heritage site is at risk, risk of losing its universal outstanding value, owing to the vast ignorance the prospective future citizens has about these cultural and natural landscapes.
In basic terms, outstanding universal value (OUV) in heritage generally refers to the meaning that our heritage whether tangible or intangible, cultural or natural has. That which makes it unique to all of us. For a place like Great Zimbabwe, the OUV is that it is a self-sustaining rock structure with no mortar or clay that has intactly existed since about 1100AD. For a place like the Robben Island, its OUV would be its location and being the symbol of the triumph of the human spirit against adversity. The unique reason which makes a heritage entity what it is.
A lack of awareness is a growing threat to heritage sites in most African countries. I was privileged enough to attend the first African World Heritage Youth Forum held in Cape Town, South Africa from the 28th of April to the 5th of May 2016. During the forum, sponsored by UNESCO and the African World Heritage Fund, it was revealed that a lack of awareness on the meaning of heritage in all the 23 countries represented was prevalent and this posed a risk that this lack of appreciation of heritage would run most sites into shadows of irrelevance and extinction.
It is sad today that to most young people in Zimbabwe, the Great Zimbabwe are just rocks, a few young people understand the significance, the roots and the identity that site has for any Zimbabwean. In one of my conversations after the forum with one of the most esteemed Zimbabwean ‘heritagist’, Pathisa Nyathi, a lack of appreciation was cited. He brought to context the Matobo Hills which were inscribed by UNESCO as a world heritage site in 2003 saying that the hills are under threat from local young boys who normally do cattle herding and in cold weather sometimes make fire in the bushmen caves where some rock paintings are found. This meant that the paintings are slowly becoming covered by smoke. He insisted that it was not their fault that such is happening because they do not even know what heritage is, let alone its importance and relevance to their daily living.
The future deserves all the opportunities we have had too. It is also our mandate to read about heritage, share stories about it. In essence, it is our collective responsibility to ensure our participation in key decisions that affect our heritage, because besides being just sites or traditional practices, our heritage bears our roots and identity. I would love to close off by quoting one South African lady I met during the forum. She writes: “A person without knowledge of their history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. As I walk away from ignorance.” (Mmapule. P. Maluleke, 2016).
(The word ‘heritagist’ is the author’s colloquial creation to explain a heritage expert.)