Clture includes a society's history and traditions, its past and tehrefore its futurePhoto Abdul Sheriff

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Abdul Sheriff, Prince Claus Fund Laureate 2005

Website Prince Claus Fund - Prince Claus Awards 2005

Are we together? - museum work on Zanzibar

The Power of Culture, augst 2005

Reopening 'House of Wonders Museum' in Zanzibar

The Power of Culture, july 2005

Zanzibar Department of Archives, Museums and Antiquities

with information on the Zanzibar Museums

Programme for Museum Development in Africa

Kenian based organisation dedicated to the preservation, management and promotion of cultural heritage in Africa

the House of Wonders Museum

swahili bedroom

Swahili Bedroom

Stone Town Gallery: ‘Shopfront house’

Museum display on today's Stone Town

Culture is not a luxury?

We often associate ‘culture’ with human activities, involving music and dance, theatre, poetry. This is what we may call ‘high culture’ of the elite. In some African countries we have Ministries of Culture which seem to take as their sole mandate the organisation of ‘traditional’ dances for visiting dignitaries. Many of our tourist agencies have a similar idea, using our culture as ‘background music’ to entertain tourists as they are having their lunch.

But culture, in anthropological terms, means the total and distinctive way of life of a people or society, of which music, dance, theatre and poetry are but a part, perhaps a small part. It includes a society’s history and traditions, its past and therefore its future. It also includes the economy which is embedded in the society’s distinctive way of life.

I was trained as a historian, and over the past thirteen years I tried to use my experience to raise awareness among those who visit the museums. Both local citizens and visiting tourists get an idea of the Zanzibar way of life, where we have come from and how, so that they can understand, respect and nurture our culture.

Specifically, in our latest exhibition on the Zanzibar Stone Town, which is now a World Heritage Site, we highlighted that it is not merely a collection of antique buildings that need preservation. Even more importantly, it is the sum total of the way of life of the people who live in it, which also needs to be protected and nurtured.

This is particularly important at the present time, when the long period of neglect and decay after the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 has been followed by feverish development of tourism to earn the tourist dollar. This can easily destroy the old town and its fragile Islamic culture. I believe that responsible tourism can contribute to the regeneration of the Stone Town. We need to have a clear objective and decide between the dollar or our culture, if we have to choose between the two.

The multi-cultural society of Zanzibar

Zanzibar is a small island with only a million inhabitants. It has never been an isolated enclave, but rather has grown in the crucible of intense inter-cultural relations across the Indian Ocean for centuries. It has therefore had a very dynamic cosmopolitan culture at the intersection between Africa and the world of the Indian Ocean. This does not mean that there is a single homogeneous Swahili culture, but a culture that has accepted difference as part of the norm of the society instead of imposing a single monolithic vision.

This was not a paradise on earth. Our history has its murky corners, like any other country, and we have to live with them and cleanse them so that they do not poison the present. Slavery is one of them, and another is the colonial policy of divide and rule based on ethnic differences that went contrary to the Swahili tendency towards cultural homogenisation. We have to deal with all of their lingering consequences.

Ninety seven per cent of the people are Muslims, but they have grown up in a multi-religious arena where Muslims, Hindus, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, and Christians have been constantly interacting with those practicing traditional beliefs from the African interior. But they have been doing so in a fairly relaxed tolerant atmosphere of the maritime and mercantile world of the Indian Ocean. Despite the fact that the Sultan of Zanzibar belonged to a puritanical sect of Islam, Hindus and Christians were allowed to build their places of worship since the nineteenth century without hindrance. We have had other civil conflicts in Zanzibar, but until recently never a religious one.

The multi-cultural and multi-religious tendencies of our culture are an important part of our cultural heritage that need to be nurtured in an atmosphere of tolerance, nay, even celebration of our diversity. People who have grown up within a particular culture often take the most obvious for granted but visitors may be baffled by the diversity. The museum can raise awareness among both groups of visitors, especially school children as a way of educating them visually and entertainingly.

The Prince Claus Award

The Prince Claus Award came at a very crucial moment when we had just completed the latest exhibition on the Zanzibar Stone Town. This was done in conjunction with a training programme for the museum staff that was generously funded by the Dutch Ministry of Overseas Development that considers cultural development an integral part of economic development.

It had involved training by not only museum experts from the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) of Amsterdam, but in partnership with a network of African museum experts through the Programme of Museum Development in Africa based in Mombasa.

It was also done in the context of our own deliberate policy of self-reliance that had been advocated by former President Nyerere, but which we had begun to forget and had to re-learn from our own experience. We used low-cost and low-technology local resources that are sustainable in our circumstances.

Coming as it did at that moment, the award was a vindication not only of the thesis that culture was a vital part of development, but also how sustainable development can come about. It cannot be on the basis of handouts or top-down advice by foreign consultants who may not know as much about the local culture; but rather on the basis of self-reliance and partnership, as we learnt through bitter experience.

The award was very reassuring and encouraging that we were on the right track. I hope it will continue to motivate me and the staff of the Zanzibar Museums to persevere in all our endeavours.

Unfortunately, soon after I was confidentially informed of the award, and before it was made public, my appointment with the Zanzibar Museums was abruptly terminated by the Zanzibar Government for unexplained reasons. I therefore regret that I could not use my reinvigorated energies towards the completion of the House of Wonders Museum. My departure also disrupted the team spirit that we had developed over the previous year, and my colleagues may have been bewildered.

For my part, after the initial shock, I decided to go back to what I was trained as: a historian. I went back to writing my book on the long-cherished theme of the Dhow Culture of the Indian Ocean where many of my views about culture and its longue duree development come from. In this effort, the Award has been a guiding star that good work is appreciated in the international community.