Saving Kenya’s underwater cultural heritage



There has been a lot of discussion on whether to establish an underwater archeological site or museums to ensure proper conservation of artefacts on the seabeds.

Mohamed Mwenje, the curator in charge of the Lamu museums, says Kenya has two sites at Fort Jesus in Mombasa, which can developed to become underwater museums.

He, however, says such moves are not easy as they must involve gazettement of the individual sites, something he says takes quite some time to achieve.

“Then from there, we have the issue of putting up the necessary infrastructure that will enable visitors to explore those underwater museums safely and comfortably,” Mwenje says.

All in all, Mwenje says Kenya has the capability to establish successful underwater museums that will, in essence, boost tourism and enhance the country’s presence globally.

“We could easily reach the level of the Museo Subacuático de Arte, located off the coast of Isla Mujeres in Mexico’s Riviera Maya,” he says.

“It’s the world’s largest underwater museum and composed of more than 500 life-sized sculptures. It offers incredible displays hidden 28 feet below the ocean’s surface.”

In the meantime, Mwenje says the NMK chooses to remain secretive about just how much heritage there is in the ocean so as to deter looters.

“This is because once you announce how many there are, thieves and looters will come from all over, wanting to take it away or disturb it,” he says.

He says the Coast, especially, has witnessed an increased number of ships masquerading as fishing boats “only to do what we are unable to do for the time being”.

The NMK, Mwenje says, has partnered with the Kenya Navy and even trained some of the officers on how to identify and protect areas that are suspected underwater cultural sites.

Also on board is the Kenya Maritime Authority and the recently established Marine Police Unit.

“For the time being, the road is so long and we have just started. We believe that through the support of Knatcom, we will be able to identify and take advantage of this huge underwater resource that we have in Africa,” Mwenje said.

This heritage offers opportunities for sustainable tourism development not only in Kenya but the entire east African coastline, Mwenje said.

But legal structures are needed to protect it from the threats of treasure hunters and uncontrolled development, he said.

The NMK Head of Underwater Archaeology, Bita Caesar, Kenya’s only underwater cultural heritage specialist, said such sites are major tourism destinations across the globe.

Looting of such artefacts had robbed African countries of their rich history, he said.

He urged Kenyan and African universities and tertiary institutions to formulate marine archeology courses to ensure underwater heritage is fully exploited and tapped.

The expert concurred that treasure hunting in Africa poses serious threats to the preservation and protection of crucial underwater historical artefacts.

“Preservation and protection of the unique underwater archeological artefacts provide greater opportunity to the diversification of the tourism industry in Africa,” he said.

In 1977, Caesar says, Kenya became the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to undertake underwater archaeology and realise fully the real value of underwater cultural heritage during the excavation of ‘Santa Antonio de Tanna’ shipwreck in Mombasa.

The archaeologist said over the years, the country has undertaken underwater archaeological surveys to document and understand the underwater cultural heritage.

“Kenya has made huge milestones in the protection of her underwater cultural heritage, with NMK being positioned as a centre of research and studies on the continent. We have huge potential for recreational tourism in underwater heritage,” Caesar says.

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