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Restitution & digitization: Concepts that problematize African digital heritage spaces

Fonyuy Edward Bulami (13 March 2024)

This paper is conceived against the backdrop of African cultural activism and heritage restitution activism and the discourses around digitization and restitution of heritage. These discourses around digitization and the opportunities it offers to the global citizenship coincide with Restitution momentum in which Africans and African diaspora are reclaiming their lost heritage and seeking to destabilize world power imbalances in knowledge systems and also reverse and seek reparation on humanity’s injustices caused by slavery and colonialism. These two concepts with objectives that seem to diverge more than converge especially as far as content and content creators of digital African heritage spaces are concerned, is the central concern of this presentation. This concern stems from the reality that restitution as a movement is seeking the physical transfer of African material heritage across spaces from the West to Africa or others, where in the new spaces existing epistemic knowledge from the former colonial spaces is decolonized, re-conceptualized and preserved.

Inspiration from decoloniality discourses

Digitization, therefore, comes to put to question the raison d’etre of restitution understanding that through it, before the possessions are returned, they have been conveniently preserved in another form by the former colonialists, who continue to make the same gains from them as before. Moreover, digitization, unlike restitution, limits physical movement across spaces and the benefits that accrue thereof. The coincidence that emanates from restitution and digitization being born in the same age is considered by this paper as unholy. The paper thus sets out to problematize the concepts of restitution and digitization as concepts whose ultimate objectives are context, content and content creator oriented. Drawing inspiration from decoloniality discourses, the paper draws inspiration from the experiences of some African communities seeking restitution and facing digitization at the same time and how they have been caught in the web of a global dance rhythm which dance steps are not accommodating to their cultural sensitivities and knowledge systems. The question to be answered is: How does Digitization of African Cultural Heritage enhance the African perspectives and interests in Restitution momentum?

Restitution and Digitization

Restitution as enshrined in the Accra Declaration of August 24, 2023 resulting from the “Global Convening on Restitution of African Heritage”, organized by Open Society Foundations and attended by representatives from 22 countries from August 22-24, 2023

„…is not simply a matter of return of African heritage back to its rightful places and peoples, but is a matter of justice, restoration and reparation, and righting of global imbalances of power. It is, first and foremost, a collective venture for Africans to determine their hopes and visions for the future.“

Therefore, restitution is not only about the return of looted material possessions, land and ancestral remains but equally a clarion call to Africans to re-conceptualize their identity, reclaim self-dignity and uphold their personality by decolonizing and Africanizing their epistemic knowledge systems. On their part, European countries that are concerned like Germany, France, Great Britain, Portugal, Spain are reviewing their legislation and public policies to accommodate the restitution pressure. They see restitution as a means of atoning for their colonial pasts and re-writing their ugly colonial history and in consequence reshape new collaborative relationships with the former colonies.

Coincidentally, restitution conversations are taking place at the age when the world is talking digitization as a means of conserving, promoting and perpetuating, through easy access by the world, knowledge systems in general and African heritage knowledge in particular. One of the somewhat embarrassing questions posed by Eurocentric restitution adherents is about where the restituted possessions would be preserved when returned to Africa. In addition, the doubts as to whether Africans are even knowledgeable enough to preserve these possessions if returned, is conveniently seen as lack of respect for humanity by the former. These worries that seem to have found a solution in the advent of the digitization of epistemic knowledge systems may sound lofty but a critical look at the whole idea brings forth complexities that put digitization of African heritage to question. The bigger question that arises is: What does digitization mean to an African, considering the African cultural sensitivities and epistemic knowledge systems?

Making African cultural heritage accessible

Digitization, as postulated by Chao Tayiana Maina of „African Digital Heritage“, is “often considered a strategy for future oriented safekeeping, distribution, and greater engagement” (podcast intro), while on her part, Neema Lyer in the same podcast sees digitization as “intangible visualizations of our physical world”. To Chao Maina, in the process of digitization, there is need for respect of ethical values and disregard for inequalities that stem from race, cultural sensitivities, civilizations and more. Digitization thus entails navigating from analogue to digital, thus opening opportunities for easy access and sharing of digital information across the globe using different digital tools developed through advancement in information and communication technological. Both Chao Maina and Molemo Moiloa of “Open Restitution Africa” are passionate about digitization of African cultural heritage as a means of making data on it accessible to all so as to imprint on alien minds African perspectives to their epistemic knowledge systems and cultural heritage. In their podcast conversation, they insist on the physical structural spacing of heritage and the intangible knowledge sharing because they

„believe that the question of data is so critical to the restitution discussion… because [they] believe again, that making data accessible creates more public awareness… It enables practitioners to collaborate across countries and regions, and it also facilitates knowledge sharing” (Chao Maina podcast).

Both Pan-Africanists do not claim that digitization is all roses to the African. In principle, digitization has resulted in the conversion of African heritage, for example from text, audio and images, into digital format, a format determined by the nature of space chosen as lodge space, but the challenges of this evolution to the African remain visible. The visible worries are: Who writes the text? Who makes the audio? From what angle are the images taken and presented? Amongst other issues, the concern is that digital spaces are to take over the preservation, promotion and perpetuation, for example, of the sacred African heritage to which access is dictated by a set of traditional rules and cultural dicta, like gender consideration, age, mood, dress code, initiation rites, social status, marital status, time of the day, surrounding bio-ecology and more. The emphasis Chao Maina & Molemo Moiloa place on African perspectives to the context, content and content creator is evidence that Africans are ready to embrace digitization but that the question of ‘who?’ and ‘what?’ still looms.

Intrusion into sacred places

Considering that restitution carries along the clarion call to Africans to decolonize their heritage and knowledge systems and to re-conceptualize who they are in the process, the digitization of restituted African heritage becomes a challenge to restitution itself. Even though the digital age is having a strong hold on museums and cultural institutions which are constrained to innovate in the digital direction, as Chao Maina maintains, the overwhelming complexities abound and awareness about them should be primordial.

There is no denying that this technological advancement in information and communication has led to improved cultural and historical heritage preservation and to wider audience outreach in the global village, but the question of how englobing these globalizing spaces and contents are and how void of inequalities and unethical narratives they are, remains. D. Ramatlhakwana, in reflections on challenges to digitizing the African heritage observes that

“(t)he critical challenge emanates from whether it is the ICT or the people who have to determine the material which qualifies to be the African heritage”.

In addition, he wonders whether digitizing the African heritage will not be seen as intrusive into places which have been seen and revered as sacred, in the same endeavour seeking to understand how authentic the digitized heritage knowledge system will be to the community of origin. David Udoinwang and Ikpe Justice Akpan maintain that

“(d)igitization incursions into social life and culture continue to evolve, flooding the world with e-tag paraphernalia and exerting unprecedented influence on cultural landscapes.”

While some see this evolution as “a magic wand to transform less-developed societies into advanced communities without considering the negative impacts on cultural identities”, others see such an evolution as importing baggage that is considered alien to the African.

In the same light but from a different perspective, Michele Pickover postulates that

“(t)he digitization of heritage material for publication on the worldwide web is a site of struggle and the real challenges are not technological but social and political.”

She goes further to argue that what is at stake is the politics of memory in digital form and how whatever is selected for digitization projects frames research agendas and plays a role in repackaging history. Chao Maina (podcast intro) underscores the absence of neutrality and the presence of inequalities that flaw digital spaces as spaces created to serve humanity without discrimination. Whatever, the phenomenon of digitization, as upheld by Udionwang and Akpan,

“continues to destabilize or encumber the existing order of indigenous knowledge systems, lifestyles, worldviews, cultural identities, and heritage of peoples, penetrating remote places of the earth and dominating the global landscape.“

The ‘penetration of remote places’ and the domination of the global landscape that Udoinwang and Akpan claim digitization has caused is problematic considering the shortcomings that this presentation highlights about the phenomenon.

African epistemic knowledge systems

One of the narratives restitution activists from Africa grapple with is the claim by the former colonialists harbouring looted possessions from Africa that Africans do not have preservation and promotion spaces of ‘international standard’ to keep returned loots and ensure their sustainability. This was, for example, a condition posed to the Nso people in 2011 by the Ethnological Museum in Dahlem when the Nso Community leader, the Fon of Nso, requested the return of Ngonnso deity that was looted from Nso in Cameroon in 1902 by Curt von Pavel, a German (Prussian) military officer on a punitive expedition to Nso. Restitution emphasizes the reassertion of the African value and decolonization and reconceptualization of African epistemic knowledge systems while digitization seeks to accommodate colonial stories from archives, histories, arts and crafts, photography and more as recorded from their colonial past first, before seeking to accommodate the African perspectives.

Digitization thus provides the third space option for preservation and promotion of such possession but the question is who creates the space and contents and who manages and orientates knowledge systems stored in the spaces. These questions thus put to task the authenticity of the knowledge shared about the heritage. For instance, the information inscribed on Ngonnso deity from Cameroon read that she was a gift from the Fon of Nso, a historical narrative that the Nso people dismissed with the African accountability that no single family in the land had ever been accused of such a crime and that such an act would have brought a curse to generations of the criminal. Considering that the digital spaces are created from the advancement in information and communication technology and are conceived with Western knowledge systems and civilization as well as cultural sensitivities, the inherent biases and trauma flaw the phenomenon. This makes their accommodation of African cultural sensitivities and civilizations a matter of debate.

Exclusion from digital spaces

In addition, digitization entails the use of laptops, computers, android phones and Apple phones and others. Understanding that all these gadgets are not a common possession in most African communities, the challenge of accessibility to them questions the relevance of digitization to the African. This is made graver by the reality that a large portion of African communities are still developing or negotiating to have the electrification of their villages. Similarly, access to computers for all is still a far-fetched dream, thereby indicating that digitization of heritage is exclusive of the underprivileged and the uneducated African majority. More, the traditional African practitioners and custodians of this African heritage in their majority are not educated or literate in the Western sense of education and literacy. Similarly they have no knowledge of computer operations or use of android gadgets and who consequently are excluded from the digital age, while those who possess peripheral knowledge take central stage in digital African heritage spaces. Apart from affordability and lack of knowledge of basic computer operations, the luxury of android phone and the ability to manipulate its digital tools to be able to access digital heritage spaces is a serious limitation to digitization.

Moreover, affordability and access to the internet that is intricately linked to the functioning of android phones and computers in the digital age, is a veritable challenge to the African whose prime concern is food, shelter and health. Digitization in this context becomes a type of mystical talk, a ‘white man’s’ magic, a sort of Disney world, packed full with possibilities and wondrous beauty but incomprehensible to the rural, uneducated, underprivileged, natural African who still lives in harmonious romance with their natural environment that harbours their rich cultural heritage. Consequently, the talk of transposing this natural environment and their harmonious romance into a magical space where the language of interaction is that of the White man, only problematizes the notion of digitization.

Cultural sensitivities

Another problematique arising from digitization and restitution is about space and content nomenclature. For instance, the most affected physical spaces in the restitution process are the material preservation and promotion spaces called ‘museums’. These spaces face ‘depletion’ if the Restitution momentum succeeds one hundred percent meaning that the spaces will be occupied by digitized histories and stories about the restituted possessions, while African physical heritage preservation spaces are ‘enriched’ with arrivals from returned possessions. The question that arises is: Are the new spaces these returned possessions are going to occupy in Africa, for example, good to be described as ‘museums’? This worry stems from the fact that African possessions are generally believed to have spiritual adornments and access and interaction with them are dictated by cultural sensitivities that are more restrictive in practice. Fonyuy Edward Bulami in “’Shrineum’: Decolonizing and Re-conceptualizing African Heritage Conservation Spaces in Restitution Momentum” postulates that the concept of ‘museum’ is not accommodating the African heritage and cultural sensitivities which give the heritage preservation spaces the look of ‘shrines’. Bulami holds that in order therefore

“to indigenize the heritage spaces [there is need for] the re-conceptualization of these spaces under the coinage ‘Shrineum’.“

This radical departure from the conventional Western notion of ‘museum’ problematizes digitization as it diverges significantly from the convergent point digitization seeks to create but aligns significantly with the objectives of the Restitution movement.

Conclusion and Recommendation

The talk of digitization of African cultural heritage coinciding with the Restitution movement ushers in complexities, biases and nuances which could be critically seen as the eternal machinations by the Global North to continually keep the Global South at the periphery of knowledge and development while occupying the central point of knowledge dissemination and consequently upholding and perpetuating global power imbalances. The decision to restitute that has been enshrined in the legislation and public policies of concerned European countries could be interpreted as an attempt to free their insufficient heritage preservation spaces from what some qualify as “pieces of wood” where continuous conservation is becoming a challenge. Moreover, restitution has become the means by which former colonial countries are seeking atonement for their colonial crimes at the same time building new collaborative relationships with the former colonized. Digitization that is inclusive of the African perspectives and cultural sensitivities creates the way forward. Rather than harp on the limitations of technology to African digitization endeavours in an evolving global context, Africans should rather think through ways of overcoming the limitations by bending the technology to accommodate the African perspectives and make this ‘white man’s’ magic world work for them. Africans should begin by creating hubs that harbour „“ dictionaries bearing their alphabets, sounds, words, names, etc. which could then be used by Africans to create their projects in digital spaces. Such projects would fill the gaps, sound the silences, fill the omissions, soothe the areas of deep pain and trauma, and clarify the ambiguities caused by direct knowledge transfer from the West.

Works Cited

Accra Declaration. Global Convening on Restitution of African Heritage. Open Society Foundations, 24 August 2023.

Fonyuy, Edward, Bulami. “Shrineum: Decolonizing and Re-conceptualizing African Heritage Conservation Spaces in Restitution Momentum”, forthcoming.

Lyer, Neema. Episode One Transcript, Podcast Conversation. Open Restitution Africa, 2023.

Maina, Tayiana, Chao. Episode One Transcript, Podcast Conversation. Open Restitution Africa, 2023.

Pickover, Michele. “Contestations, ownership, access and ideology: Policy development challenges for the digitization of African heritage and liberation archives”. First International Conerence on African Digital Libraries and Archives (ICADLA-1), Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, 1st-3rd July 2009.

Ramatlhakwana, D. “Challenges to Digitizing the African Heritage: Some Reflections”. EASRBICA Journal: Journal of the Eastern and Southern Africa Regional Branch of the International Council on Archives. Vol. 28 (2009). DOI: 10.4314/esarjo.v28il.44403

Udoinwang, David and Akpan, Justice, Ikpe. “Digital Transformation, Social Media Revolution, and E-Society Advances in Africa: Are Indigenous Cultural Identities in Danger of Extinction?”., posted 8 Feb 2023. Accessed Feb 2, 2024.

Information about the author

Fonyuy Edward Bulami (PhD), University of Bamenda-Bambili, Cameroon

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