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  • Introduction:Orality and Indigenous Knowledge in the Age of Globalization
  • Juliana Makuchi Nfah-Abbenyi (bio)

The General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization held a three week Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage in Paris from September 29 to October 17, 2003. According to a report published on UNESCO's website, the purpose of the convention was "(a) to safeguard the intangible cultural heritage; (b) to ensure respect for the intangible cultural heritage of the communities, groups and individuals concerned; (c) to raise awareness at the local, national and international levels of the importance of the intangible cultural heritage, and of ensuring mutual appreciation thereof; (d) to provide for international cooperation and assistance."1 Furthermore, the report defines "intangible cultural heritage" (ICH) as:

the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills—as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith—that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity. For the purposes of this Convention, consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development.

The report also notes that ICH is manifested in five domains: "(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; (e) traditional craftsmanship." [End Page 1]

With the objectives of this convention in mind, the conveners of the 8th international conference of the International Society for the Oral Literatures of Africa (ISOLA), held in Mombasa, Kenya, from July 15-20, 2010, focused on the theme "Indigenous Knowledges and Intellectual Property Rights in the Age of Globalization,"2 stating in their call for papers: "In this era of globalization, issues on the importance of utilizing and safeguarding indigenous knowledges elicit great concern. ISOLA identifies with the initiative of UNESCO towards the preservation of the world's intangible heritage."3 The conveners emphasized three thematic areas: "Indigenous Knowledges and Orality," "Oral Literature and the Social Sciences," and "Indigenous Knowledges/The Intangible Heritage in the Age of Globalization and Technology." They further invited participants to "explore how the liberalization of knowledge and technological innovations have impacted on the intangible heritage . . . [to pay attention] to oral literature and to popular culture, which constitute important aspects of the living reservoir of the intangible heritage . . . to focus in particular on the ways in which oral literature, alongside its aesthetic, moral and philosophical preoccupations, serves as an effective vehicle for transmitting, reinventing and diffusing diverse aspects of the intangible heritage in the age of globalization . . . to present papers on the ways in which oral literature, popular culture and various forms of the intangible heritage are expressed and reinvented through the media and the visual arts," including cyberspace, digitization, and hypermedia.

The UNESCO convention had the merit of "naming" and highlighting on the global stage forms of knowledge that communities around the world have safeguarded for millennia. But it is noteworthy that many of the participants at the Mombasa conference either ignored and/or rarely used the new terminology, "Intangible Cultural Heritage," in their presentations. They variously employed the terms orality, oral literature, oral narratives, folklore, orature, and aurature to capture the material culture that was the focus of their presentations. Many forcefully rejected and defied the naysayers who persist in predicting the death of African languages, of orality, and, subsequently, the transmission of oral narratives in the fast-moving technological world of the 21st century. Rather, many were quick to emphasize the intrinsic dynamic nature of African oral literatures, and to demonstrate how communities — social, cultural, political — are adapting to new technologies, including cyber-culture and hypermedia, in shaping, promoting, and preserving their cultural heritage. While many presenters...


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