East Africa is undergoing a period of profound change as the economy of the region gains momentum, driven by changing internal dynamics and by external interests. The region’s maritime zone is central to these developments with offshore exploration for oil and gas deposits driving investment, coupled with major financing of new and established ports to facilitate trade with the Gulf countries. In addition to aid and investment from both the UK and other western governments, China and Saudi Arabia are funding major infrastructural and development projects across the region. While these developments have the potential to realise short-term economic, developmental and employment benefits, there has been little consideration of the impact of this work on the region’s submerged and coastal heritage.
Nascent maritime research in Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique and Madagascar is just beginning to reveal the extent of maritime cultures and traditions across the region as well as the evidence for wider maritime activity that connected this coast to the broader Indian Ocean region. The sea in East Africa is a connector, a facilitator of communications, a supplier of resources that sustains life and an environment that is rooted in the belief systems of coastal peoples. For millennia this coast has been embedded within broader political and socio-economic domains, and witness to multiple migrations, invasions and trade activity. Its port towns and cities were intrinsically connected to a wider mercantile maritime world, ensuring it became one of the most culturally dynamic and diverse regions throughout history. It was, and continues to be, a region of continuous transformation and subject to a variety of anthropogenic and natural drivers of change. Development agreements very rarely take account of cultural heritage even though access to it is considered a fundamental human right. East African counties currently have little capacity to protect or explore their rich maritime heritage and, as a result, the socio-economic potential of MCH has yet to be realised. Worse, while the submerged resource is being impacted by marine exploitation, commercial salvage and offshore industry, the coastal resource is being threatened by building and development work as well as climatic and environmental change and even some green-energy projects. MCH is a fragile and finite resource, which once destroyed can never be recovered.
This project will establish and maintain a transboundary and cross-sector network of arts and humanities-led researchers, government officers, scientists, policy makers, UN officials, NGOs, ICT professionals and specialists working in heritage, infrastructure and the offshore industry, to consider in what ways MCH can create long-lasting social, economic and cultural benefits in the region. The project will identify new opportunities and methodologies for arts and humanities research in an aid context and add value to coastal infrastructure and offshore development projects. Key mechanisms of engagement will be through the co-production of a Research and KE Framework, Innovation Projects and KE activities.
The nations of coastal East Africa have aspirations to transform themselves into a thriving maritime gateway of trade and investment. The past has an active role in not only informing this development but in helping drive it.