by Deborah Wanjugu

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According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), culture is described as the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, and it encompasses in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs. Article 11 of the Constitution of Kenya, 2010 recognises culture as the foundation of the nation. As such culture deserves to have a palpable presence on our national priorities and should be protected and safeguarded at all costs. Culture is also bigger than traditional beliefs and ways of life; it encompasses contemporary and modern lifestyles as well.

This blog post looks at the problem of documentation of culture and attempts to suggest how technology can address this problem from three distinct levels: national and county governments; creative and cultural institutions; individual artists. As has been aforementioned, culture must be protected and safeguarded at all costs. The first (and maybe obvious) step to protection and safeguarding is documentation.

You cannot protect and safeguard that which you do not recognise. The Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts has through the Department of Culture been engaged in such documentation for many years. It documents culture by going round the country and recording the various cultural aspects of the different communities in Kenya. Some of the material is in paper while more of it may be found in recordings.

However this information is not available to the public. Some of the information collected is confidential and cannot be accessed it without prior informed consent from the relevant community. An example of this would be information touching on the Kaya. This hurdle can be crossed by obtaining the aforementioned prior informed consent through written agreements upon disclosure of the intended use of the information.

Another hindrance to accessing cultural information held by the Department of Culture would be the absence of measures regulating the public availability of this cultural information. At present, one cannot just walk into the Department of Culture and demand to gain access to its archives. And no one should be allowed to do so as the Department would risk losing valuable information collected using taxpayers’ money. But access must somehow be granted. The Culture Bill, 2015 seeks to fix this by giving legitimacy to the efforts of the Department. It obligates the Cabinet Secretary and County Executive Commissioners in charge of culture to maintain an inventory of cultural property, both tangible and intangible.

It is not enough that the national and county governments collect this information and maintain an inventory, though. This information must be made public. It must be made public because the Constitution of Kenya demands it in Article 35 thereof. It must be made public to allow the cultural and creative industries enjoy creative inspiration from it. It must be made public for the development of a school curriculum on culture and the arts at all levels of education. It must be made public for research to be conducted into various aspects of culture. And it must be made public for the ordinary citizen to learn about their culture and that of others.

So how does the Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts make this information available to the public? Firstly, the Culture Bill would have to have subsidiary legislation addressing the making available of information captured in the inventory of cultural property. Beyond these rules and regulations however, the practical question of how still stands. How exactly would the national and county governments make publicly available the information they have collected? Would they make copies of the volumes of documents and recordings in their possession and then open libraries to facilitate this availability? Maybe. But making voluminous copies of documents would be environmentally unfriendly and would require a great amount of space (i.e. infrastructure which means more money) for their storage and simultaneous accessibility.

The easiest and most convenient way is through digitization of the cultural information and its subsequent storage in databases to be found on national and county websites. Existing documents could be scanned while recordings could be converted where necessary, compressed and made available in acceptable formats. Directives from the Cabinet Secretary and County Executive Commissioners could be issued to ensure future documentation is digital. In order for a member of the public to access the information one might be required to pay an administrative fee typically via M-Pesa then select the catalogue(s) one would want to peruse.

There are two other levels to this question of documentation. For the few years I have been involved in the creative sector I have heard one problem being consistently highlighted: lack of documentation in the creative and cultural sectors. This problem has at the same time been consistently contradicted in presentations that quote research findings on creative and cultural industries from various research projects in Kenya over the years. In my view, a more accurate complaint would therefore be lack of easy access to this information. The information is in the hands of individual institutions and never disseminated with the exception of a few funded research projects.

The third is angle is from the point of artists. Some artists document their works by default because their works demand that they do so. However they might not have it in a format widely accessible by the public, probably because they do not know the importance or they fear theft of their expressions in progress. Then there are those who do not document their creative processes at all.

CIPIT has partnered with the Open African Innovation Research Project (Open AIR) to head the research theme on high tech hubs. More on this partnership can be found here. From a personal standpoint, the problem of documenting cultural information and making it available to the public on the side of county and national governments might be solved through a research project on this very area by CIPIT. Finding out how the national and county governments are documenting information would be key. It would also be of importance to see whether they have the necessary equipment to get the job done. This will certainly have an effect in the speed and quality of documentation.

A second research project could also be undertaken to address the lack of easy accessibility of research findings on creative and cultural sectors. It would be interesting to see how technology can solve this problem. One possible option could be the development of an online repository.

Finally, with regard to documentation of artists’ processes, perhaps asking whether documentation (or lack thereof) has helped (or impeded) the innovation of new products, services, methods or business models through periodic review might give the research an interesting angle.

The partnership between CIPIT and Open AIR could not have come at a more opportune time. There are so many questions that require answers with regard to documentation of culture. While there are worthy projects that CIPIT and Open AIR are currently pursuing, I do hope they will find one of these scenes research-worthy. And hopefully through the research, tech start-ups will look into solving these issues for the benefit of culture, the foundation of our nation.