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Review: African Digital Heritage

A review of the African Digital Heritage Project, a Nairobi-based non-profit organization at the intersection of storytelling, culture, and technology , directed by Chao Tayiana Maina

Published onApr 29, 2024
Review: African Digital Heritage

African Digital Heritage

Project Director
Chao Tayiana Maina, African Digital Heritage

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Ama Bemma Adwetewa-Badu, Washington University in St. Louis

Project Overview

African Digital Heritage Team

African Digital Heritage (ADH) is a Nairobi-based non-profit organization founded by Chao Tayiana Maina, a 2023 Dan David Prize winner and a Google Anita Borg Fellow for Women in Technology. ADH works at the intersection of storytelling, culture, and technology to promote a holistic and knowledge-based digital practice within African cultural heritage. This contributes to an improvement in the preservation and accessibility of African cultures and heritage. It cements the place of African culture in an era of rapidly changing technologies and endless frontiers. When one considers the historical modification, theft, and destruction of Africa’s heritage and history, ADH’s work is especially important. Not only does their work invite users to understand and evaluate African history and culture from a critical African lens, it also invites audiences to contribute to the re-documentation and the re-imagining of Africa as we know it. 

ADH’s activities are grounded in digitization, innovation, research and capacity building. ADH acts as an educator, partner, researcher, platform, and community builder to imagine alternate realities and visualize history in interactive, immersive ways. Its digital simulation, accompanied by oral histories of Mau Mau Detention Camps in Kenya, attests to this. The simulation’s production was grounded in thorough ethnographic research, in partnership with the community. It lifts its silence on this integral yet suppressed history and allows people to reimagine Kenya’s independence story.

The broad range of activities of ADH speak to multiple audiences. In Kenya, particularly, its Skills Gap survey revealed that many heritage practitioners are self-taught and lack technological knowledge and resources. This research informed ADH’s drive to show up as educators and upskill fellow practitioners, particularly around community engagement, digitization, fundraising, and oral history. ADH secondly aims to reach Africans who are curious about their heritage in uncovering histories and actively engaging with memory work on the continent. To reach these audiences, ADH’s productions are located within various openly accessible formats, such as podcasts, a toolkit, webinars, blog posts, and reports. Their activities are further shaped by physical meetings in the form of collaborations and trainings. 

The team consists of Mutanu Kyany’a who supports ADH with her knowledge on program design, execution and public outreach; Malkia Okech, who contributes to ADH as Digitization Expert; Mwikali Ruth who is the team’s Operations Associate; and Anouk Boer, their resident Heritage and Memory Specialist. ADH projects have so far been funded by the British Council, Open Society Foundation, and individual donors. African Digital Heritage has been featured by Al Jazeera and BBC News among others.

Project Review

Ama Bemma Adwetewa-Badu

Pushing the limits of technology, arts, and culture, African Digital Heritage (ADH) is a Nairobi-based non-profit organization founded by Chao Tayiana Maina, a Kenyan historian and digital humanities scholar working at the intersection of culture and technology. Using new and innovative technologies, ADH works to digitize, preserve, and share African cultural and natural histories. Their approach encompasses digitization, innovation, research, and capacity building. 

ADH's commitment to a holistic, knowledge-based approach to digital solutions within African heritage is evident throughout its projects and initiatives. It effectively combines humanistic principles with technological innovation. For example, the digitization of Gede Ruins showcases the team’s dedication to preserving tangible heritage digitally while maintaining historical legacies. Furthermore, their engagement with oral histories and archives demonstrates their commitment to preserving intangible cultural assets.

The innovative use of technology by ADH, including virtual reality, mobile applications, and digital simulations, distinguishes it within the digital heritage landscape. For example, 2018 digital models and renderings of British detention camp villages in Kenya visualize history in immersive ways. Projects such as these fulfill ADH’s mandate to bridge the gap between technology and African heritage and to educate communities through innovative methodologies. 

Enhancing the project's visibility and accessibility, particularly by distributing the ADH podcast, The Culture CatchUp: Public History Talks on platforms like Spotify and Apple Podcast, would significantly broaden the audience reach and engagement. Additionally, having direct access to ADH's numerous projects and initiatives alongside their narrative descriptions would enrich the user experience. These strategic enhancements could be pivotal in ensuring that ADH's important resources are easily accessible to a wider audience.

ADH occupies a unique position within the realm of digital heritage projects. While firmly rooted in the African context, its use of technology transcends geographical boundaries. Its work aligns with broader digital humanities practices and contributes to discussions on cultural preservation, heritage restitution, VR/XR, creative technologies, and community engagement. ADH's emphasis on collaboration and capacity building is a commendable practice within the digital heritage field.

ADH's projects have garnered recognition from prestigious organizations such as the British Council and the Open Society Foundation, reflecting its impact and relevance. The team’s commitment to education and outreach is evidenced by the Skills For Culture program, which engages new audiences. ADH's projects have the potential to influence future digital scholarship, and its citations in scholarship and media outlets demonstrate its growing significance.

One outstanding aspect of ADH is its commitment to community engagement and empowerment. The focus on upskilling heritage practitioners and involving communities in digitization efforts is a noteworthy approach. However, a potential challenge lies in the sustainability of their projects, given their resource-intensive nature. Continuous donor funding and strategic partnerships will be crucial to ADH’s long-term success.

ADH stands as a beacon within the realm of digital heritage, effectively utilizing technology to bridge the chasm between cultural preservation and technological innovation. ADH's commitment to safeguarding African heritage while actively involving a wide array of audiences is highly commendable. While grappling with the common challenges encountered in digital projects, the team’s distinctive approach and dedication to education and community engagement positions them as an invaluable asset to the digital heritage landscape. ADH is not merely a custodian of history; it is sculpting the future of how we establish connections with heritage. Scholars and practitioners in various fields, including digital humanities, cultural preservation, anthropology, archaeology, and community engagement, will find ADH's pioneering endeavors to be of profound significance to their research and practices.

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