A review of MaCleKi, a location-based digital history project that curates historic places in and around Kisumu, Kenya, directed by J. Mark Souther, Meshack Owino, and Erin J. Bell
MaCleKi: Curating Kisumu
Annemie Behr, University of South Africa
J. Mark Souther, Meshack Owino, and Erin J. Bell
MaCleKi: Curating Kisumu is a location-based digital history project that curates historic places in and around Kisumu, a city on Lake Victoria in western Kenya. Funded by two digital humanities grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities (in 2014-15 and 2017-18), the project reflects an international collaboration between faculty and students at Cleveland State University (CSU) and Maseno University in Kenya. It uses Curatescape for WordPress, a plugin developed in the second grant that responded to a careful assessment in the first grant of how to adapt the Curatescape mobile publishing framework for effective adoption in developing-world settings.
This project sought to examine the possibilities and challenges of facilitating knowledge exchange between institutions and the public in the most industrialized world and counterparts in the industrializing part of the world using mobile phones, the most commonly available digital technology in the industrializing world. It sought to use mobile phones to collapse disparities and distance between and promote exchange of knowledge across geographies and cultures with different levels of access to resources and opportunities. The project’s title, a portmanteau of Maseno, Cleveland, and Kisumu, reflects this mingling of knowledge production. More than 200 students from the two institutions participated collaboratively in the project. They published their curated works on MaCleKi in the form of location-based essays accompanied by historical and contemporary images and research references, each pinned on the site’s global map.
MaCleKi was developed principally for the public in Kisumu and Kenya, but it is also directed to a wider audience throughout Africa and globally. The project website also reaches historians, other scholars, students, and educators with interests in urban history, African history, and place-based explorations of themes such as agriculture, colonialism, education, environment, health, industry, labor, race, gender, and ethnicity, religion, and transportation. Through the project team’s collaborations, the website also supplements the exhibits at the Kisumu Museum, a unit of the National Museums of Kenya.
The MaCleKi website and an Omeka-based Kisumu Archive of photos and historic documents curated during the project serve as learning resources for Kisumu. Additionally, the project co-directors wrote grant white papers that document the process as a model for other public digital humanists, presented the work in progress at the National Council for Public History and University of Texas at Austin’s Africa Conference, as well as in an article in History in Africa (a Cambridge University Press journal of the African Studies Association) in June 2020. Originally an exploration of how to modify Curatescape for wider use, the project resulted in the development of a WordPress variant. Following the introduction of WordPress’s block editor, this led the Center to develop a wholly separate tour-builder plugin under a third NEH grant (2020-21) called PlacePress, to which the project team ultimately plans to transfer MaCleKi before resuming and expanding content development in Kenya.
MaCleki: Curating Kisumu is an ongoing collaboration between Masenu University (Kenya) and Cleveland State University (USA), funded by the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. The final product of the project is a website boasting content on Kisumu, a city in Kenya, developed by teams of around 200 students from both universities. An equally significant result of the project is the Curatescape WordPress plugin that was developed to support creation and curation of the content.
On the website, the content is presented, first, as collections of themes (“Luo History and Culture,” “Rails, Railroads, and Ports,” “Academic Institutions,” and “Religious Sites and Sacred Spaces”). Each theme includes several articles. Users can also explore content through a story map and a word cloud of tags (such as “colonialism,” “politics,” “trade,” “labor,” and more). The story map page shows an interactive map of Kisumu with several locations are pinned. Each pin links to an article with content relevant to the specific location. The content is interesting and of high quality, which is a tribute to the students and the quality of education provided at the respective institutions. Descriptions of the project and its site indicate that the story map is the preferred portal for exploring the content on the website. One wonders, therefore, why it is not afforded a more prominent position on the homepage.
The project overview claims, “MaCleKi was developed principally for the public in Kisumu and Kenya.” Perhaps it is; English is, after all, one of the city’s official languages, and it supports the goal of the project as being “directed to a wider audience throughout Africa and globally.” I would nevertheless have found the first claim more convincing had the website included content in Kiswahili, the partner to English as an official language in the city, or Dhuolo, which is spoken by most residents. While digital humanities scholars have the right and the responsibility to highlight and promote their technologies’ potential for social reform, we must always also remain aware that technological potential is, for now, still reliant on human agency. Respecting and celebrating the languages of subjects could be a small step to aligning ideals and outcomes.
The underlying technology, Curatescape, is “a web and mobile app framework for publishing location-based content using the Omeka content management system.” The MaCleKi team developed a Curatescape WordPress plugin as part of its work. The design of the plugin responds to increased social dependance on mobile technologies, particularly in African countries. Curatescape for WordPress enables the use of cellphones and other mobile devices for collaboratively creating, curating, and sharing knowledge. The MaCleKi project proves that collaborative knowledge production with Curatescape can effectively happen intercontinentally, interculturally, and between institutions.
Writing as a musicologist who works in an arts and music department, I imagine new possibilities for producing and presenting knowledge using Curatescape for WordPress. Due to the pandemic, we are searching for new ways to curate art works for exhibitions, gallery archives, and academic assessment. Similarly, cultural and ethnographic studies in music can be enriched through location-based knowledge representations. Curatescape for WordPress and the example of MaCleKi thus has relevance to many fields in the humanities.
The visibility of the project is enhanced by the prestige of its funders (i.e., the National Endowment for the Humanities), presentations at conferences, and a 2020 academic publication. Its ambition to engage a wider general and global public is evident in the YouTube channel, which deserves far more visitors and subscribers than it currently has. Here, one hears voices from Masuni University too, voices play a crucial role in supplementing and complementing their Cleveland partners’ academic publications.