Sunday, January 09, 2011

Balancing the Future and the Past

A balance has to be achieved between preservation and upholding living standards for residents. It seems that the city of Djenné, a UNESCO site, has not done a good job with that.

Mali City Rankled by Rules for Life in Spotlight (The New York Times)

Photos from The New York Times: "Djenné is an official World Heritage site. Guidelines established by Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which compiles the heritage list, demand that any reconstruction not substantially alter the original." Thus, the city must "preserve its mud-brick buildings, from the Great Mosque to individual homes."

From the article:
Abba Maiga stood in his dirt courtyard, smoking and seething over the fact that his 150-year-old mud-brick house is so culturally precious he is not allowed to update it — no tile floors, no screen doors, no shower. With its cone-shaped crenellations and palm wood drainage spouts, the grand facade seems outside time and helps illustrate why this ancient city in eastern Mali is an official World Heritage site. But the guidelines established by UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, which compiles the heritage list, demand that any reconstruction not substantially alter the original.

“When a town is put on the heritage list, it means nothing should change,” Mr. Maiga said. “But we want development, more space, new appliances — things that are much more modern. We are angry about all that."

PHOTO: "In a cultural clash echoed at World Heritage sites around the world, residents complain of being frozen in time like pieces in a museum, their lives proscribed so visitors can gawk. Abba Maiga's 150-year-old mud-brick house is so culturally precious he is not allowed to update it — no tile floors, no screen doors, no shower. "Who wants to live in a house with a mud floor?" said Mr. Maiga."
However, the present desires of the citizens are not the only thing to take into account when pondering the fate of such a place.
The problem, said N’Diaye Bah, Mali’s tourism minister, is modernizing the town without wrecking its ambiance. “If you destroy the heritage which people come to see, if you destroy 2,000 years of history, then the town loses its soul,” he said.

Djenné residents take pride in their heritage and recognize that the Unesco list helped make their city famous. Yet they wonder aloud about the point of staying on it, given the lack of tangible gains, if they are forced to live literally in mud. Many homeowners want to keep the distinctive facades, but alter the interiors. Unesco guidelines prohibit the sweeping alterations they would like, however.

Mahamame Bamoye Traoré, the leader of the powerful mason’s guild, surveyed the cramped rooms of the retired river boat captain’s house, naming all the things he would change if the World Heritage rules were more flexible.

“If you want to help someone, you have to help him in a way that he wants; to force him to live in a certain way is not right,” he said, before lying on the mud floor of a windowless room that measured about 6 feet by 3 feet. “This is not a room,” he said. “It might as well be a grave.”
Is this place an exhibition or a tomb? (It probably should be neither -- because communities are places that should be lived in). When people are treated this way, it seems they feel a sense of stagnation and resentment. Yet if the population can become engaged in the process of cultural preservation and site restoration, they will be the fiercest defenders and best caretakers of a site. These are their homes, their culture! Let's get creative to find ways for tradition and modernity to coexist and thrive.

I'm not the expert here, and I'm sure the architects and archaeologists have spent a lot of time pondering over how to treat this ancient town and its structures. But more community input is needed; otherwise, you end up with situations like the one reported in the article, where a disgruntled homeowner evicted the UN team, tore down an archway to make room for armoires, causing the house to promptly collapse.

Maybe something can be done where the facade and entryway are preserved in the traditional style, while rooms further inside can be remodeled, with wooden floors added. Maybe we could add more structural support and new wiring for electricity. Who knows? The partnership goes both ways: outside experts can listen and attempt to understand the aspirations and concerns of people in the neighborhood. Local residents can try to recognize the value inherent in these timeless buildings and do their children a favor by thinking of the long-term.

The town faces an additional challenge: "Poverty prevents many from fixing their houses. Architects who have worked on various restoration projects said the townsfolk are imbued with a unique pride. Many would rather see their ancestral home fall than admit they lack the means to restore it, said Cheich Abdel Kader, a Malian architect who also helped direct the mosque restoration. Others object that outsiders set the rules."

Most of all, we need to involve the population in the upkeep of a city -- inspire them be proud of their heritage and help them recognize and celebrate their culture. Local residents must be partners; they cannot be bystanders in their own homes and neighborhoods. Sometimes it is the tyranny of the bulldozer; here it appears to be overweening rule of foreign preservationists.

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