The Challenge of Cultural Theft- Crowdsourcing Knowledge for Digital Archives in Africa

Working on a Digital Humanities project as a historian of Africa requires a level of accountability to the people whom your work is about and affects. This responsibility requires an understanding of the history of cultural theft on the continent and special attention to following ethical practices. Cultural theft has been a feature of unequal relationships between Africa and the West since the era of first contact. Through the Slave Trade and experiences of colonialism, Europeans and other foreigners have forcefully removed and stolen artefacts and ideas from Africa. In the contemporary period, although the harsh dynamics of these relationships have changed, Africa’s history, culture, music, and art are still being exported off the continent for consumption elsewhere in the world, often not in ethical, integrative or sustainable ways.

This is relevant for my project which aims to make public some documents from Ugandan intellectuals that have hitherto not been published. The opportunities broader access to these writings and ideas could foster are exciting but careful consideration to ownership is necessary. In the case of the documents I am working with there is official copyright to contend with but also a different sense of informal cultural ownership, among the descendants of the thinkers but also among others in the contemporary kingdom. Therefore, attention needs to be paid to the implications of making public materials that were not easily accessed before, for the descendants of the intellectuals who produced them, the archivists that are charged with their preservation and protection, and for Ugandan scholars of their people’s and nation’s past- particularly as history has been made a “dirty word” in contemporary Uganda by the long-running President Yoweri Museveni.

The original conception of my project was a simple prototype OMEKA-based online archive of document excerpts from a few prominent Ugandan intellectuals from the early colonial period. Appended the these excerpts will be potable biographies and brief analysis of the texts taken from my dissertation. This type of project would only engaged Ugandans as far as was necessary to obtain copyright or generate interest. However, as I have considered the colonial nature of my own research in Uganda and the potential for the archive to be viewed as cultural theft in making public these sources, I have been brainstorming ways to make the project relevant beyond… and get Ugandans directly involved in the project as more than just potential users. In instances where copyright is murky, encouraging involvement from certain interested individuals and stakeholders would represent due diligence to obtain permission or at the very least to ensure that no one feels the archive is exploitative. Involvement will take the form of crowdsourcing, following an version of the wikipedia model, where interested parties can post additional information (biographical or otherwise) and analysis to each module.

The groups I am specifically targeting to contribute to the archive are: scholars of Ugandan history, especially Ugandan academics and graduate students; non-academic historians in Uganda; archivists; descendants of the intellectual figures whose works are included in the archive; politicians in the current government of the kingdom of Buganda; other interested parties not covered by these categories. The hope is that by engaging these various groups to offer their interpretations the archive will initiate a public forum for debate in which multiple perspectives are overlaid. The logistics of acquiring contributors are complex, and will require a return trip to Uganda to build partnerships. I have been awarded a grant from the African Studies Association to fund a return trip to do the necessary outreach in the Fall of 2017. As I move forward with the development of my OMEKA site I am thinking through the challenges of crowdsourcing as a model, logistically in the functioning of the archive but also my accountability to various stakeholders in the representation of Uganda’s history.

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