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When digital tech meets ancient customs — harnessing technology to strengthen Africa’s cultural heritage

When digital tech meets ancient customs — harnessing technology to strengthen Africa’s cultural heritage
The authors argue that advanced technologies including virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and robotics, hold much promise in preserving Africa’s rich intangible cultural heritage. (Image: iStock)

The use of technology in conserving African indigenous knowledge is relatively unexplored. Digital technologies can not only facilitate how we access local cultural knowledge, but can also be a tool to enhance the propagation of these cultural practices to future generations.

In the midst of the gloom and doom of the runaway inflation, endemic corruption and crime and criminality pervading South African society, it was heartwarming to see the University of Johannesburg (UJ) conferring an honorary degree on renowned sculptor, Noria Mabasa.

Mam Noria, as Ms Mabasa is affectionately known, is the first Venda woman to work with wood as a medium to break cultural and gender stereotypes, as the material had always been the preserve of male sculptors. Her carvings depict Venda mythology and spirituality, as well as traditional ceremonies in her community, among others.

As the Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi put it, this was a fitting conferral because many African sculptures are in danger of being lost as they have not been well preserved.

“Often, these sculptures are expropriated by those who have created a marketplace for themselves, giving these cultural artefacts a Western outlook for monetary gain,” he reminded us in the weekly university newsletter.

Digital divide

African peoples have, over the course of generations, developed rich knowledge about the natural world, health, agricultural technologies and techniques, rites and rituals. However, according to the United Nations Division for Inclusive Social Development (DISD), indigenous cultures are at a high risk of cultural loss through cultural globalisation, because indigenous people often lack the power and means to preserve their cultural practices and knowledge from outside forces of globalisation.

Through digitisation which is a driving force behind globalisation (an international standardisation of economic, social, and political ideas), the connectivity between people from diverse cultures continues to grow exponentially. 

Digital trends reported by DataReportal, an online reference library, reflect that there were 43.48 million internet users in South Africa at the start of 2023, with internet penetration standing at 72.3%. South Africa was home to 25.80 million social media users in January 2023, equating to 42.9% of the total population.

Recently, it was announced that South Africa is embarking on one of the most important digital projects the country has ever seen. The Home Affairs Ministry seeks to digitise 350 million inactive and active paper records comprising birth, marriage and amendments records. While digitisation connects people and cultures, cultures in sub-Saharan Africa are most vulnerable and are at risk of being subsumed by more dominant Western cultures due to globalisation.

Therefore, an argument sometimes raised against the adoption of digital technology in non-Western cultures is that its proliferation contributes to the erosion of local cultural values and practices.

Does this mean we should ban the internet, social media, and devices such as mobile phones in order to protect our cultural heritage? While it is accepted that rapid increases in information technology throughout the world have contributed to globalisation, and possibly the subsequent attrition of cultural heritage, we argue that digital technologies have a significant role to play in the preservation and valorisation of cultural heritage.

Digitised heritage

Cultural heritage is core to the identity of a society. According to Unesco,  “intangible cultural heritage is the practices, expressions, knowledge and skills that communities, groups and sometimes individuals recognise as part of their cultural heritage. Also called living cultural heritage, it is usually expressed in one of the following forms: oral traditions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.”

While digital technologies have impacted many aspects of our daily lives in the way we interact with each other and experience the world, “cultural digitisation” is a term that is gaining traction.

Three-dimensional digital technologies (3D modelling, 3D scanning, 3D visualisation) are widely used in the preservation of tangible cultural heritage such as buildings, archaeological sites, monuments, sculptures, books, works of art, and artefacts. Archive digitisation of cultural artefacts in Western museums is not new.

However, the use of technology in conserving African indigenous knowledge is relatively unexplored. Digital technologies can not only facilitate how we access local cultural knowledge but can also be a tool to enhance the propagation of these cultural practices to future generations.

Much of African cultural heritage is intangible and is represented through traditions, beliefs and practices. Such intangible cultural heritage that defines diversity in African culture is fragile in the face of fast-paced globalisation.

We maintain that technological globalisation, which refers to the spread of technologies around the globe and particularly from developed to developing nations, can be exploited positively to preserve Africa’s rich intangible cultural heritage.

Advanced technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence and robotics hold much promise in ensuring that cultural knowledge and skills are transmitted from one generation to the next.

Youth involvement

In order for the transmission of cultural knowledge and practices to take place, the current generation of youth at school needs to be targeted. Great opportunities exist for teachers to integrate cultural knowledge into school subjects, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects.

Research that has been done points out that when school learners experience Stem learning where culturally relevant resources are used, they become motivated towards their studies, and also take pride in the contribution of their cultures towards Stem knowledge.

In addition, the integration of such cultural practices into the classroom offers rich and authentic contexts for science learning that supports the understanding of physical phenomena in the natural world.

However, the picture of science represented in textbooks in African schools often neglects cultural aspects, thereby limiting it to a Western perspective. The lack of culturally relevant resources for science learning means school learners in South Africa and other African countries are disadvantaged in their experience of practical scientific inquiries that form the cornerstone for effective science learning.

At UJ, innovative research is being conducted on the development of culturally anchored virtual and augmented reality simulations (cavars) for school science learning. In this study, researchers are creating simulated learning experiences in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) that integrate cultural knowledge and practices with topics taught in the school science curriculum.

VR uses three-dimensional (3D) technology to create a fully immersive environment. Immersion, presence, and interactivity are regarded as the main features of VR and as such, underpin the fundamental affordances of this technological tool in education. In VR, the learners can turn and move as they do in the real world, and the digital setting responds to the learner’s movements. Immersive VR systematically maintains an illusion of presence, such that learners feel their bodies are inside the virtual environment.

By having virtual embodied experiences, learners are able to better grasp concepts that would otherwise remain abstract and not understandable. Learners can do experiments that traditionally would be impossible due to cost, and also because of the danger associated with doing some experiments.

This environment is perceived through a device known as a VR headset. AR on the other hand, uses the existing real-world environment and overlays it with virtual elements.  For example, think of the 2016 AR mobile game Pokémon Go, where users search in their real-life neighbourhoods for animated characters that pop up on their phone or tablet.

Some VR simulations created by the UJ team include the brewing of umqombothi, an Nguni word for traditional beer made from maize (corn), maize malt, sorghum malt, yeast and water. In virtual reality, learners are transported to a cultural village where umqombothi is being made. In this way they learn about the cultural practices in the making of this drink.

At the same time, they learn about the complex chemical processes involved. In this way, cavars provide learners with the complementary experience of learning about cultural practices and simultaneously acquiring an understanding of abstract science concepts.

The use of such VR and AR experiences supports cultural diversity, and preserves the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples through place-based learning that immerses learning experiences in local culture.

It is envisaged that the learning experiences afforded by such technological resources will make the study of Stem more accessible to learners, leading to more learners taking up studies in such subjects and ultimately pursuing careers in this field.

In this way, digital technologies can be harnessed for documenting, transmitting and revitalising intangible cultural heritage, and at the same time contributing towards the learning of Stem subjects.

We maintain that technological globalisation, which is often implicated in driving cultural homogenisation, can be appropriated in a meaningful way to preserve African intangible cultural heritage for future generations, and at the same time through culturally anchored VAR experiences, support Stem learning. DM

Umesh Ramnarain is a Professor in Science Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Mafor Penn is a Lecturer in Childhood Education at UJ. Kasper Rodil is an Associate Professor in Architecture, Design and Media Technology at Aalborg University. They write in their personal capacities. 


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