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Making Intangible Cultural Heritage Visible

Cultural heritage cannot be abridged to its tangible products because it is continuously living and evolving. In essence, it is composed not only of tangible properties, but also and especially of the essential elements representing the living culture of human communities, their evolution, and their continuing development.

Therefore, it includes all immaterial elements that are considered by a given community as essential components of its intrinsic identity and its uniqueness and distinctiveness from other human groups. The totality of elements representing the very heart of people´s distinctive idiosyncrasy should be made visible in as much as they are viable and representative of the culture of its bearers.

Intangible cultural heritage (ICH), made up of all immaterial manifestations of culture, represents the variety of the living heritage of humanity and the most important vehicles of cultural diversity. The main constitutive factors of ICH are represented by: societies´ awareness of this heritage as an essential element of the cultural identity of its creators and bearers; by its constant recreation in response to the historical and social evolution of the communities and groups concerned; by its connection with the cultural identity of these communities and groups; and by its authenticity. The international community recognizes the importance of ICH and the need to establish mechanism to it. In 2003, the international community adopted the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. The Convention helps ensure the visibility and viability of humanity´s ICH. Within this context, the following article highlights the importance of the visibility of Eritrea´s ICH elements in light of the 2003 Convention.

“Intangible cultural heritage” is defined by Article 2 of the Convention for Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage as:“the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artifacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage. This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.“ It consists of, inter alia, ‘(a) oral traditions and expressions, including language as a vehicle of the intangible cultural heritage; (b) performing arts; (c) social practices, rituals and festive events; (d) knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; (e) traditional craftsmanship’, on the condition that they are ‘compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals, and of sustainable development’”.

This broader definition of ICH underscores the importance of elements of the intangible as tools for mutual respect and dialogue among individuals, communities, and societies. ICH has gained international recognition as a vital factor in cultural identity, promotion of creativity and the preservation of cultural diversity. In countries like Eritrea, where diversity is considered as an asset to promote respect and dialogue between different communities, the visibility of elements of ICH becomes crucial. While diversity is emphasized, a great deal of the elements of intangible heritage in the country resonates around the importance of mutual communication, existence, and respect. Many rituals, pilgrimages, festive events, and the like, crosscut linguistic or ethnic lines.

Eritrea’s National Festival, which is organized annually, has been celebrated for over two decades with the aim of encouraging national development, tolerance, and harmony in the country. In many regards, it reflects the “best practices” to safeguard the intangible heritage of Eritrea. Furthermore, various aspects of oral traditions, literary wisdom, traditional knowledge systems, and crafts in Eritrea embrace notions of religious and cultural co-existence, respect, and cross-cultural dialogue that need to be visible, not only locally, but also internationally. These aspects of Eritrea´s ICH continue to be viable in the current era and their evolution requires greater recognition and visibility.

The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as defined in the 2003 Convention aims to ensure better visibility of ICH and increase awareness of its significance. It also seeks to encourage dialogue which respects cultural diversity. The appreciation of Eritrea´s ICH in light of these premises is thus instrumental towards the constant tailoring of the cultural identity of the communities, groups, and individuals concerned.

The preservation and recognition of the ICH of Eritrea has been a priority in the country since independence. Additionally, its significance for national development is recognized in the National Charter. Following independence, efforts have been made to identify and document the country’s rich ICH. In 2010, Eritrea became a state party to the 2003 Convention, while more recently it established a national ICH committee. This committee is responsible for ensuring the country’s adherence to the Convention and it leads efforts to safeguard Eritrea’s ICH.

The viability and visibility of ICH rests on its being recognized as part of the cultural heritage of the communities, groups, and individuals concerned. ICH’s deep connection with the identity and cultural distinctiveness of its creators and bearers thus necessitates the involvement of its bearers in all aspects of the documentation, research, and nomination process for the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. In other words, the inventorying of all elements of ICH forms the basis for the visibility of the intangible as a “source of exchange, innovation and creativity”. At present, activities for the systematic inventorying of aspects of the ICH heritage of Eritrea have been launched. The aim is to make elements of our ICH visible to the wider world. Cultural diversity is vital to humanity and is inextricably linked to the safeguarding of ICH. Mutual recognition and respect for cultural diversity – as well as appropriate safeguarding of the ICH of the diverse peoples making up the world – is essential for promoting harmony in intercultural relations. The process of inventorying and safeguarding Eritrea´s ICH is of fundamental importance and an integral component of national development process.

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