A number of the volume’s essays explain how African precolonial and Indigenous cultures know, value, and transform landscapes in ways that are inherently different from and historically ignored by Westerners; often, the dynamic practices and relationships of cultivation and inhabitation—and their ecological traces—are more important than the creation of fixed form. Randall Bird’s essay on the landscapes of central Madagascar focuses on the power of ancestral lands to structure kinship, social position, and shared memory. Michael Sheridan and Akinwumi Ogundiran discuss sacred groves (across the continent and in Nigeria, respectively) as evolving expressions of gender relations, social hierarchies, and political communities that need to be understood over time and through plural lenses. Paul Lane describes why and how the nomadic peoples of East Africa have assigned meaning to paths rather than to places: mobility, an adaptive strategy to deal with the spatial and temporal variation of resources, has given rise to a culture in which journeys across the land become the centers of social memory and personal biography. People’s connections to the landscape emerge over time, through movement, and because of rights of use rather than through the constant inhabitation or fixed ownership of a particular spot.
This book is fundamentally concerned with the past as it relates to the present and future, and the essays it contains shed light on the many ways in which colonial infrastructure, both physical and social, continues to color postcolonial conversations about African landscapes. For example, Western ideas about heritage preservation and environmental conservation tend not to suit the multi-scalar, dynamic landscapes and landscape traditions of Africans. Charlotte Joy’s discussion of the UNESCO designation at Djenné, a mud brick city in Mali, illuminates the tension between traditional practices that connect people to places and standardized international guidelines for heritage preservation and tourism: agency guidelines were too reductive to account for the complexity of the relationships between cultural behaviors and material constructions. Maano Ramutsindela’s essay addresses ways in which the congruent definition of trans-frontier conservation areas and cultural landscapes has shifted priorities from people to wildlife. In some cases, the interests of powerful conservation groups dominate over the welfare of local people; in others, government fears that a tribe would make land claims across national borders has led to the removal of people from super-parks and perpetuated the colonial image of the continent as wild and empty.
Figure 3. Crépissage of the Great Mosque before the Aga Khan Trust for Culture restoration project, Djenné, 2005. Collage of photographs by Charlotte Joy. In Charlotte Joy, “Cultural Landscapes in Mali,” 64.