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Festivals as instruments to enhance local heritage: two case studies in Africa

In contrast with mega-events, which have a global scale but are highly standardized, smaller scale events such as festivals, carnivals, or biennials, can be more rooted in the city’s identity.

Cities use festivals to create a lively and attractive urban environment, but they also view them as a way to differentiate and promote a specific identity. Famous examples include the Busan International Film Festival, in the second city of South Korea, which has become one of the leading film festivals in Asia, the Angoulême International Comics Festival in France, which attracts more than 20,000 visitors annually in a city of less than 50,000 inhabitants, but also the carnivals in Venice or Rio de Janeiro, which carry old traditions that made them famous worldwide.

In this step, we will look at two case studies in cities where the creation of a festival has had an impact in enhancing the city’s heritage. These cases will take us to Mali and Ghana. They have been developed in the UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development (which you can consult through the link below)

The first case study is on the historic city of Segou in Mali, and emphasizes the economic impact of the creation of the Festival sur le Niger in 2005.

“The former capital of the ancient Bambara kingdom from the mid-seventeenth century, Segou lies along the Niger River, 240 km away from Bamako. Its urban heritage is characterized by vernacular Sudanese architecture in red terracotta and colonial buildings. With an estimated population of 163,000 inhabitants, Segou’s development indicators are low compared to the rest of the country, with an estimated 65% poverty rate against 49% nationwide. Yet, the city has an interesting development potential due to its geographic location, its economic base and its outstanding urban heritage, history and cultural vitality. With a view to harnessing these assets, a collective of local entrepreneurs working through the Foundation Festival on the Niger launched the Festival sur le Niger in 2005. Each year, the festival gathers national and international artists and musicians and showcases local cultural industries. Conferences and workshops reflect cultural and development issues, while the artisans and agricultural fair allows local producers to reach new markets. With around 30,000 visitors per year on average, the festival has been a major catalyst for the local economy and has structured the arts and crafts and agricultural sectors. Over 150 local enterprises are involved, contributing to 140 direct and 2,000 indirect jobs. The tourism sector has boomed, increasing ten-fold between 2005 and 2010, which has fostered the gradual upgrading of tourist infrastructure.”

UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development, p.36

Our second case study is a self-organized street festival located in a slum of Accra, the capital of Ghana. This example stresses the impact a festival can have on civic and social life.

“The Chale Wote Street Art Festival was initiated by cultural practitioners in the Jamestown neighbourhood, located in Ga Mashie, an early fishing settlement and former colonial quarter now categorized as a slum. Organized over two days, it brings together a wide range of traditional and contemporary cultural practices in public spaces. National and international artists are invited to create murals, installations and performances by drawing upon local culture. The festival brings art into democratic, equitable and accessible areas, such as streets, pavements, lanes, car parks or unused buildings. The festival drew 20,000 people in 2015 and helped transform the perception of these areas into a community full of cultural heritage and artistic potential.”

UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development, p.37

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Cultural Heritage and the City

European University Institute (EUI)

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