The Blue Values Journey: Leveraging Cultural Heritage for Livelihoods and Knowledge Equality in Coastal Africa

The Blue Values Journey: Leveraging Cultural Heritage for Livelihoods and Knowledge Equality in Coastal Africa

By Professor Rose Boswell (PhD Anthropology), DSI-NRF Research Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage, Nelson Mandela University, South Africa.

Social science research in island and coastal communities involves engagement with what I call ‘Blue Values’. These are values critical to sustainability, since they include attention to responsibility, mutuality, equality, empathy and diversity. As an anthropologist and the SARChI Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage, I have conducted research in many African and African diaspora countries. The work reveals not only sadness and difficulty but also the Blue Values, expressed in the extraordinary resilience, creativity and skill of coastal communities.

Since the inception of the Department of Science and Innovation and National Research Foundation’s (NRF) South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), my research team and I have found these human qualities in South Africa, Namibia and Kenya. We feel, however, that it is important not only to perceive such qualities but also to leverage them for economic and cultural sustainability. Initiatives such as the Blue Values Journey project promote local economic and cultural development. They are increasingly important worldwide, given continued ocean resource exploration and development, as well as growth in the coastal real estate sector. Bearing these issues in mind, as well as concern for coastal justice, we are using our research imagination to conceive new projects for greater equality and sustainability in coastal communities. The Blue Values Journey, our most recent imaginative project, is a multidimensional endeavour to leverage the richness of African coastal cultural heritage for knowledge production and improved livelihoods.

The SARChI Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage, of which this project is a part, considers the coastal cultural manifestation of values, practices, artifacts, sites and monuments of humanity. The Chair analyses how and why cultural output varies across groups and nations, signifying both social distinctiveness and continuity. It interrogates the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Council (UNESCO) global conservation of cultural heritage for the past 50 years, the implications of the UN World Heritage Convention (1972) and the UN Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), as well as its UN Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage. Today, there are more than 1 000 World Heritage Sites (WHS) worldwide, as well as an impressive List of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage. Our work shows that in Africa, tangible heritages dominate and that coastal cultural heritage, specifically intangible cultural heritage (rituals, beliefs, practices and symbolism), remains vulnerable and insufficiently documented.

The Blue Values Journey seeks to render visible these intangible cultural heritages. The 20+ multinational research member team is documenting, via film, blogs, reels, photographs, podcasts and documentary films, the extraordinary experience of human cultural relations with the sea. The project draws on field data collected in more than 30 South African towns and across some 5 000km of coastal and interior territory in Namibia and the delta villages of Lamu, Kenya. Some of our early audio-visual and academic work is showcased at the Waterways Conference (September 2023). The Blue Values Journey Project participants are indigenes, First Nations peoples and leisure users of the sea. These communities will showcase their coastal cultural creativity and economic resilience and the project will bring the private sector closer to them, so that the former can better understand and co-create initiatives for social and economic good. To this end, the project includes several corporate journeys, where private sector partners can meet the communities and engage for future beneficiation.

Africa’s coastal communities – affected by the impacts of climate change and the ongoing challenges of poverty and knowledge inequality – need such interventions. The communities also need the research that guides such projects. This is why the NRF and the support it gives to the SARChI program is fundamental to the advancement of Africa. The SARChI and Blue Values Journey project also realise the value of socioeconomic good in applied anthropology, a value critical to creativity and equality in society. The NRF funding supports not only Research Chairs, but also vulnerable groups and peoples, as well as nascent researchers who are better able to support their own families and communities. It is heartening to see, and important to encourage, other investors to join such science-to-business endeavours. For us, the Blue Values Journey project is taking its first step. But as the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said, ‘the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step’.


The SARCHI Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage is funded by the National Research Foundation. The Blue Values Journey Project receives seed funding from TotalEnergies South Africa and Namibia, as well as the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA).

Short Biography: Prof Rose Boswell (PhD)

Rose (Rosabelle) Boswell is a DSI-NRF South African Research Chair in Ocean Cultures and Heritage. She leads a multi-country project on coastal cultural heritage in Southern and Eastern Africa. She has an MA in Anthropology from UCT and PhD from Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. She is author of Le Malaise Creole: Ethnic identity in Mauritius (Oxford: Berghahn 2006); Representing Heritage in Zanzibar and Madagascar (Addis Ababa: Eclipse 2008); Challenges to Identifying and Managing Intangible Cultural Heritage in Mauritius, Zanzibar and Seychelles (Dakar: CODESRIA 2011); Postcolonial African Anthropologies (co-edited with F. Nyamnjoh Pretoria: HSRC Press 2016); Things Left Unsaid (2019); Pandemix (2020); and Between Worlds (2022). In 2022, she lead edited The Palgrave Handbook of Blue Heritage (Palgrave, Macmillan). She has conducted anthropological research in Mauritius, Madagascar, Seychelles, Zanzibar, South Africa, Kenya and Namibia. Her most recent endeavour is a science-to-business project entitled The Blue Values Journey.

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