Recognizing Cultural Symbols

7 Min Read

Dance is used by many Africans of different backgrounds as a fundamental means of expressing the community life of its people. So important it is, that UNESCO, the UN agency that deals with education, science and culture, included three dances in its list of protected Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity (Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity) at the end of the twelfth session of the International Committee that deals with screening of the candidacies, which was held on the island of Jeju in South Korea between the 4th and the 9th of December 2017. The same recognition went to Nsima staple dish for daily nutrition in Malawi among other African countries.  With the four awards, the list of intangible African heritages protected by UNESCO rises to 45.


The first tradition to achieve this universal recognition in 2017 was the Zaouli, an ancient masked dance that has its roots in the Guro tribe, who live in the districts of the cities of Bouaflé and Zuénoula, located in the centre of Ivory Coast, west of the capital Yamoussoukro. The Zaouli is a tribute to feminine beauty that plays an important educational, recreational and aesthetic role within the communities where it is practiced, transmitting the cultural identity of its bearers and promoting social integration and cohesion. There are a total of seven masks used during the dance, all of which are inspired by many legends of the land and produced by skilled wood sculptors. Each mask goes along with a costume that is worn during the dance events, which are very rhythmic and physically demanding. Great importance is also given to musicians and other dignitaries, who guarantee respect for the traditions and who give vitality to the performances, sometimes in the form of intense competitions between villages.


The second tradition is Nsima, a staple food not only in Malawi, but also other sub-Saharan African countries, even though it’s called by different names across Africa. It is a kind of maize meal (polenta) obtained from white corn, introduced in Africa centuries ago by the Americans. It is eaten with meat, fish and vegetables and has great importance in the local cuisine of countries such as Malawi. Everything from the cultivation of corn, to the production of flour to cooking is part of this tradition upon which many of the families  depend for their livelihood. The communities safeguard this tradition through the continuous practice, the publication of school books and recipes on the Nsima, and the organization of thematic festivals. It is also served in most restaurants across Africa.

Sega Tambour

The third tradition protected by UNESCO was discovered and thrives in the island of Rodrigues, the second most important of the Republic of Mauritius and more than 500 kilometers away from the capital Port Louis. Sega Tambour, as it is referred to is similar to Zaouli, a dance performance on a rhythmic base played with some instruments: the main one is a special type of drum that is beaten energetically with the hands, to which the Triyang, Bwat and Mayos are  associated . Unlike the Ivorian dance, however, the dancers do not wear traditional masks or costumes and the performance is in harmony with the music.

The Sega Tambour tradition originated from the slave communities of Rodrigues and has been handed down to date as a social aggregation tool within the communities of the Island. It is taught to children from an early age and there are real competitions where musicians and dancers challenge each other. A local non-governmental organization (NGO) has been founded that preserves its historical heritage and which currently falls under the auspices of UNESCO.

To these first three traditions now protected, has been added Dikopelo, practiced in Botswana, which has entered into the list of customs that are risking possible extinction and are therefore in need of urgent protectio. It is a group dance set, without a well-defined choreography, and the singing is without the accompaniment of musical instruments. Dikopelo was practiced above all in campaigns in southern Africa, however with the progressive rural depopulation, those who practice it have decreased, since it is increasingly difficult to practice it in the urban areas. It is also becoming more and more difficult to find those who are keen to pass on the tradition, even if some groups still endeavour to find young people willing to learn it.

…And the Neapolitan pizza makers

Italy, and in particular the city of Naples where pizza was discovered, also received a great boost in 2017, when UNESCO  recognized and listed  the art of Neapolitan “pizzaiuoli”(Pizza makers) as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This is due to the cultural and social role that it has played over the years and still continues to play, which has created a sense of identity of the Neapolitan citizens who identify with this practice and  the values ​​of cohabitation among the members of the Parthenopean community that it represents. The craft of pizzaiuolo has also created an opportunity for social redemption and success to many young people from poor backgrounds, who are guaranteed a future career as pizzaiuoli. The turnover of pizza in Italy, according to Coldiretti, is valued at approximately 12 billion euros.  The Americans being the biggest consumers with 13 kilos per capita, while the Italians lead the ranking in Europe with 7.6 kilos per capita, followed by the Spanish, French,German and British, who consume about 4 kilos per capita. It is worth noting that even the “Mediterranean diet” has been in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritages of Humanity for some years now.