Kenya is set to ratify the Unesco 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage as it seeks to build an underwater museum, a first in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Cabinet has approved the adoption of the convention giving way for the National Museum of Kenya (NMK) and other stakeholders to hasten tapping of maritime and underwater cultural heritage sites for the benefit of Coastal communities and the country at large.
After Kenya ratifies the convention, it will set basic principles for the protection of underwater cultural heritage and rules for research.
Madagascar is the only country in eastern Africa that has ratified the Unesco convention. NMK has identified Ras Ngomeni in Kilifi County and the wreck of a Portuguese ship which sank in 1516 —one of the oldest — as the first site for an underwater museum to be built by 2022.
Other 30 shipwrecks identified in the country’s Indian Ocean waters, with some dating back to 500 years ago will be developed later.
The East African Coast has a long history of maritime trade with India, Arabia and even Japan and China in the past 2,000 years.
Mombasa leads the database of shipwrecks with 22, Malindi eight, and Lamu three. Most of these vessels were made of wood and metal parts but because of the conducive underwater environment, they are still intact.
“We have pictures of the sites and have secured the vessels most of which were used to carry ivory, cinnabar and copper,” said NMK Head of Archaeology Dr Caesar Bita.
Underwater museums have grown into major tourist attractions elsewhere and Kenya now wants to tap into unexplored treasures.
Dr Bita said people tend to associate maritime and underwater cultural heritage with only shipwrecks but there is a diverse offering such ancient ruins and their boat landing sites, ancient ports, sacred sites and fishing grounds.