Towards an alternative model of heritage as sustainable development: Uyghur meshrep in Kazakhstan

A collaborative research project supported by the British Academy Sustainable Development Fund

Project partners: 
SOAS, University of London, UK
Turan University, Almaty, Kazakhstan 

Our project focuses on meshrep: a system of community gatherings maintained by ethnic Uyghurs in southeast Kazakhstan. Meshrep involve music, dance, joking, readings, and an informal community court. 

They forge lasting community bonds, support the transmission of language and expressive culture, and provide a forum for discussion, planning, and action. 

The project aims to harness meshrep as a means to revitalise grass-roots expressive culture and indigenous language, strengthen community organisation, and create networks of micro-finance to support sustainable economic livelihoods.

Working with Uyghur community leaders and organisations in Kazakhstan, the project is implementing a programme of consultation and training sessions, grants and prizes for meshrep groups.

Our interdisciplinary, international team is conducting in-depth archival and ethnographic research on meshrep in Kazakhstanto underpin the programme of action. 

The project aims to support the building of research capacity in Kazakhstan by bringing researchers to the UK for training and collaboration, and it promotes the transmission of Uyghur cultural heritage through support for a traditional music school in southeast Kazakhstan. 

The project works from the premise that intangible cultural heritage is a vital aspect of community identity, and can be harnessed as a tool for sustainable development, supporting community cohesion and mutual responsibility, and enabling collective action. 

Meshrep in China were inscribed in 2010 on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in need of Urgent Safeguarding, providing a case study in the problems of top-down models of intangible cultural heritage which serve principally as national symbolic capital. 

Our project seeks to develop an alternative, grassroots approach to intangible heritage, working closely with Uyghur communities in Kazakhstan to support and enable local goals of safeguarding language and culture, reducing poverty, and improving community well-being.