Chao Tayiana Maina is a Kenyan historian and digital heritage specialist working at the intersection of digital humanities and public education. She uses digital technologies to deepen engagement with African histories, unearth previously hidden or suppressed historical narratives and make these accessible to a wider audience.

Passionate about history from a young age, she considers herself a historian by birth and a digital explorer by profession. In 2015 she completed a BSc in Mathematics and Computer Science from JKUAT and went on to specialise in heritage studies at the Glasgow School of Art where she graduated with a distinction in the MSc International Heritage Visualization program.

Her work is not simply about presenting existing historical archives in a modern way. It is about using technology to excavate stories and center those that have previously been excluded from historical narratives which were written by foreign actors and are still institutionalized today in discourse about African cultural heritage, both in the global north and the global south. 

Using tools such as digital visualizations and oral history recordings, she believes that modern forms of historical presentation can subvert traditional hierarchies in order to make previously hidden forms of knowledge visible. Thus, her work to legitimize the formerly delegitimized narratives has a reparative power. 

As such, between 2012 and 2016, she started a project to document the tangible and intangible history of Kenya’s disappearing railway infrastructure. The Save the Railway project brings together photographs, 3D images, stories and research in an effort to preserve the history of the railway which has shaped Kenyan history for more than a century. Through her efforts she created one of the largest photographic collections of contemporary railway history in Kenya.

In 2018 she co-founded the Museum of British Colonialism (MBC), a joint British-Kenyan initiative that aims to present a more truthful account of British colonialism. In a major project, the MBC worked to restore the previously suppressed history of detention camps during the Mau Mau Emergency in Kenya in the 1950s by creating 3D site reconstructions of the camps and presenting these in physical and digital exhibitions. 

In 2019 she founded African Digital Heritage, a non-profit organization that seeks to encourage a more critical, holistic and knowledge-based approach to digital solutions within African heritage. It works to digitize archives and historical sites, experiments with innovative technologies, conducts interdisciplinary historical research and does capacity building with ​​audiences and organizations to develop their digital skills. 

The participatory nature of history underpins my work. I believe that history is not merely a recording of the past that we read or consume, but something we do. My mission is to use digital tools to enable African people from different walks of life to actively engage with their cultural heritage. I feel this is a more natural progression of the type of history that we have practiced for centuries in indigenous African communities – for instance oral history, story telling – than the currently more dominant form of historical presentation of objects & knowledge removed from context and placed out of people’s reach.

In 2020 Chao co-founded Open Restitution Africa, an open data project seeking to make accessible information on restitution of African material culture and human ancestors. This initiative hopes to empower African practitioners and museums in the discourse around restitution by equipping them with comprehensive information on ongoing restitution processes and policies. 

She is a recipient of the Google Anita Borg scholarship for Women in technology which she received in 2016, the Governor’s International Postgraduate scholarship from the Glasgow School of Art, 2017, the Dan David Prize (2023) and the Yale Director’s Forum from Yale university’s institute for cultural heritage preservation (2024).

She has served as a heritage consultant for several museums and organizations. Her work has been featured on several media platforms including – The Guardian, National Geographic, Aljazeera, Reuters, BBC, DW, Ntv, 3SAT, The Art Newspaper and more.

She is also an internationally renowned speaker on digital cultural heritage and has worked with museums, archives and libraries in Kenya, Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Botswana, South Africa and Guinea to explore the ways in which digital technologies are today shaping engagement with African culture.

View her work: Here. Get in touch: ciao@headstronghistorian.com 

To be a black person working to document black histories is to occupy 3 different worlds, in 3 different roles. – A spokesperson for your erased past. – An activist in your contested present. – An architect of an alternative future.

Photography by: Sharon Kioko, Profile by: Gioia Shah, Logo by: Karugu Maina