June 27, 2007

Its time to return what was stolen from Africa

Posted at 12:50 pm in Similar cases

Kenya tries again to attack the vicious cycle that prevents artefacts being returned by museums in the west. They will not return them because Kenya does not have suitable facilities to keep them. If they were returned though, the huge visitor draw would easily pay for upgraded facilities within the country.

All Africa

Africa: It’s Time to Return What Was Stolen
East African Standard (Nairobi)
27 June 2007
Muthoni Thang’wa, Nairobi

Who owns the past? There are efforts by some Kenyans to reinvent themselves and find value and meaning in a cosmopolitan world.

In an effort to make peace with the past in Africa, there has been a call for repatriation of materials held in some of the largest museums in the world. In one of the most interesting debates going on in the world of heritage, the controversy pits mainly African, Asian and Middle East institutions against some of the most prestigious museums in Europe and America.

The debate is centred on materials that include human remains, art, jewellery and objects that are and have been held in the museums for a long time.

Some of the articles are of great prestige and interest – the Egyptian mummies – while others are of outstanding monetary value such as gold pieces taken by the British in Kumasi in the then Gold Coast, present day Ghana, in 1874.

Africa is making great efforts to reinvent itself. It wants to understand and own her past and the material remains that are part of her long history of political aggression that has resulted in deprivation of cultural objects.

The objects, whether bought, ‘borrowed’ or stolen, were to a large extent taken at a time when Europeans were convinced that Africans were primitive and degenerate people. Now, African museums are basically stating that Europeans are entitled to their opinions on what kind of people we are.

But we nonetheless want to repossess the objects that were created and given value and meaning in our cultures. We want to take care of them in the best way we can. In 2002, 18 major museums in Europe and America, including the British Museum in London, the Louvre Museum in Paris, State Museum Berlin, Rijks Museum in Amsterdam, Guggenheim Museum in New York, signed an agreement, the ‘Declaration on the importance and value of Universal Museums.

They proposed that the objects in their collection have become part of the museums that have cared for them and, by extension, part of the heritage of the nations that house them. This argument is difficult to buy.

For an object of religious veneration, for example, to be part of the English heritage would mean that the English first start believing in the veneration of African ancestors since that is the basic foundation of religion.

In the absence of a religious system in which ancestors are accorded a place, the objects are devoid of meaning. Cultural objects have no ‘living’ meaning unless they are in use in the value systems that created them.

The concept of universality is somewhat warped unless there is a universe that does not include Asia, Africa and the Middle East. First, the people of the regions are mainly poor and the possibility that they will travel to Europe and America to visit museums and enjoy the universality of the objects is nil.

Second, even where opportunities present themselves for visits to these countries, entry restrictions ensure that very few go to Europe and America. In reality, the museums claiming universality are doing so with the conscious knowledge that this excludes a large majority of the peoples from whom the objects were stolen.

There is also the question of what real value in cultural systems the objects would bring back to Africa given that culture is dynamic and things have drastically changed since they left the continent. In terms of adding value to collections in African museums, the items are, of course, invaluable.

They would be a tremendous boost to tourism and an addition to the beautiful beaches and diverse wildlife that are already the great pride of African and Asian countries, drawing millions of visitors and dollars in income.

Some museums such as C Carlos at Atlanta’s Emory University, US, have returned objects that were part of the heritage of the countries they belong to. The return of a 3,300-year-old mummy to Egypt in 1999, thought to be that of King Ramses I, a 13th century ruler, has set the pace.

At the same time, it switched the panic buttons that demands for such returns would result in the dismantling of collections in European and American museums. But the wind of change is here and heritage institutions must not only keep the dialogue going, but also allow the debate to be all-inclusive.

Even as institutions that stand to lose the most make a case for universal museums, they must realise that the objects that they hold so dear will not add value and meaning to their cultural system because they did not create them in the first place.

To say that the materials are safer from destruction and theft in those museums is an insult. Cultural objects do not really decay. If they remain in the value system that created them, they simply take new meaning.

How many people would visit the National Museums of Kenya if our collections held in the British Museum in London were returned? Millions!

The writer is a curator at the Karen Blixen Museum

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  1. DR.KWAME OPOKU said,

    10.09.07 at 9:08 am

    Muthoni Thang’wa is surely right on all points. The real wonder is how western museum directors and their allies, presumably persons with university education, can advance arguments which they must know are untenable. I have spent a considerable time in examining these arguments and there is not a single one which is respectable either from the point of view of logic, law or history. Most of them are so flawed that attempts to counter them may come close to insult. Take the argument that the African religious or ritual objects kept in European museums have become part of the culture of the British and other Europeans. Is it being seriously suggested that the traditional African religions against which European missionaries and others carried on a ferocious battle are now part of the religious practices of Europeans? Will the Catholic and Anglican churches buy such arguments?
    One can only conclude that for some Europeans and Americans, when it comes to defending the looted art objects that fill their museums, any argument, however devoid of substance ,is better than none and that they must at all costs defend their illegitimate possessions. Africans must take note of this position. Kwame Opoku.

  2. Dr.KWAME OPOKU said,

    11.05.07 at 9:33 pm

    Since writing thia article,we have noted the good example of Italy in returning to Ethiopia the Axum obelisk which was stolen under Benito Mussolini.


    The return home of the final piece of the Axum obelisk to Ethiopia is an undoubted victory for Ethiopia, Italy the rule of law and democracy.
    The Ethiopians must be congratulated for their persistent and unwavering struggle for the return of a cultural object and a symbol of their identity which was forcibly removed by the Italian fascists under Benito Mussolini in their attempt to colonize Ethiopia some 68 years ago. Years of protests, anger and anguish have preceded this final and historic victory of Ethiopia. All Africans must rejoice with them, in the hope that this signals a new beginning in our relationship with former colonizing European powers as far as the return of stolen or illegally transferred cultural objects are concerned. France, Great Britain, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Holland, Belgium and the rest of those countries, whether former colonizers or not, such as Austria and Switzerland, should take note of this historical event for which the Italians are to be congratulated.
    It surely was not an easy task to convince many Italians who, like the rest of Europeans, have been subjected to false propaganda for many decades by the so-called experts who claim that it is legal and right to deprive others of their cultural objects through the use of force. They have been convinced that if you are strong enough, you can take whatever you want from another country, particularly, African and Asian countries and keep it despite claims for return by the countries of origin. They have been taught that Resolutions of the United Nations General Assembly, the Conventions of UNESCO and other bodies discouraging such practices and urging the settlement of outstanding disputes are not binding and should therefore be ignored.
    They have heard important museum directors, from museums such as the Louvre, The British Museum, Musée du Quai Branly, Museum für Völkerkunde Wien, Ethnologisches Museum, Staatlische Museen zu Berlin, The Art Institute of Chicago, Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence, Prado Museum, Madrid and others state that these stolen objects are now part of the culture of the countries which stole them and are now keeping them. The supporters of Mussolini’s fascists in Italy must have seen this return as a final and definite confirmation of the defeat of their racist ideology which places the African at the bottom of their racist ladder of human development: a return to Africans of the 160-tonne obelisk which the Duce himself has ordered to be taken to Rome as a war trophy. The return of such cultural objects to their owners should be seen as part of a long-term process to discard racist and imperialist superiority complexes. These racist complexes have hindered in the past the observance of the principles of equality and the respect for human rights in Europe and elsewhere. Some may consider the return of these cultural objects as a necessary catharsis.

    The return of the obelisk is also a triumph for the rule of law and democracy. The rule of law is incompatible with the use of force and certainly the acquisition of cultural objects, whether in war or in peace through the use of force cannot be considered as compatible with democracy. You cannot preach democracy and resort to the use of force to deprive other nations of their cultural objects. I am well aware that there are many voices in the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and elsewhere who do not think the use of force to remove cultural objects from Asia and Africa have anything to do with the rule of law and human rights.
    The return of the obelisk also gives the lie to those museum directors who act as if the removal of stolen cultural objects from their countries will somehow affect their cultural identity. Italian culture will surely survive the removal of the Axum obelisk. Will the British, French, German and Austrian cultures survive the removal of stolen African cultural objects from their countries? Will Berlin survive the return of Nefertiti to Cairo?
    What can the reader do to help this process of restitution? The main problem, as far the average reader is concerned, is the absence of information on what objects have been stolen from which country and by which country. Many museums do not even list most of these items in their handbooks or catalogues and keep them safely in their depots.
    A first step would be to consult the internet sites of movements such as the African Reparation Movement to see the list of stolen items from your country or other countries. If there are museums near where you live, visit them to see if you can look at some of these objects and try to ask questions. You should also look at the UNESCO homepage to find some literature on the subject.
    The main problem for us as Africans is the lack of interest on the part of most of our governments for this issue. Many have not even bothered to request from the former colonial governments for the return of our cultural objects which were taken away during the colonial period. You must ask why. Many of our intellectuals and museums experts have also kept a deafening silence. Many of our countries have not even bothered to ratify the UNIDROIT and UNESCO Conventions on this matter. It almost looks as if our leaders are not interested in cultural matters. Where then is the famous pride in our culture?
    Kwame Opoku,Vienna,29 October

  3. chris Wanjala said,

    02.08.08 at 3:28 pm

    Dear Muthoni.I want you to elaborate on a few points.
    Chris Wanjala

  4. Edgard Mansoor said,

    05.12.08 at 12:02 am

    For a similar case, look at this post.

    Edgard Mansoor

  5. Edgard Mansoor said,

    05.12.08 at 4:15 pm

    For similar cases and more comments,please visit also this page, this page & this page.

    Thank you,

    Edgard Mansoor

  6. chrisman Letters said,

    06.07.08 at 11:01 pm

    Dear Muthoni,
    How come you did not find a minute to reply me?

  7. chris L Wanjala,PhD,Professor of Literature said,

    04.10.09 at 2:53 am

    Pan-Africanism must start with us as individuals coming from individual African communities with each of us as representatives of those communities.Jomo Kenyatta was an institution and everything about him has monumental value to all of us Africans at home and in the Diaspora.It was Banda of Malawi who built a monument in Blantyre in honour of Kenyatta.Kenyatta spent many years in England and travelled to Russia.Have all his memorabilia been returned to Kenya? Has his walking stick been returned to Kenya from the British Museum?These are things we are talking.When Lord Maurice Egerton of Tatton(1874-1958)hunted in Africa, all the animal heads he collected were returned to Manchester and housed in the Tenants’ Hall in Tatton Park in Knutsford.The only legacy he has in Kenya is Egerton University and his three farms which were donated to the Kenya Government.If Kenya can return Britain’s artefacts- material culture items belonging to a Briton- why does the West not reciprocate?

  8. Ptof Chris L Wanjala said,

    05.24.10 at 7:35 am

    Dear friends,
    Chris Wanjala who is a renowned authot of the critical text,The Season of Harvest is a renowned literary critic who worked with such luminaries as Ngugi wa Thiongó,Okot p’Bitek,Henry Owuor Anyumba and Taban Lo Liyong to bring British culture in Kenya to its knees.He is the author of Standpoints of Literature(1973),The Season of Harvest,1978, and For Home and Freedom(1980).His novel,Drums of Death,was first published in 2005.He has edited Faces at Crossroads, Singing with the Night,Debtors and Attachments to the Sun.He is working on his memoir.He is Professor of Literature at the University of Nairobi.His interest in museaums and monuments comes from his background of African Studies.He helped to found the Egerton Museaum in Njoro,Kenya.He is a consultant with Bomas of Kenya where he has helped to redefine the role of that cultural centre in the promotionm of tourism in East Africa.He chaired the technical committee which drafted the cultural policy of Kenya.Currently he is helping the directorate of tourism as it comes up with the stratigic plan for culture and heritage tourism.In his book,The Season of Harvest, he cracks the myth perpetrated by Taban lo Liyong, that East Africa, as compared to West and South Africa, is a literary and cultural desert.His is an examination of culture, literature and art,and the way intellectuals, especially creative writers and politicians have helped or discouraged its progress.He extols writers from Africa,the Caribbean,and Black America,who have managed to correct the picture of Africa as a continent without culture,education, and technology.He reproches writers whose works merely copy the popular culture of the West.In his book,The Season of Harvest,he eamines three levels of alienation:a situation where an African writer cynically portrays sex,adventure, crime and violence for the easy pleasure of his/her reader;the writer who concentrates on form and language of the text and ignores the message.The third level is positive:the writer does not only seek to expalin,but also to change it. He delineates the role of literature in society.He describes how literature can change the society.He shows how a writer, endowed with language and imagination makes an adverse situation vivid by using his/her imagination to portray the situation with a view to changing it.Writers inevitably live as individuals;to create,they must wthdraw from the society.Chris L Wanjala, an accomplished lieray critic himself discusses the role of the critic.The critic examines the role of the writer and the attitudes of the consumers of works of art.
    Comments on Chris L Wanjala’s ouvre of wrks by KITUYI KEVIN MANYONGE.

  9. Ptof Chris L Wanjala said,

    05.24.10 at 7:41 am

    What was the legacy of Okot p’Bitek(1930-1982) regarding the promotion of East Africa’s intangible heritage?

  10. Ptof Chris L Wanjala said,

    05.24.10 at 8:15 am

    JOHN WANYONYI MANGULIECH hails from Kimilili Location,Bungoma District, Western Province,Kenya.He belongs to a genre of ritual artists called BASAWLA KUMUSE,in Africa.He is a reciter of the history of his people during a ceremony called LUFU.A senior citizen dies.Three days after the burial, that ritual called LUFU is perfromed.Mourners who include dignitaries of the ethnic group assemble in the home of the diseased ; they choose an open ground in front of the hut of the deceased and sit in a horse shoe “circle,”with the next of kin and the relations of the deceased on one side,and the visitors on the other.The ritual leader who for our purpose is Mr.John Wanyonyi Mangulechi,describes a line dividing the two sides of the horse she.He walks along this line as he lectures the people who remain seated throughout the performance.He traces the origin of man drawing from the creation stories of the ethnic group and the history of man worldwide.He narrates the stories of heroes of the tribe and their contributions to the well-being of the tribe.He blends his narrative with song, dance, and aphorism,which echo the genetic wisdom passed from one generation to another.He tries to tie tradition to modernity and illustrates moral lessons using the oral history of the tribe.He warns the young and the old about conduct that deviates from the norm.He tells the daredevils not to climb a slippery tree called KUMURUMBA.In 1982,a section of the Kenyan army tried to organize a cou detat(?).They failed and some of them died.Manguliechi uses their story to illustrate the moral of climbing.They tried to climb a tree and came down rolling and weeping.He teaches women to respect their husbands:Ä wife is a cook,”Manguliechi preaches. “She cooks and feeds the husband’s people- community”.The moral conduct of the woman is stressed.The ideal woman is called OMUKHAYE( a lady.)He instructs men on how to handle their wives.Every husband has to bear certain things in mind when he is dealing with women.A woman is arunning river.A man can pierce the water with his spear.He will not leave a mark made by that spear in the water.A man crosses the river.He leaves no footprint on the water.One spear is not enough to pirce a woman’s shield.Manguliechi, as a ritual leader,is the paragon of good morals and an enemy of sorcerers and other malevolent people in the society.He teaches the youth how to grow in an upright way..

    by Chris L Wanjala

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