October 18, 2006

Senator Barrack Obama supports repatriation of Kenyan artefacts

Posted at 12:45 pm in Similar cases

Senior Kenyan officials have met US Senator Barrack Obama to discuss ways of preventing trafficking of the country’s artefacts to the US. Kenya has lost huge numbers of artefacts to illegal trafficking – even if they are later found, it is rare that they are returned to their country of origin. A similar agreement was recently made between the US & Mali, and has had a significant impact on the level of trafficking between the two countries.
Many of the artefacts looted from Kenya have ended up in major museums around the world that now refuse to return them.

The East African (Nairobi)

Bringing Country’s Culture Back Home
The East African (Nairobi)
October 17, 2006
Posted to the web October 17, 2006

KENYA’S CAMPAIGN TO recover hundreds of artefacts from museums and private collections abroad has gained new impetus with the promise of support by US Senator Barrack Obama last month.

At a recent meeting with National Museums of Kenya officials in Washington, Senator Obama agreed to support the NMK’s initiative, which includes formulation of a joint agreement between Nairobi and Washington to stop trading and holding of Kenyan artefacts in the US.

Senior officials of the National Museums who met the US Senator in Washington said his support was a crucial step towards repatriation of hundreds of artefacts from Kenya that have been sold in the US by international traffickers.

“The agreement will outlaw sale or possession of such material; so those holding artefacts have no alternative but to return them to Kenya,” said Dr Kibunja Mzalendo, director of regional museums, sites and monuments at the National Museum. His department is heading the search for Kenya artefacts abroad.

He pointed out that there is already a similar agreement between the US and Mali that has effectively contained trafficking of artefacts from the West African nation. “Ours will be based on a similar concept,” said Dr Mzalendo.

High on the list of the items whose return is sought by Kenya are the stuffed skins of the two Maneaters of Tsavo now at the Chicago Field Museum.

Dr Mzalendo, however, noted that the trophies were legally acquired by the Chicago Museum as it bought them from the British engineer Colonel J.H. Paterson who shot the two lions after they had killed 20 coolies working on the construction of the Mombasa railway in the late 1890s.

Paterson took the skins back to England. But he went broke and, in 1923, sold the skins to the Chicago Field Museum for $5,000, which was a huge sum at the time. “It was a legitimate deal, certainly; what we are asking is for the museum to loan us the skins for public exhibition so that Kenyans can have a chance to see these famous lions,” said Dr Mzalendo.

So far, the story of the two lions has inspired a best-selling book by Col Paterson and a 1996 movie, The Ghost and the Darkness, filmed in South Africa.

“There are also a total 25 documentaries based on the same story,” said Jean Hartley of Viewfinders Production, which specialises in wildlife films shot in Kenya.

The two trophies are not the only legally acquired Kenyan artefacts abroad that the country can now acquire on loan or buy back from their current overseas owners.

The British Museum still holds a significant treasure trove of Kenyan artefacts, some of which it offered on loan to the NMK for the Hazina exhibition currently on show in Nairobi until March next year. Last year, the British Museum returned several maps to the Survey of Kenya, but many more are still being held in its archives.

A good number of the artefacts stolen from Kenya are in museums abroad, but the country needs to undertake a thorough search to identify what is being held where.

The NMK has petitioned the government to appoint heritage officers to key overseas embassies to help in tracking of artefacts now owned by museums and private collectors in the US and Europe.

Though the case of the Maneaters of Tsavo is just one of those being pursued by the NMK, it should provide valuable pointers to the way ahead. “The talks with the Chicago Field Museum are already at an advanced stage and we hope to have the lions here by early next year,” said Dr Mzalendo.

HIS DEPARTMENT HAS adapted the diplomatic approach to repatriation of artefacts due to the complex nature of the issues involved. “Other countries, notably Ethiopia and South Africa, have used persuasion rather than litigation with good results. We too believe it is the best approach,” said Dr Mzalendo.

While this kind of arrangement is possible with major institutions, dealing with private collectors can be a lot more complex, since many are reluctant to surrender the items in their possession. “We have considered buying back the artefacts where possible, although this depends on the price, of course. So, even with private individuals, loaning the items to us is the easier option at the moment,” he said.

He would prefer that the items are returned permanently, but collectors who have a strong attachment to their possessions are unlikely to part freely with them.

The complexity and sensitivity of the whole issue is illustrated by the recent case of the two vigango stolen from the family of Kalume Mwakiru of Kaloleni in Kenya’s Coast Province. A kigango is a three-foot high memorial post covered in ceremonial carvings. One kigango was returned by the Illinois State Museum in a significant achievement for Kenya’s anthropologists fighting for the retrieval of stolen historical and cultural treasure. The kigango was handed over to the Minister of National Heritage Suleiman Shakombo by Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on September 4.

According to a research article, the cost of erecting a kigango is between Ksh15,000 ($202) and Ksh16,000 ($216) and so an installation does not usually take place until the family of the deceased experiences misfortune. An installed kigango is interpreted as an incarnation of the deceased – it is interceded with and given palm wine. It is a common belief among the MijiKenda that if the rituals are not followed, the spirits of the dead will come back to haunt the family and, worse still, whoever tampered with them suffered misfortune.

The two vigango erected by Kalume Mwakiru were meant to honour his dead brothers after the family had suffered a series of misfortunes – death of livestock and poor harvests. But in 1985, two years after the memorials were erected, they were stolen. It is believed that the theft was instigated by an American collector who paid a member of the Mwakirus’ Miji Kenda community to steal them.

Experts say thieves can sell a kigango to Kenyan souvenir shops for around $50; American collectors pay between $1,500 and $6,000 for one, depending on its size.

ONE OF THE MWAKIRU Vigango was sold to actor, Powers Boothe in California, who donated it to Illinois State University. The university closed its museum and transferred its collection to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield in 2001.

Luckily, an American anthropologist doing research in Kenya had photographed Mwakiru standing alongside the memorials just before they were stolen. The photos appeared in a 2003 issue of the journal American Anthropologist and were later to provide proof of ownership.

Early this year, the anthropologist spotted one during a slide presentation at a conference on African studies and alerted the family, who wrote to the Illinois State Museum, asking that it be returned, and stating that their luck had deserted them after the theft of the vigango. The museum immediately investigated and decided to return them.

“This memorial post is part of Kenya’s cultural traditions, and it belongs to the Mwakiru family. It should be reunited with its rightful owners,” said Governor Blagojevich at the handover. “The Illinois State Museum acted promptly and worked with the Kenyan government to make sure this important piece of a family’s history and tradition was returned to the place where it belongs.”

The kigango’s official transfer marked the first time any stolen historical object has been returned to Kenya, according to Idle Farah, director general of NMK.

“The world must be able to see (Kenya’s) cultural diversity,” Dr Farah said. “But this must be done with respect for our communities.”

But the story did not end there. The second Mwakiru kigango turned out to be owned by Hampton University in Virginia, which refused to return the post to Kenya, arguing that it was legally acquired and that it had no proof of Mwakiru’s ownership.

Last week, the return of the kigango to the family featured prominently in the Kenyan press. The Hampton University had apparently bowed to media pressure in the US. But, said Dr Mzalendo, “It was returned on loan because the American buyers argued that it was acquired legally.”

A study in 2003 showed there were 300 vigango in America and the number may be close to 400 by now. The majority of the memorial vigango erected in Kenya have been stolen, according to the anthropologists.

Two years ago a British collector approached the Kenyan High Commission in London for assistance in buying a wide range of collector items from Kenya.

They included old town maps, military uniforms used in the two World Wars, coins and dozens of other items. The High Commission forwarded the request to the NMK, which, realising the implications, raised the alarm.

Kiprop Lagat of the Department of Ethnography said the preservation of cultural heritage is complicated by the fact that much of it is still privately-owned in Kenya and owners realise the financial value it holds among collectors. “The owners live in rural areas; poverty has forced them to sell off invaluable cultural items to foreign buyers,” he said.

He noted that the government does not allocate funds to the NMK to buy the items being held by various communities in Kenya. And in the isolated cases where NMK has sought to buy the artefacts, it has found itself unable to compete with the high prices offered by foreigners.

In a typical case, the NMK attempted to acquire a valuable item that formed part of the ceremonial regalia used by the Njuri Njeke traditional courts in Meru; they backed off when the owner quoted a price of Ksh2 million ($27,400). “We believe that is the price offered to the owner by a Japanese collector who was also interested in the item,” he said.

Shortly after Independence, the Kenya government allocated funds to the NMK for buying artefacts from communities, but the funds dried up and there are still many valuable items in private possession. “These are private property and the rise in poverty has forced owners to sell them to foreign collectors,” said Mr Lagat

In another intriguing case, the former director of the Kenya National Archives Dr Maina Kagombe told The EastAfrican, documents on the Hola Massacre – one of the most gruesome atrocities committed during the British rule – which had been reported destroyed, were traced to the Hoover Institute in the US. The colonial administration had destroyed most documents related to the massacre, but some had been apparently been stored on microfilm and secretly sold to the Hoover Institute in the US.

Dr Kagombe said he had successfully negotiated the return of the microfilms, but the management of the Hoover Institute was reluctant to post them, fearing that they would get lost, and insisted that Kenya send a senior official to collect them. “But I was moved from the archives and there was nobody to follow up the matter,” said Dr Kagombe.

He said that other items being held in the US include archaeological material at the Berkley University in California and other institutions. Originally, the NMK had considered filing legal suits to recover the materials but was dissuaded by the high cost of taking such cases to overseas courts.

But even as Kenya, steps up its campaign to recover lost treasure of artefacts, the country is itself blamed for abetting the trafficking of items looted from Ethiopia, Somalia and Congo during the civil wars in those countries.

Religious manuscripts said to be thousands of years old were looted from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church during the civil war that led to the ouster of president Mengistu Haile Mariam.

From Somalia, goods made of precious stones and hidden in graves said to be over 10,000 years old were stolen.

Congo artefacts, which flooded Kenya at the height of the civil war that ousted president Mobutu Sese Seko, comprised exquisite carvings and other material looted from museums in the country.

FORMER NMK DIRECTOR DR George Abungu has faulted the Kenya legal system for its lack of provisions to prohibit trafficking of artefacts.

Anthropologists also note that some high-ranking individuals at the NMK have used their privileged positions to engage in this highly lucrative trade.

“We have had cases in the past when former high-ranking officials were known to engage in the trade, especially at the height of the civil wars in Ethiopia and Congo, which greatly tainted the institution’s reputation,” said Dr Mzalendo.

He also pointed at the large, monied NGO and expatriate population in Kenya, whom he says are a good market for traffickers as they can use their overseas contacts to export the material.

Said Dr Mzalendo: “We are aware of this, but have no legal authority to bar the trade due to deficiency in the existing law. The new Museums Bill, passed early this year has such a provision and is waiting presidential assent; only when this is given can we deal legally with trafficking of artefacts.”

The Bill also addresses cases such as that of Lamu, which is currently threatened by foreign developers buying out freehold property to cash in on the island’s prestige as a World Heritage Site.

The Bill prohibits any developments and allows limited rehabilitation of the property being acquired from residents. “Until it becomes law, there is no legal provision we can adopt against the trafficking or the holding of this national treasure,” said Dr Mzalendo.

Copyright © 2006 The East African. All rights reserved. Distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allAfrica.com).

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