French knight Kenyan archaeologist for conservation work

Friday January 4 2013

By Fred Oluoch

Kenya is known for its beautiful game parks and wildlife, but one Kenyan has put the country and Africa on the global map of cultural heritage.

Dr George Abungu, an archaeologist, became the first African to be knighted by the French government for over 20 years of contribution towards the conservation and promotion of Africa’s cultural heritage. 

Dr Abungu, the former Director-General of National Museums of Kenya, was awarded with the Knight of the order of Arts and Letters 2012 in November, in recognition of his  intellectual contribution to heritage and humankind.

The annual award is given to people who have excelled in different fields.

Dr Abungu says he was surprised when he was informed that he had been knighted.

The Ordre des Arts et des Lettres was established in May 1957 by the Minister of Culture, and confirmed as part of the Ordre National du Mérite by President Charles de Gaulle in 1963.

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The award recognises significant contributions to the arts, literature, or the propagation of these fields.

Dr Abungu has created awareness on the theft of African cultural artefacts by writing articles that were published in international publications, which have led to the return of many African cultural materials that were carted to Europe and America during the colonial period. These items are a major attraction in many of the world’s leading museums.

Dr Abungu was instrumental in the return of two pieces of the 300-year-old Vigingo that were stolen and found at the University of Illinois.

Vigingo are wooden grave markings that the Giriama at the Kenyan coast believe connect the living with their ancestors.

The archaeologist is the founding chairman of the International Standing Committee on the Traffic of Illicit Antiquities.

While recognised internationally, the Kenyan government has not recognised his work in cultural heritage.

“We need to start taking our professionals seriously as they have a lot to offer the country and the entire East African region. But only outsiders recognise them and end up benefiting. Governments outside Africa recognise the role of heritage in human development. Heritage is a product that Africa can promote as a tourist attraction with great success,” he says.

Dr Abungu is currently working on the conservation management plans for Ethiopia’s historical sites of Axum and Lalibela.

Axum is known for its 1,700-year-old Obelisk that had been carted away by Italians and was returned to Ethiopia in 2005 following sustained pressure from African heritage conservationists.

In 1980, Unesco added Aksum’s archaeological sites to its list of World Heritage Sites due to their historical value. Lalibela is known for its churches, built during the reign of Lalibela between the 12th and 13th centuries.