Will Chief Songea's head come home?

Friday March 20 2020

A dancer wearing a historical mask. The National Museum of Tanzania is to formally start processes to reclaim cultural objects lost during the colonial rule. PHOTO | COURTESY


The fight by the Ngoni elders of Tanzania to bring back home the head of chief Songea from Germany was recently the subject of discussion at a conference.

Chief Songea’s head is one of over 11,100 Tanzanian historical and cultural objects, including body parts, found in museums and other institutions in Germany, according to Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of Markk-Museum am Rothenbaum in Germany.

Prof Plankensteiner was speaking in Dar es Salaam at a conference titled Beyond Collecting: New Ethics for Museums in Transition, at the National Museum of Tanzania headquarters.
The top agenda of the conference was restitution of African artefacts.

“Our secretary of culture has said that he would support restitution of objects, works that have been illegally taken...I cannot tell you how long it will take its a procedure. It’s also hard to say for my museum, but I worked in Austria at the Weltmuseum Wien, and there you’ll find approximately 3,000 objects from Tanzania,” she said.

Ciraj Rassool of the African Program In Museum and Heritage Studies at the University of Cape Town said: “We’ve discovered more and more that the museum as we know it isn’t a benign caring institution as it has always presented itself, caring for collections for future generations. We have realised just the extent to which its ideology of care was installed through a history of violence. How colonialism coincided with the birth of the modern museum.”

French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned a report Restitution Report 2018, which states that an estimated 90 per cent to 95 per cent of Africa's cultural heritage is held outside Africa.


To highlight their fight for restitution and in particular for the return of the head of Chief Songea, there was a commemoration for 113 leaders of the Maji Maji War (1905-1907) who were executed by the Germans.

In a focus group discussion with Ngoni elders led by Chief Gama, I asked why the community was so adamant in its push for the return of Chief Songea’s remains. The first response I got was that; ‘’They are not remains. It is the head of a Ngoni ancestor.”

Oswald Masebo from the department of History at the University of Dar es Salaam concurred with the Ngoni elders and asked: “Is it even proper as Africans to refer to the bodies or body parts which were chopped from our ancestors as ‘remains’?”

Dr Masebo said he hoped that conclusions drawn at the conference will lead Tanzania and other African countries down the right road to restitution.

The Dar conference brought together scholars from Rwanda, Senegal, Nigeria, Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Tanzania, with museum experts from the UK and Germany.

“One good thing to come out of this conference is that now some museum stakeholders from Germany are openly saying that they have Tanzanian artefacts in their archives. In the past you would ask and receive no answer,” said National Museum of Tanzania director Achilles Bufure.

Mr Bufure said the National Museum was last year tasked by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism, which it is under, to formally start processes for claiming national restitution of artefacts lost during the colonial rule.

Most museums in Africa, unlike in Europe, are under the state. This means all the funds they receive depend on the political agenda of the government of the day.

A lack of clear national, regional and continental policies are a hurdle towards articulating a clear position for the return of stolen artefacts.