OBBO: Africa’s looted art has exposed our underbelly

Tuesday December 3 2019

A sword that belonged to Omar Saidou Tall, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader in the 1800s, at the new Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal. FILE PHOTO

A sword that belonged to Omar Saidou Tall, a prominent Muslim spiritual leader in the 1800s, at the new Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO
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There were many stories about a fortnight ago about the French government returning Omar Tall’s sword to Senegalese people.

In a ceremony in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, on November 17, French Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, handed over the brass and wood sword to Senegal's President Macky Sall.

So, who was this Omar Tall chap? You will read that al-Hajj Omar Saidou Tall was a Senegalese political leader, Islamic scholar, military commander. He lived from about 1794 to 1864AD, and founded a brief empire encompassing much of what is now Guinea, Senegal, and Mali; and led an anti-colonial struggle against the French in the 1850s.

Omar Tall remains a divisive figure, a hero to some, the devil incarnate to those he conquered. When he died in 1864, his sword and books from his library were seized by the French.

He was quite a character. He had an Al-Shabaabish puritanic streak. You couldn’t smoke, drink alcohol, or dance in Tall’s realm.

But he was a reformist, introducing modern tax systems for the times, and in an age when men took 30 wives, he restricted them to ‘only’ four.

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The return of Tall’s weapons, is a small part of the growing movement to return looted African artefacts — most in museums in cities of our former European colonial rulers.

There has been a push back against the clamour for the return of African art in western holdings, estimated to near a million by some extravagant math, with the argument that African countries are not ready to receive them.

That we shall neglect them and they shall be eaten by ants, or they will be stolen and used as wood to roast maize and things like that.

The argument is offensively racist, but there is some truth to it. We have been hopeless at looking after our museums and archives.

However, some context is important here. While some of these artefacts bedecked palaces of kings and men like Omar Tall, we didn’t have museums. Some art was actually meant to be eaten by ants, so that others would be made to replace them.

While the looted art needs to be preserved and kept honourably, the big thing should be the environment in which they return.

How much does the average 30-year-old Senegalese know about Omar Tall?

There’s a six-part documentary series “Africa’s Great Civilisations” hosted by Harvard African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr.

It first aired in 2017, and chronicles 200,000 years of Africa's “untold history”. I’ve watched it three times.

There’s a segment in one of the episodes, that lasts barely two minutes, where a scholar says when the colonialists looted the art, we were finished. The spirits of our ancestors, the power of our gods, and so forth, lay in the art.

When the colonialists took it, that was it. If the fellow could steal the store of your gods, who were you?

The greater power from Africa’s looted art, then, will come not just from building museums to store them.

It will be from teaching modern Africans what, on the face of it, seems like a simple lesson — why did the colonialists steal it?

If that lesson is not learnt, it’s hard to see why we would treasure the returned art. It will have little meaning for most.

The author is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]

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