Stolen 'vigango' find their way back home

Monday July 17 2023

Mzee Hillary Mwatsuma Kalama stand near a Vigango shrine. PHOTO | NMG


Repatriation of revered Mijikenda cultural artefacts locally known as 'vigango' from the US where they have kept for decades after being looted from Kenya, continues to gather pace.

As part of ongoing efforts to repatriate these objects, representatives from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Illinois State Museum among other museums and universities will visit Kilifi this week for the official handover of some of the 'vigango' to the Mijikenda people.

The National Museums of Kenya Director of Antiquities, Sites and Monuments Dr Fredrick Kyalo Manthi told the The East African the team would officially handover some of the artefacts to the Kilifi governor on Wednesday. The ceremony will be attended by leaders and elders from the Mijikenda community.

Read: Benin exhibits artefacts returned by France

'Vigango' are highly cherished carved, wooden artefacts between three and nine feet tall, usually erected as memorials on graves of prominent people within the Mijikenda community, depicting sacred representation of reincarnated spirits. The monuments were never intended for removal.


Some of the Giriama Shrines locally known as "vigango". PHOTO | NMG


Brooke Morgan, a curator at the Illinois State Museum, and advocate for their return, told The New York Times that separating 'vigango' from their rightful owners has detrimental effects on the spiritual well-being of the community.

Linda Giles, a former anthropology professor at Illinois State University who studied coastal communities including the Mijikenda explained that the absence of the 'vigango' is often associated with misfortunes such as illness, droughts and crop failure.

“We simply do not have the right to possess them,” said Dr Morgan in The New York Times interview, explaining that “these statues embody a spirit that should reside with its rightful owners.”

The 'vigango' were pilfered from Kenya during the colonial era up to the 1980s. They have over the years been sold to art dealers with some finding their way into museums and tourist shops.

“At least 85 'vigango' will be handed over to the Mijikenda people,” said Manthi. “This is a good show of commitment from different partners out there in whose institutions some of these objects ended up, that they’re willing to repatriate these pieces of art that have a significance where they originated from.”

He said the National Museums of Kenya had been able to document an estimated 35,000 objects including fossils and artefacts, still located abroad. But noted that with the documentation process still in progress, it was unclear how many more are yet to be captured.

He said despite Unesco's 1970 treaty prohibiting illicit trade in cultural artefacts and growing awareness surrounding repatriation efforts aimed at returning such objects to their nations of origin, museums worldwide continue displaying stolen items from Africa.

“We haven’t been able to record every object as some institutions are unwilling to give up the pieces or divulge information about these treasured pieces which have become part of their collections.

Read: Africa reclaims her past as more artefacts return home

The process has been overwhelming and still requires cooperation from the institutions involved,” he said, noting the collective relentless push across the African continent to have the artefacts—most of them removed from the continent through the colonial process—returned.

He, however, acknowledged that with heightened scrutiny around the relics, repatriation is gaining momentum and institutions are feeling the pressure towards restitution.

Giles, too, expressed optimism with increasing numbers of museums acknowledging their obligation to return such artefacts to their respective home countries.

“It takes time, but progress is being made,” she told to the New York Times.

“Museums are recognising that they should not possess these items.”

According to Giles, establishing original ownership prior to the theft of the pieces can be a daunting task. And in the interim, the National Museums of Kenya will house the repatriated relics until ownership can be definitively established.

The New York Times reported in 2003 alone, Giles and Monica Udvardy from the University of Kentucky had traced more than 300 vigango back to American museums—with more being discovered since then.

Read: New York, a hub for illicit art trafficking

Nevertheless, Giles noted the encumbrances instituted by tariffs and bureaucratic practices, that have weighed down the return of stolen artefacts to their countries of origin.

According to Morgan, even after museums decide to repatriate objects, navigating through bureaucratic red tape remains challenging. She told the New York Times that when she joined the Illinois State Museum in 2018, returning the pieces was identified as a priority.

However, due to excessive fees imposed on recipients upon importation — because they are classified as art —the museum had initially hesitated, and the involvement of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, which had gone through the process at an import tariff of $40,000, returning around 30 'vigango' from its own collection, according to Colorado NPR station KUNC's report in 2020 had been sought.

According to Manthi, “to ease the process of repatriation, Kenya has constituted an inter-ministerial team comprising the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage, that of Foreign Affairs, Treasury and the Attorney General’s office among other agencies with whose support we anticipate repatriating these items be easier, seamless and faster.”