The United States has formally surrendered 30 ceremonial artefacts to Kenya following an elaborate repatriation ceremony held on Wednesday in Denver, Colorado.
The totems, popularly known as Vigango, were being held at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science for 23 years against the will of the Kenyan government.
During the signing ceremony officiated by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, the Kenyan government was represented by the country’s acting ambassador to the US, Ms Jean Kamau, who was accompanied by a delegation from Nairobi County Assembly led by the Speaker, Mr Alex Ole Magelo.
The antiques returned to the Kenyan government have been at the centre of controversy since they were given to the museum in 1990 as donations by two Hollywood collectors, actor Gene Hackman and the film produce Art Linson.
Leaders from the Mijikenda communities have insisted that the objects were stolen from them while American antique collectors have maintained that they bought them from willing sellers.
Negotiations to repatriate the totems have been ongoing since the 1990s and successive Kenyan governments have tried in vain to have them returned to Kenya.
Vigango are carved from a termite-resistant wood by members of the Mijikenda community. They are erected to incarnate the spirits of deceased elders and other important members of the society. The effigies are considered sacred by most of the communities living along the coastal region.
Two years ago, the Denver Museum administration said in a statement that it was willing to return the artefacts but faced challenges as the original owners were unknown.
“The process is often complicated, expensive and never straightforward,” said Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh, the museum’s curator of anthropology.
But following a co-operation between the cities of Denver and Nairobi under the Sister-Cities initiative last year, the Mayor of the Colorado city agreed to relinquish the statues to the National Museums of Kenya, through the Nairobi County government.
“This is a manifestation of the endless potential benefits we can realise from the sister-cities initiative,” Said Mr Joseph Odhiambo, the chairman of the Nairobi project committee who was also present.
Ambassador Kamau commended the US government for letting Kenya ‘have the priceless objects which are part of its heritage’. “I am delighted to be part of this ceremony as this institution honours a moral obligation to return valued and sanctified objects back to their rightful owners,” she said.
Councilman Albus Brooks in whose jurisdiction the Museum is situated said the repatriation should be viewed as gesture of friendship between cultures. “The shipment is cleared and leaves immediately for Nairobi,” he said.
The Wednesday repatriation brings to 32 the number of totems so far returned to Kenya by the American government. The Illinois State Museum in Springfield and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia had returned one each.
The existence of Kenyan totems in US institutions was uncovered by a research carried out by a leading professor of anthropology, Monica L. Udvardy, who is a lecturer at the University of Kentucky.
The repatriation ceremony comes in the wake of criticism levelled against the delegation from Nairobi by some Kilifi leaders who accused the team led by Speaker Magelo of being insincere in making the trip to the US.
On Monday, they said that the artefacts should be given to the Mijikenda elders and not to leaders from Nairobi County. “These people want to generate revenue from a resource that does not belong to them,” said Kilifi Deputy Speaker Teddy Mwambire.
But in a quick rejoinder, Mr Magelo sought to assure the coastal region leaders that his team was only playing an intermediary role. “Once the totems get to the National Museums of Kenya, we will have no say on what happens to them” said Mr Magelo in a phone interview with the Nation.
The surrender of the artefacts now turns the spotlight to the Illinois State Museum where the preserved remains of two of the famed man-eating lions of Tsavos are on display.
In 2007, the then Kenya’s ambassador to the United States, Peter Ogego led a spirited campaign to have the lifeless cats returned to Kenya.