April 01, 2010

Search For Lost Artifacts That unearth Kenya's History

Search For Lost Artefacts That Unearth Kenya’s History
Date: Wed 26th September 2007
Media house: Business Daily

Written by Wangui Maina

Four years ago, a Canadian national legally obtained a rare Samburu neck piece from Kenya.

The antique was made wholly of giraffe hair and upon reaching his home country customs officials seized it as it went against the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites) convention on animal trade.

It turned out to be a unique artefact from the Samburu. Since then the National Museums of Kenya (NMK) has been trying to get it back, but the Canadian government argues that giving it back would go against the Cites rules.

The neck piece is one of many other artefacts that belonged to Kenya and are held in various countries, some legally while others were illegally obtained. In the past few years, there have been efforts to get back some of these artefacts as they play a major role in telling the country’s history.

Dr Mzalendo Kibunja, NMK director of museums, sites and monuments, told Business Daily that NMK was constantly on the look out for artefacts and once identified they enter into negotiations with the relevant parties in a bid to repatriate them.

“It is like a peace process and the negotiations can be tedious though worthwhile in the long run,” he said. It all begins with first identifying the artefact, experts are sent to evaluate it before valuers come into the picture to peg a price on the item, from there on it is a matter of negotiations.

NMK is in negotiations with the grandson of Sonia Cole-the founder of Afghanistan World Foundation traced to December 1979- for an ivory carving that was owned by Chief Kinyanjui, one of the Agikuyu leaders during colonial times.

“He expressed interest to sell it and we are now negotiating for the right price,” Dr Kibunja said. NMK is also in talks with a Japanese collector who holds vital artefacts of the Ameru culture.

Years ago, one of the tribe’s elders sold Njuri Nceke accessories for Sh2 million. The Njuri Nceke was the Ameru’s legal system, which was charged with passing judgement and punishment. Each of the elders wore distinctive ornaments like a knotty stick (morai) cut from Blackwood or ebony as well as a ring of pearls on the head.

“We are currently in active negotiations with the collector to try and get back this important part of the Ameru culture,” Dr Kibunja said. The institution has been successful in getting back some antiques. It was able to get the Mijikenda grave markers, Vigango, from the Illinois State Museum.

Last year, the museum also got back a baton, traditional stool and walking stick that were used by the renowned Nandi leader, Koitalel arap Somoei from UK. They were returned to Eldoret after a local scholar, Kipnyango Seroney, traced them to a family in the UK.

The items had been taken by a British soldier after the leader was killed. There are still demands for the repatriation of Koitalel’s skull, sandals and his lion-skin headgear, which are said to be in Britain. The site where the leader was killed was gazetted and the government is expected to spend Sh58 million to construct a mausoleum for the leader.

Kenya has been termed as the ‘cradle of mankind’ due to the discovery of fossils in various parts of the country, which have helped in the study of early man. However, as studies have been carried out, the country has lost some of its archaeological material, both legally and illegally.

One example is material from the Gambo Cave in the Rift Valley where fossils were taken away and NMK is looking at repatriating them from Harvard University where they are currently held. Other Institutions like Berkley University and Smithsonian also hold various archaeological materials from the country.

In the recent past some of these pieces, like Dedan Kimathi’s coat, have been exhibited in the country, but on loan from the museums that claim them.

Dr Kibunja says NMK is in talks with various museums which hold Kenyan artefacts to see them safely returned back, especially those that were stolen. However, it is not an easy trip trying to get back some of the artefacts, or just even tracing them. Currently, NMK is in search of a bell that used to be at the entrance of Lamu town. The ancient bell can be seen in photos taken in 1800.

The country is also faced with the difficulty to successfully lodge a case internationally on a stolen artefact as the government has never ratified the 1970 United National Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

The convention, which entered into force on April 24th, 1972, helps countries lodge international cases especially in repatriating ‘cultural property’, which include property on religious or secular grounds that is specifically designated by a State as being of importance for archaeology, pre-history, history, literature, art or science.

Dr Kibunja hopes it is ratified before the end of the year as it would help the country file cases, especially for artefacts that were illegally obtained. The convention also helps protect the sale of such artefacts. Trade in artefacts is a lucrative multi-billion dollar industry, which is mainly driven by interest in antiques.

The value of the trade is increasingly attracting the attention of organised criminals, who use the same routes to smuggle in drugs, guns and people.

However, according to international reports the trade is being fuelled by museums and other illegal dealers. In 2005, a curator of antiquities at US museum, Marion True, was accused of knowingly receiving stolen goods and using false documents to help launder artefacts acquired from a private collection. During the same year, the invasion of Iraq raised concern as museums were looted.

The failure to establish a national database of stolen or even legally obtained artefacts by States has helped the illegal sale of some of these artefacts. In a bid to try and get the missing part of the country’s history, NMK wrote a proposal to the government to hire heritage officers who would look around for important artefacts, identify them in a bid to open negotiations to retrieve them back.

However, the proposal never saw the light of day as it was handed over to the previous government; with the new government in power in 2002 the proposal was put on hold. Hope on the project is not lost as NMK believes this would help the country in the long run.

In the past few weeks, the famous man-eaters of Tsavo have created a stir with reports stating that the Kenyan government was demanding for their return. Recent reports indicated that NMK was trying to recover the remains of the two male lions from a museum in Chicago, where they are exhibited.

According to the reports, which have been published in the international Press, NMK was looking at using international protocol to repatriate the hides and skulls of the two lions.

Dr Kibunja said NMK has no intentions of claiming them back as they were legally owned by the Chicago Museum. “The lions’ remains were legally obtained by the museum and belong to them,” he added.

The man-eaters of Tsavo have proved to be a major attraction in Chicago and an Oscar winning movie, The Ghost and the Darkness, was made to tell the story. The lions rose to fame in 1898 when the British started building a railway bridge over the Tsavo River in 1898.

For nine months, two male lions terrorised and killed the railway workers. It is said over 140 railway workers were eaten by the lions during this period and construction work was halted out of fear. Eventually Lieutenant Colonel John Patterson killed the lions, which had been called ghosts for months, making it safe to resume construction of the Kenya-Uganda railway.

Lieutenant Patterson later sold the skulls and hides of the lions’ to the The Field Museum in Chicago. Though the hides and skulls are part of Kenya’s heritage and an integral part of the history of the railway, Patterson claimed them as any hunter would a prize and was at free will to sell them as he did.

“We would wish to have them back but we are not demanding for them. Actually we are considering to loan them from Field Museum in 2010,” Dr Kibunja said.

The NMK will then be celebrating 100 years and are currently looking at holding a major exhibition, which could included these lions among other Kenyan artefacts.

Currently, it is working with the Chicago museum to arrange for an international exhibition in 2009 in the United States in a bid to raise funds for an endowment fund, which will be used to sustain long term projects . “We are looking at taking some of the fossils here to that exhibition,” stated Dr Kibunja.

Museums globally work in partnership with others, loan each other material in a bid to boost exhibitions especially on a particular theme. The country has not been known for its major exhibitions, but this is set to change as the NMK is currently looking at holding major exhibitions with its partners. Last year, the Hazina exhibition was held in the country. Loaned Kenyan artefacts from British Museum were exhibited.

“This was the first partnership with this museum and though there were some doubts in the beginning all went well and it was a great success,” Dr Kibunja said. This success led to the exhibition being extended by months and are now looking at hosting a Hazina IIexhibition, which would even be taken to London and help NMK raise money for an endowment fund. Ethiopia is another country that has continuously demanded for some of its historical artefacts that were taken, mainly by the Italians.

This includes the famous Aksum Obelisk, which was returned last year from Italy after 68 years in exile. Also to get back an important part of its history was South Africa when the remains of Baartman, a Khoisan woman, were returned in 2002 after 187 years since she left her home town Cape Town. She had been on display in a museum in Paris till 1974.


- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Sue

    I really don’t like the idea of wearing a giraffe hair necklace as I think it would prickle.

    01 Apr 2010, 08:27


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