for National Geographic News
Five years ago, a Japanese art collector traveled to the lush Kenyan township of Meru in search of bargains. On the top of his shopping list: any regalia associated with "Njuri Ncheke," the traditional tribal court of the Meru people.
He soon hit the jackpot. A Meru tribal chief had become the sole possessor of almost all the decorations once used by the secretive court's judges: tribal dresses, clubs, and other insignia.
The Japanese collector bought the whole collection for five million Kenyan shillings, about U.S. $80,000 at the time. In that one transaction, the Meru people lost an entire cultural legacy.
The case is hardly uncommon. Africa has for years been losing its cultural heritage to looters, dealers, and sometimes even tourists looking for unusual souvenirs. The problem has become so severe that some types of African traditional and sacred objects have vanished completely from the continent, ending up in museums, universities, or private collections outside the continent.
But some African countries are fighting back. The governments of Nigeria and Mali, two of the worst affected countries in Africa, already have repatriation programs in place. The Kenyan government is appointing a heritage officer to its embassy in Washington, whose job will be to track down artifacts and negotiate for their return to Kenya.
"Losing your cultural heritage robs you of your pride," Mzalendo Kibunjia, the National Museum of Kenya's assistant director of sites and monuments, said in an interview at his office in Nairobi. "We must get it back."
The trade in cultural artifacts is worth several billion dollars a year; some experts say its worth rivals the trade in illegal arms. It's impossible to estimate how much Africa's lost art is worth. But one thing is for sure: getting it back is a huge task.
One of the most aggrieved victims of looting may be the Mijikenda people of the Kenya coast, who have had their ornate funerary objects, known as vigango, robbed for years. The chip-carved, wood vigango depict human faces and are erected for members of a secret society, the "gohu." Most are four to six feet (120 to 240 centimeters) high, though some can be taller, depending on the status of the gohu member.
"These statues are considered inalienable by the Mijikenda," said Monica Udvardy, an anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky, who writes about vigango in an upcoming issue of American Anthropologist. "It's explicitly prohibitive to move or rename vigango as it's believed misfortune will occur both to the offender and family members of the person who's buried."
That hasn't stopped unemployed young men from robbing Mijikenda graveyards and then selling the vigango for as little as U.S. $7. While beach boys peddle some vigango to tourists, the bulk, Udvardy says, has been scooped up by a North American dealer who regularly sells vigango on the global art market.
Udvardy and a colleague have identified vigango in the collections of a dozen U.S. institutions.
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