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Cultural Property as Global Commodities -The Case of Mijikenda Memorial Statues

As is still customary among the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya, back in the early 1980s, Katana,1 an elderly man from the Giriama subgroup, erected two carved memorial posts to commemorate his two recently deceased brothers. Called vigango (kigango when singular), such statues must be carved for deceased family members who belong to the Gohu society, a male fraternal organization. In 1985, cultural anthropologist Monica Udvardy visited Katana to learn about this semi-secret society, and photographed him beside the two posts. Shortly after Udvardy’s visit, however, Katana awoke to find that both vigango had been stolen. He was heartbroken, for their disappearance not only severed the tangible link they represented to his two brothers, but would also anger their spirits, who would then cause harm to living members of his family. Moreover, the ritual carving and erection of these vigango had been a costly affair. When Udvardy returned with photographs of the vigango, Katana gratefully accepted them and asked for her help in locating the stolen vigango. Because vigango are commonly sold to art dealers and collectors, Udvardy searched in coastal hotels and antiquities shops, but to not avail. Fifteen years later, however, at a conference on Mijikenda culture, she recognized one of Katana’s vigango in a slide that her colleague, Linda Giles, showed of the African art collection then owned by the Illinois State University museum. Soon afterward, while perusing museum catalogues, Udvardy and Giles located Katana’s other stolen kigango in the collection of Hampton University Museum in Virginia. Museum records noted that the latter kigango had been collected in Kenya by a well-known American art dealer during the same year that it was stolen from Katana and was later donated to the museum by another individual.


The fate of Katana’s vigango is not unusual; there has been widespread theft and global trade in vigango for several decades. Westerners view them as “art,” giving them high value in the global market and perpetuating their theft from the Mijikenda. Stealing vigango is especially egregious because they are ritual artifacts that are part of a living culture. Moreover, according to indigenous belief, vigango are inalienable and should never be removed from their site of erection. As Richard Leakey, the famous paleontologist and former director of the National Museums of Kenya, has remarked, the trade in vigango is “a sacrilege.”2


Mijikenda, Ancestors, and Vigango


The Mijikenda are nine culturally and historically related peoples3 who reside in the Kenyan and northern Tanzanian coastal area and hinterland. As in many sub-Saharan African cultures, ancestral spirits are an integral part of Mijikenda society, and remain active in the lives of their descendants. Ancestral spirits can provide useful assistance but they can also punish if they feel neglected or angry. Descendants frequently offer them libations and sacrifice animals for them on special occasions. Although many Mijikenda have converted to Islam, and some to Christianity, ancestors continue to play significant roles in religious beliefs and practices.


Most Mijikenda ancestral spirits are incarnated through wooden memorial posts. The markers for the ordinary deceased are short, uncarved pegs of wood, called koma. The Giriama, Kauma, Jibana, Chonyi, Kambe, and Ribe subgroups also erect vigango, which are taller (three to nine feet) carved posts, for deceased members of the Gohu society. Vigango are carved from termite-resistant hardwood. They are abstractly human in shape, with a head and a long straight body which is usually decorated with elaborate chip-carving.


Most Mijikenda erect vigango on the graves within their respective makaya (kaya when singular), the symbolic politico-ritual centers of each subgroup. The Giriama, however, also raise them in or near the patrilineal extended-family homestead, often not in association with the grave itself. Ideally, shortly after a Gohu member dies, his family should commission the local Gohu society to carve a kigango for him and install it with associated ritual, offerings, animal sacrifice, and public feasting. In 2001, the estimated cost of erecting a kigango was 15,000 to 16,000 Kenyan shillings (US $187.50), a considerable expense for most Mijikenda. Thus, in practice, the family often does not install a kigango until some misfortune befalls the group and it is determined through divination or dreams that a deceased Gohu ancestor is responsible. The kigango serves as an incarnation of the ancestor and receives regular propitiation with palmwine.


If a Giriama household moves to a new location, the kigango should be left behind, undisturbed, and a smaller and simpler type of substitute post, called a kibao, erected at the new homestead. Because Giriama households may move several times during their members’ lives, vigango are often left in abandoned homesteads where they can be easily taken by the unscrupulous. Descendants should return occasionally to visit vigango in unoccupied areas, especially if the ancestors indicate that they need attention. After several generations such vigango are usually forgotten, whereas those in the main ritual centers, the makaya, should receive continual care by the kaya elders. Even if the kigango is no longer visited, the prohibition on disturbing it remains. This point is often misunderstood, or purposely overlooked by collectors and dealers, who spread the rumor that there is no harm in collecting “abandoned vigango.” John Mitsanze, a Giriama, bristles at this term, because from the Giriama point of view there is no such thing as an “abandoned kigango.”


The Mijikenda believe that anyone who disturbs a kigango will be cursed by the ancestors, which will result in misfortune for the offender and his associates. Uprooting a kigango to sell is especially offensive, and is thought to result in serious supernatural sanctions, frequently insanity. It is not only the culprit, however, who is affected; the descendants of the disturbed kigango will also suffer misfortune. “The spirit [of the ancestor represented by the disturbed kigango] causes illness, insanity, a family member getting lost, lack of agreement between family members, loss of harvest, or a child being born deaf or dumb,” explained Thoya Muramba Mweri, a Giriama elder interviewed at Gede-Mabuani in 2001. “It is like stealing the welfare of the family.” Once the family discovers that the cause of their misfortune is disturbance of a kigango, they must rectify the situation; among the Giriama this involves having a kibao carved and ritually installed at considerable expense.


Vigango Theft


Most vigango thieves are local, often unemployed, male youth who are looking for ways to earn cash. Some are reported to perform special rituals in order to offset the curse associated with disturbing a kigango. Selling vigango is lucrative when seen in relation to the local economy, although the vast majority of the eventual profits will go to the Kenyan and Western art dealers. At the time that Katana’s vigango were stolen, the original supplier of a kigango received approximately U.S. $50 from local shopkeepers, who in turn sold it to collectors and dealers for several hundred U.S. dollars, who then sold it on the Western art market for $1,000 to $4,000 dollars.


Most Mijikenda view vigango thieves as social outcasts. Samuel Thoya Baya, a 35-year-old Giriama assistant location chief, described them in 2001 as “a curse to our culture. They have put money as a priority over our cultural values. They need to be seriously punished.” Most Giriama elders believe that thieves should be made to repay the family concerned for the cost of erecting the kigango and should be jailed. One kaya> elder suggests that vigango thieves should also pay the customary fine for murder, because a kigango represents an ancestor. Older Giriama blame many general calamities, such as drought, flooding, regional crop or livestock loss, as well as family catastrophes, on the removal of vigango. “I feel very bitter. …Vigango thieves have deprived us of our blessings, our health, and desecrated our customs,” said Nyundo wa Mwamure, an elderly Gohu member and vigango carver, in a 2001 interview.


Not all stolen vigango are from unoccupied areas. Many, like Katana’s, are stolen from occupied homesteads during the night. In one Giriama homestead the same kigango was stolen twice. The kigango was first stolen from the middle of the homestead in 1982, shortly after it was erected. The owners were able to locate, retrieve, and re-erect the stolen kigango, this time setting the base in concrete. But several months later, thieves sawed it off and removed it again. Most Giriama elders and Gohu members we interviewed concurred that a stolen kigango could not be reinstalled unless it was recovered immediately. They nonetheless stressed that it is important to recover missing vigango and bring them home. The kigango represents a family member, they explained, and the family should be united. If a family member were to die in the forest, the corpse would be brought back home where it would be welcomed and given libations before burial. Instead of burial, a returned kigango should be laid behind the house under ritually appropriate trees.


Vigango theft is widespread throughout the Mijikenda area. There seem to be no locations that have been spared. Giriama elders say that although some vigango theft took place during colonial times, the problem increased after independence with the growth of the tourist industry and local and foreign museum interest. Despite widespread Giriama complaints about the problem in the mid-1970s, theft continued to increase in the 1980s. It declined somewhat during the 1990s, largely because most vigango had already been stolen, but also because of growing Mijikenda vigilance and the identification of some of the thieves. Vigango theft, however, continues to be a significant problem. In spite of their fear of theft, Giriama continue to erect vigango. “We cannot stop, [because] those Gohu must get what they deserve,” said Kadenge wa Mwagaha, the vice chairman of the main Giriama ritual center, Kaya Fungo, in 2001. “We must continue our traditions.”


An American Dealer


There are a surprisingly large number of vigango in American museums,4 most originally imported by one man. Although this dealer conducted fieldwork about vigango among some Giriama Gohu members, he still collected, exported, and sold vigango. He received considerable encouragement from American scholars of African art, and many vigango he has collected have been featured in such major venues as the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, African Studies Association meetings, and the New York Center for African Art. In 2001, we interviewed Gohu members in Marereni who remembered this American. When told about his marketing of vigango, they exclaimed: “How could he do such a thing! He had to have been told at the very outset that vigango can never be removed. Of all the occupations in the world, why did he trade in our ancestors!” Wherever we discussed this dealer’s activities with Giriama elders in 2001, they agreed that he had badly betrayed them. “He must have been told [that vigango can never be taken, even from deserted homesteads]. He simply chose to betray the Gohu for his own selfish needs,” Mwagaha said. “He was a very bad person.” Another Kaya Fungo elder added: “A wicked person! He wants us to die! He is the main cause of the problems the Mijikenda face today!”


Official Reactions


Giriama complain that Kenyan government officials have long turned a deaf ear to their complaints about vigango theft. “We have no voice,” Giriama elders in the Gede area observed in a 2001 interview. Even if police catch someone transporting vigango, there is currently no law against it. In the 1980s and 1990s, vigango were displayed and sold openly in Kenyan hotels, galleries, tourist shops, and market areas, not only on the coast but also in the national capital of Nairobi.


This situation, however, is beginning to change. The vigango trade has gone more underground in the last several years. Many Kenyan shopkeepers, hotel owners, and market traders no longer display vigango publicly, although some will still arrange private transactions for interested customers. Government officials, especially those at the National Museums of Kenya (NMK), have become increasingly concerned about the export of vigango and other Kenyan cultural property. International cooperation in monitoring or restricting imports from Kenya and repatriating stolen artifacts, however, was greatly hindered because Kenya did not join the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) until recently, and still has not signed UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. It has also not signed the 1995 International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. A bill was drafted to address illicit trade and destruction of Kenyan heritage but, as of this writing, it has not yet been brought before the Kenyan Parliament. Moreover, the director general of the NMK was fired in 2002 under the last national administration and a new director was not appointed until mid-2003. Thus, although some initial steps to curb the illicit trade in cultural artifacts have been made, implementation and further efforts are still in question.5


Furthermore, recent government and museum concern about preventing the export and pursuing the repatriation of vigango will not alleviate the Mijikenda grievances unless vigango are also protected at their site of erection and any that have been removed are returned to their rightful Mijikenda owners. When we asked the NMK if they could assist if the two American museums holding Katana’s vigango decided to repatriate them, they replied in the affirmative but proposed putting the two vigango in a new coastal museum being planned. When we reminded them that Katana’s vigango should be returned to his family, they agreed. However, their initial suggestion demonstrates a common problem: national governments and their institutions often pursue the return of cultural property in the interest of claiming it for themselves rather than returning it to its proper owners. When such items are, like vigango, inalienable sacred artifacts that are part of a living culture, the return to their rightful owners is especially critical. Vigango that have been carved and erected for the ancestors do not belong in any museum or collection, whether national or foreign, unless the descendants of those ancestors decide to place them there.


In addition to making trade in vigango illegal and attempting to locate the owners of those already taken, the statues still in situ need to be documented and photographed in order to have a record in case of future theft. Dealers, buyers, and collectors of African art, in Kenya and abroad, must be educated about the true meaning of vigango and their inalienability. Giriama elders and Gohu urged us to “spread the word” in the West about the loss and pain they have endured.


A Global Problem


Mijikenda vigango are but one example of the global trade in non-Western material culture. Much of this trade is illicit. In 2001, Simon Robinson and Aisha Labi called attention to an Interpol document reporting that the illicit trade in cultural artifacts worldwide has quadrupled during the last decade, reaching an estimated value of U.S. $4.5 billion per year. This figure has now increased even more due to the recent illicit trade in Iraqi cultural property that followed foreign intervention against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In addition, significant trade in cultural properties occurs that is not considered illicit but still results in cultural loss to the community from which objects have been removed.


Much of the concern over the loss of non-Western cultural heritage focuses on antiquities and the property of museums and other institutions. However, we must not forget that much of the global trade in artifacts from living cultural communities is also extremely damaging, especially when these communities consider such artifacts as spiritually inalienable, as is the case with Mijikenda vigango.


When told during a 2001 interview that most Westerners who bought vigango do not know the Mijikenda prohibition on their removal, Changawa wa Kapesa, a Kaya Fungo elder responded: “Both the buyer and the thief are at fault, because the former encouraged the latter to steal the kigango.” Indeed, if there were no market for vigango, they would not be stolen. Western collectors, museum staff, art scholars, and ethnologists must re-examine their own role in the illicit trade of vigango and other non-Western cultural property. Vigango should be left, as they were intended, for the ancestors.


What You Can Do


Students or Members


of the General Public

• Do not purchase non-Western objects that exhibit signs of recent ritual use—such as having had libations poured over them or having been erected in the earth, or that appear to be old, such as ones that have a dark patina. If you are told an object is “authentic” or ancient, steer clear of it.

• Do educate others about the scale of the illicit traffic in non-Western cultural property, and the devastating impact it has on local communities, such as the effects that stealing vigango have on the Mijikenda.

• Do purchase non-Western objects specifically created for the tourist market. If purchased directly from a local person or from a non-profit art or handicrafts collective, the money you pay will go directly to the creator of that object or to her or his community.


Teachers or Professors

• Educate your students about the value and meaning of objects in their cultural context. By raising awareness about the holistic context in which cultural objects are created and used, we will all come to appreciate the integral part played by objects in other lifeways

• Educate your students about the need to keep objects in situ for scholarly research. Like detectives, anthropologists, whether cultural anthropologists researching living cultures or archaeologists studying objects from the past, understand cultures by examining the placement of objects in their context and interpreting their relationships to one another

• Show films on the topic. A notable example is Walter Van Beek’s video, The African King.


Museum Employees

• Design special exhibits to inform the public about this critical topic. International airports are one ideal venue for such exhibits.

• Prepare teaching modules for primary and secondary school classroom use, including traveling exhibits, museum Web sites with information available for downloading free of charge, and classroom lectures by museum volunteers.

• As didactic labels do in zoological theme parks, include information about the cultural context and risk from theft of particular objects on every museum label.

• Do not collaborate with art dealers and collectors by contributing essays to their publications, publishing in journals receiving funding from the latter, or assisting them to launch exhibitions of their private collections. Lending your professional status through such means may give the impression that you support their collecting activities.


Lobby More Actively

• That all nations sign and implement the 1970 UNESCO and 1995 UNIDROIT Conventions.

• That nations draft laws to protect cultural property and lists of public and private cultural property prohibited from export; develop and fund institutions to ensure the preservation of cultural property; publicize the disappearance of any cultural property; and promote respect for the cultural heritage of all peoples.

• That nation-states recognize and include the rights of indigenous, ethnic, and other local communities in international deterrence or repatriation efforts of their tangible and intangible cultural properties.

• That an international fund be established to assist impoverished non-Western nation-states and local groups to repatriate their looted and stolen cultural properties.

• That international laws be written similar to the United States’ Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA), which recognizes the rights of Native American peoples to their cultural property. Under NAGPRA, museums never hold the rights of possession in objects of cultural patrimony. Furthermore, NAGPRA requires that museums and other possessors of Native American objects provide lists of the contents of their collections in order to initiate consultation with federal agencies and culturally affiliated tribal and indigenous groups.


1. A pseudonym.


2. Kariuki, J. (1999, Nov 17-23). Museum Staff Implicated in Antiquities Scam, The East African. 151199/Regional/Regional4.html.


3. The Giriama, Kauma, Jibana, Chonyi, Kambe, Rabai, Ribe, Duruma, and Digo.


4. We have verified close to 300, and there are undoubtedly many more.


5. As Celia Nyamweru reported in Cultural Survival Quarterly (see CSQ 20:3), the NMK has recently begun to protect what is left of the sacred Mijikenda forests that surround each kaya. Although they want to preserve both the cultural and ecological heritage of the makaya, they have not yet played a major role in protecting vigango. We suspect, however, that most of the vigango in the various makaya have already been stolen, as is the case at the main Giriama kaya, Kaya Fungo.


Linda L. Giles ( is an independent scholar in cultural anthropology who has conducted research among the Swahili and Mijikenda peoples in Kenya and Tanzania. Monica Udvardy ( is a cultural anthropologist at the University of Kentucky who specializes in East Africa. John Baya Mitsanze ( is a member of the Giriama subgroup of the Mijikenda peoples. He is education officer of the Coastal Forest Conservation Unit of the National Museums of Kenya. He is also an independent scholar of Giriama culture and lives in Mombasa, Kenya.


References and further reading


Beckerleg, S. (1994, September). Grave Robbery: Stolen Posts Fetch High Prices. New Internationalist, p 30


Nyamweru, C. (1996, Fall). Sacred Groves Threatened by Development: The Kaya Forests of Kenya. Cultural Survival Quarterly, pp 19-21.


Parkin, D. (1991). Sacred Void: Spatial Images of Work and Ritual among the Giriama of Kenya. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.


Robinson, S. & Labi, A. (2001, June 21). Endangered Art. Time (European edition).,9868,130100-1,00.html.


Schmidt, P. & McIntosh, R. Eds. (1996). Plundering Africa’s Past. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press.


Udvardy, M., Giles, L., & Mitsanze, J. (2003). The Transatlantic Trade in African Ancestors: Mijikenda Memorial Statues (Vigango) and the Ethics of Collecting and Curating Non-Western Cultural Property. American Anthropologist 105:3, pp 566-580.


Van Beek, W. (1990). The African King [film]. London: Pilgrim Pictures.


Wolfe, E. (1986). Vigango: Commemorative Sculpture of the Mijikenda of Kenya. Williamstown, Massachusetts: Williams College Museum of Art.

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