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Kenya Seeks to Recover, Protect Memorial Statues

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Hundreds of Kenyan memorial statues were taken from graves around the country. Most are in the hands of museums and private U.S. collectors. Kenya wants international legislation to protect the totems.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

Anthropologists and museum officials in Kenya are trying to stem an increased trade in sacred memorial statuettes. The totems are being stolen from rural homesteads along Kenya's coast and then shipped to the U.S. for display by private collectors and museums. Proposed legislation would protect the sacred pieces. NPR's Allison Keyes has more.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

The statuettes are called vigango. They stand four to nine feet tall and are carved from East African hardwood. The sacred memorials have round heads and rectangular bodies and honor the deaths of certain male members of Kenya's Mijikenda community.

Professor MONICA UDVARDY (Anthropology, University of Kentucky): A vigango is somewhat like a tombstone would be to us, but it's more than that because it actually is believed to be the spirit of that ancestor.

KEYES: Monica Udvardy is an anthropology professor with the University of Kentucky. She's been trying to stop the trafficking of these totems for more than 20 years. She says Kenyan villagers believe that uprooting vigango for profit brings down the curse of the ancestor the ceremonial statue is meant to honor.

Prof. UDVARDY: You will notice a series of misfortune occurring in your home among your family members, among the extended family, as occurred with the family that we have focused on as our case study.

KEYES: Udvardy traced vigangos stolen from one Kenyan family to two U.S. entities: the Illinois State Museum and Hampton University Museum. Illinois has three dozen of the statues. Hampton has 98. Udvardy and other researchers estimate that a total of 400 are held in private collections and in at least 19 museums in the United States. Most, she suspects, were improperly taken.

John Baya Mitsanze is a member of the Mijikenda community and is also a senior curator at the National Museums of Kenya. He says the Kenyan Museums sent letters to both the Illinois State and Hampton Museums asking that the statues be returned.

Mr. JOHN BAYA MITSANZE (National Museums of Kenya): We hope that it will help the curators and other people abroad to realize that we need their assistance to have the vigango trade stopped.

KEYES: The Illinois State Museum is returning the identified stolen totem it has as soon as possible, but Michael Wyatt(ph), curator of anthropology, says some institutions haven't always been as concerned as they should have been about the origins of an artifact.

Mr. MICHAEL WYATT (Illinois State Museum): These objects then frequently come to museums, but the trail of their acquisition is not always very clear.

KEYES: Wyatt says he thinks contemporary museums are more aware now and are trying to be particular in what they collect and how it's acquired. But a spokeswoman for the Hampton University Museum in Virginia says officials there are still reviewing the letters and haven't yet decided whether they will return the family statue.

The U.S. government says it is difficult to trace these totems because Kenya's government hasn't officially recognized vigango as artifacts sacred to the Mijikenda people. Immigration and Customs Special Agent James McAndrew.

Mr. JAMES MCANDREW (U.S. Immigration and Customs): You get more cooperation and faster cooperation when a country recognizes its cultural property as such.

KEYES: Officials at the National Museums of Kenya are drafting a set of proposed regulations meant to protect the vigango and other similar items, but in the meantime, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield would like some guidance from Kenya on what to do with the other 37 totems in its collection. Allison Keyes, NPR News.

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