Monica Udvardy, an anthropology professor from the University of Kentucky,
and Linda Giles, formerly of the University of Illinois, have calculated that at
least 400 vigango are held in private collections and in at least 19
museums in the US.
Their findings match earlier investigations by British anthropologist David
Parkin, an expert on Kenya's coastal tribes, who noted what he termed "the
disturbing acquisition of vigango by art dealers and others in the
The thefts, researchers and antiquities officials in Kenya say, are being
carried out by poor youths who fall prey to the fat wallets and smooth talking
of traders operating for overseas collectors. It's part of a booming trade in
non-Western cultural property that's now worth $4.5 billion a year worldwide, up
from $1 billion a decade ago, according to Interpol estimates.
The vigango are offered at $300 to $800 in Kenya, but studies have
found them valued at up to $5,000 in US museum catalogs. However, central to the
belief system surrounding vigango is the prohibition against them ever
"Moving these objects goes against every cultural and spiritual belief
of these people," says Ms. Udvardy. "It would be like us stealing our
grandfather's tombstone from on top of his grave, or our grandmother's ashes,
and selling them."
Over the past 20 years, the statuettes have been presented in scores of
exhibitions, including those held at the Smithsonian Institution's National
Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and the New York Center for African
Several permanent exhibitions of African art, including at the British Museum
in London and the Louvre in Paris, have opened since 2000.
Private collectors are keen to keep up, and dealers in Africa are lining up
to supply their appetite.
The Monitor found four vigango on sale in the coastal town of Mombasa,
echoing claims by Udvardy and Dr. Giles, who identified traders in Mombasa and
the capital Nairobi who do not display the totems openly but will happily show
prospective buyers back-room supplies.
This was confirmed on separate visits to two Nairobi craft shops by the
Earlier investigations by Amini Tengeza of National Museums of Kenya, and
British scholar Kate Parsons found several statuettes on display in tourist
Impact of the thefts on villages
Villagers who spend up to twice Kenya's average per capita annual income to
make the statues for their dead relatives talk of ill fortune and angry spirits
who come visiting after the relics are removed.
"Things now are very bad; my grandchildren are always sick, 27 cows have
died and even when there is good rain we find we have a very bad harvest,"
says Kache Kalume Mwakiru, an 86-year-old widow living in a village of a dozen
mud-walled huts under soaring coconut palms 40 miles inland from Mombasa.
Two vigango erected by her husband to commemorate the death of his two
brothers were stolen some years ago.
Her husband died soon afterward, which Mrs. Mwakiru also attributes to the
theft of the statues.
"They have destroyed our happiness, our progress, and my family. They
are murderers," she says.
Karisa Disi Ngowa last year spent most of his family's savings on four vigango
to commemorate the spirits of his father, grandfather, and two uncles.
"I have heard some people from outside come here to steal these things.
I'm very much afraid they will find mine and take them, and we will see troubles
again," he says.
Efforts to stem the trade
Legal loopholes mean there is no legislative prohibition on the trade in vigango.
As they are not antiquities, they fall outside of bans on trafficking in ancient
Also, they are not yet officially recognized by Kenya's government as
'unalienable' objects sacred to the Mijikenda people, and as such fall outside
international conventions regulating the movement of such relics.
"We need new laws. At the moment you can only be prosecuted for theft
and it is too easy to get away with that here," says John Mitsanze from the
National Museums of Kenya.
"But even a new Heritage Bill, which is in parliament, now has failed to
close the holes in the law, so we will continue to struggle unless we can
sensitize local people that they cannot steal their own heritage," Mr.
Mitsanze says. "In Kenya, people are poor. Food is more important than
another tribe's sacred objects."
Udvardy and Giles have traced the two statues stolen from Mrs. Mwakiru's
village, and are spearheading a campaign to have them returned.
One is among 98 other vigango held by Hampton University Museum in
Virginia, and the other is in Illinois State Museum, the academics found.
Letters firmly requesting the repatriation of the statues were sent to both
institutions last month from National Museums of Kenya officials and from
Mwakiru, who signed with an inked thumbprint.
They hope such a repatriation will prompt other curators hoarding vigango
to begin the process of returning them as well.