The Kenyan government has taken back a historic artifact from the United States, National Heritage Minister Suleiman Shakambo said on Thursday.
The 4-foot-tall wooden memorial post, called kigango which was stolen from a local family 20 years ago, was reclaimed from a museum in the United States a week ago, Shakambo told a news conference in Nairobi.
It is believed this is the first time a museum has returned a stolen African artifact to its rightful owners and Shakombo said a quick decision by the Illinois State Museum resulted in a historic victory for Kenya.
"Today is a day of victory for Kenya as we unveil and celebrate a part of our heritage that had been stolen and has now been returned. The return of one of the two vigango (plural form of " kigango") owned by the Kalume Mwakiru's family marks the first time any stolen historical object has been returned to Kenya," Shakombo told reporters.
The Illinois State Museum's kigango was one of two that were carved in the 1960s to memorialize members of Mwakiru's dead brothers (family). The statues were stolen in 1985, sold to an art dealer, and then sold to another individual, said the minister.
Shakombo, who led the Kenyan delegation to Illinois last week said Mwakiru's family had suffered a series of misfortunes -- the death of livestock, bad harvests, illnesses, nightmares -- and he believed honoring his brothers would end the family's problems.
The kigango is a post with a vaguely human shape, decorated with blue paint and strips of cloth.
"The consent of the Illinois State Museum to repatriate this spiritual Kenyan artifact is a clear demonstration of the commitment of the America cultural institutions to the respect of African culture and diversity of cultural expressions," said the minister.
"The Kenyan government applauds the principle of continued dialogue with other heritage institutions in the U.S. holding similar artifacts in their collections so as to resolve all outstanding issues on specific objects," he said.
Shakombo said the other Mwakiru kigango is owned by Hampton University in Virginia, which so far has refused to return the post to Kenya.
According to the minister, Hampton argues that it legally obtained the kigango and has not recognized proof of Mwakiru's ownership.
"We will not leave any valuable historical artifacts outside the country. This is just the beginning of the good things to come. We invite all of you to help us in convincing that institution to return the artifact," said Shakombo.
American anthropologists Dr Linda Giles and Prof. Monica Udvardy took photographs of Mwakiru with the two carvings prior to the theft. The photos appeared in a 2003 issue of the journal American Anthropologist and provided rare evidence of the objects' original ownership.
This particular kigango wound up in a California art dealership and was purchased by actor Powers Boothe, who donated it and seven others to Illinois State University, said anthropologist Monica Udvardy, who has traced the memorial's path.
The university closed its museum and transferred its collection, including the kigango, to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield in 2001.
Researchers say authentic vigango, depending on size, can fetch anywhere from 1,500 U.S. dollars to 6,000 dollars on the black market.
The minister said the rarity of definitive evidence of ownership -- along with international legislation that requires such proof -- makes the return of stolen cultural items extremely difficult and uncommon.
He said the kigango would be publicly presented to the Mwakiru family soon.
Jimbi Katana, principal curator of the National Museums of Kenya, said the family plans to re-erect the statue, even though the threat of theft remains.