Community forced to pay tax to reclaim its stolen treasures

Kaya elders from Rabai sub county in Kilifi county attending a meeting with kilifi county governor Amason Kingi when they visited him at his office on Tuesday.  [PHOTO/JOSEPH MASHA/STANDARD]

The repatriation of treasured Mijikenda cultural artefacts locally known as vigango from the US has stalled after the Kenya Government imposed tax that has to be paid before allowing them into the country.

Vigango are carved, wooden artefacts between three and nine feettall, depicting abstract human faces and are erected as memorials.

They are highly treasured by members of the Gohu community as they are a sacred representation of reincarnated spirits. The artefacts are normally planted on graves of prominent people.

In the 1980s, they were stolen and sold to tourists and foreign collectors who sold them to museums and galleries in the US.

Following uproar of the massive loss of these treasured artefacts at the Kenyan coast, western authorities, museums and galleries began to surrender them to the MijiKenda but the process of repatriation has been complex. Now local activists have discovered they require to pay a tax for the artefacts to be brought back.

This has emerged even as the Mijikenda Kaya elders urge the Government to expedite the return of the sacred memorial plaques that are kept in homes and community graveyards.

The National Museum of Kenya (NMK) recently revealed that a consignment of about 50 pieces of vigango has been lying at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport since January last year. The museum does not see why it should pay Sh5 million as tax imposed under a new requirement.

The shipment was made by the California State University at Fullerton through the collaboration of the NMK and the US ambassador in the campaign to return the vigango to the original families at the Kenyan Coast.

NMK director of museums, sites and monuments, Dr Purity Kiura said the artefacts only have cultural value and no commercial purposes, questioning the rationale in imposing tax.

“Culture and heritage are the basis of any nation and we do not understand why tax should be imposed on such items. Advanced nations like China and South Korea place high cultural value on such items,” Dr Kiura argued.

She appealed to governors in coastal counties to intervene and secure the vigango abandoned at the airport due to the huge tax placed on them. The official warned there was danger of paralysing the campaign to return the Mijiekenda artefacts in the US, unless the issue of tax in Kenya is resolved.

She noted that shipment of another consignment of about 50 vigangos has been put on hold in Colorado in the US until the tax issue is resolved in Kenya.

In the US, Prof Joseph Nevadomsky of the Department of Anthropology, California State University, has written to the spokesman of the Kaya elders, Baya Mitsanze, asking if the artefacts have been received.

“We have had no feedback on that shipment and in order to close the books on this project I am requesting for information on the present location of the shipment of vigango,” Prof Nevadomsky wrote.

Mr Mitsanze said the vigango are a symbol of sacredness among the Mijikenda, and that it was unethical for museums in Kenya and abroad to display them.

“We do not want the vigango to be stuffed on shelves at the museums in Kenya any more. We want them returned to the families where they were stolen from or handed over to Kaya elders for custody,” Mitsanze said.

He noted that so far, more than 240 vigangos have been repatriated from the US, including those of the Kalume Mwakiru family in Kilifi County.

The Gohus, who are still influential in Kilifi, believe vigangos foster luck and prosperity as the dead elders intercede to bring good tidings to the families that crafted them and the community as a whole.

Their stay away from the community has the potential to spell doom to concerned families, they believe.