Cost hinders recovery of Kenyan artefacts from UK

Kenya's oldest Identity card(ID)and current, displayed at Museum where Kenyan traditional artefacts were displayed at Uhuru garden's Museum, on July 25, 2022. [Edward Kiplimo,Standard]

Kenya is revisiting its past efforts to repatriate her colonial archive and artefacts stuck in London’s museums and personal archives.

This week, top officials from the Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage visited the London National archive and the British Museum on a double mission; to explore ways of having records digitised, and seek repatriation of artefacts.

The team comprised of Principal Secretary Ummi Bashir from the State Department of Culture and Heritage, Dr Francis Mwangi, director of the Kenya National Archives and Documentation Service and Juma Ondeng, the Cultural Advisor at the National Museums of Kenya.

“It is a lot of work but it is in our interest to accomplish it,” said Odeng, adding that the greatest obstacle is the British Museum Act of 1964 which prohibits the repatriation of objects to former colonies.   

According to Dr Mwangi, over 1,500 files were transferred to London on the eve of independence in 1963, containing information on Mau Mau, the state of emergency, intelligence reports, African association, detainees and detention camps.

Others touched on international boundaries, slave trade and African participation in the world wars. Some 13 boxes of top-secret material and 294 boxes of secret material originated from the offices of the Governor, Chief Secretary and Ministry of Internal Security and Defence.

In 1967, the Mzee Jomo Kenyatta-led government opened preliminary discussions with the British government on modalities of returning all the documents removed on the eve of independence. In 1979, a team of Kenya archivists was constituted and sent to the UK to trace and repatriate the archives.

The records were found in the Public Records office (National Archives), the Foreign office, Royal Geographical Society, University of London, Oxford University (Rhodes House), Manchester University (Kenya Railways), Scotland (Protestant missionaries), Ireland (Catholic Church) and 1,500 classified records on Kenya were discovered at Hanslope Park (London) during the 2011 Mau-Mau hearing case.

The other records and artefacts are under private collection and museums. In 2006, the sacred relics of Nandi leader Koitalel arap Samoei’s rule stolen by the British were repatriated after being traced them to Colonel Richard Meinertzhagen’s close kin in Shropshire.

In 2015 the Association of Commonwealth Archivists and Records manager (ACARM) wrote to Kenya National Archives to alert them of the presence of a large cache of historical records in the UK. From the 37 British colonies,  Kenya’s records are very substantial at 12 per cent.

The ACARM also indicated their commitment to coordinate efforts for the return of the archives back to Kenya. But why has the repatriation taken so long?

“We’ve been underfunded all these years. It’s an expensive undertaking. We used to send money to the National Archives for microfilm copies. Today we must digitise copies, and this is exorbitantly expensive and unsustainable,” said Dr Mwangi.

He believes Kenya, like any other developed country, needs its history, culture and documented records, and the UK has shown goodwill to share migrated archives with the originating countries.

So far, the team has identified to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 141 series to digitise at the National Archives, Kew Gardens, Richmond. Mwangi says already, they have identified 3,400 documents that need to be digitised.