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Last Updated: Friday, 22 June 2007, 15:11 GMT 16:11 UK
Kenyans fete repatriated relics
vigango statues (Picture: Okoko Ashikoye)

By Odiambo Joseph
BBC News, Chalani, Kenya

For the last 22 years, a village along Kenya's picturesque coast has blamed its ill fortune on the theft of two memorial wooden statues known as vigango.

Earlier this week, Chalani village in Kilifi District was the scene of joyous celebration as villagers received two vigango which had been repatriated from the United States.

(Picture: Okoko Ashikoye)
Chalani villager danced as the vigango were returned to the graves

Vigango are wooden statues which are considered sacred by Kenya's Mijikenda ethnic group and erected on the graves of revered elders.

Hundreds of vigango have reportedly been stolen and exported to Europe and the US, where they are sold to private collectors hungry for ethnic African art.

The thefts are carried out by poor youth who are seduced by the prospect of easy money, which they make from selling the stolen artefacts to traders fronting for foreign buyers.

The National Museum of Kenya has been spearheading efforts to repatriate these vigango.

The principal curator of the museum, Phillip Jimbi Katana, travelled to the remote village in the coastal region to hand over the two statues.

"We are handing over two vigango, which were stolen here in 1985 and they found their way all the way to America," Mr Katana said.

Small gods

To the Mijikenda community, vigango are small gods believed to hold the spirits of departed elders.

vigango statues (Picture: Okoko Ashikoye)
Vigango can be four to six feet high

The carved wooden statues depict human faces and are erected on the graves of members of the Gohu society, a powerful tribal council.

Vigango can be four to six feet high, and their size is determined by the status of the Gohu member.

The Mijikenda believe the vigango bring luck and prosperity as the dead elders intercede with God to bring good tidings to the family and the community.

Kalume Mwakiru's family says it has suffered numerous tragedies in the last two decades including sickness, bad harvests and the death of their family patriarch. And they insist that this is because the two vigango were stolen from family graves.

When Mr Mwakiru's two sons died, he erected vigango on their graves. But the carved wooden statues, decorated with triangular etchings, were stolen shortly after.

Mr Mwakiru died soon afterwards, and his wife Kache Kalume Mwakiru blames his death on the theft of the vigango.

Festus Tinga Mwakiru, the new head of the family, says the theft of the two statues is directly responsible for the family's plight.

"When the vigango were stolen, the family became sick and poor. I feel that I am poor because the vigango were stolen," he says.

Song and dance

The two vigango which were returned to the Mwakiru family were found at the Illinois State Museum and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.

I expect to make money because the vigango are now back
Festus Tinga Mwakiru

Chalani village came alive with song and dance as the vigango were returned to the Mwakiru family and installed on the desecrated graves.

Only members of the revered Gohu Council are allowed to handle the sacred vigango and 10 senior elders were on hand to receive the two statues and erect them on the graves.

The chairman of the Gohu council, 70-year-old Kisau Mwaduna, said, "This function is very important to us because we are witnessing the return of vigango.

"We have heard a lot of reports from various families in this whole region that vigango are being stolen daily, this issue has been troubling us for many years."

High spirits

Mr Katana, the principal curator of the National Museums of Kenya, is a Mijikenda and deeply values his community's beliefs and traditions.

"We believe if somebody steals it, then that person is going to be affected. He might even become mad," Mr Katana said during the ceremony.

"If you steal a vigango, it is going to come back to you because the vigango is somebody's spirit. That spirit is going to disturb you and haunt you."

Now that the vigango are back, Festus Tinga Mwakiru's spirits are high and he believes his family's ill fortune is about to end.

"Now, I'm feeling alright. I expect to make money because the vigango are now back. The vigango will bring me good luck and I feel very happy."

The Hampton University Museum is said to still hold at least 98 other vigango statues.

No doubt 98 other families will see this return of these two vigango as a sign that perhaps their ancestors' spirits will soon find their way home and bring prosperity and good fortune with them.

Country profile: Kenya
07 May 07 |  Country profiles

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