In 2008, we became aware that the DMNS had 30 wooden statues called vigango (singular: kigango) in its collection. We quickly studied up on what these were.
Vigango are more than just grave markers in the Western sense. The Mijikenda believe vigango are living objects and the physical embodiment of a dead person’s soul. Like totem poles in the Northwest Coast of North America, once erected, vigango are to be left alone to decay through natural forces. Most assuredly, vigango are not works of art to be held by or displayed in museums. We knew we had to return them to the Mijikenda.
NAGPRA does not apply to objects from Kenya because, among other things, the U.S. government has no jurisdiction over Kenyan property and people, and rightfully so. The flip side is also true—the Kenyan government can’t simply pass a law declaring that foreign entities like U.S. museums have to repatriate vigango. It doesn’t work that way.
After a lot of work, false celebrations and a chance encounter the vingango were successfully returned to Kenya in 2019. Later that year, Dr. Steve Nash and family journeyed to Kenya to see the vingango at the Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa and visited Mijikenda villages from which the objects were taken.
These elders have faced horrific losses. Imagine having the embodiment of your most revered loved ones taken from their final resting place. It’s difficult to consider the emotional, psychological, and cosmic toll that would take, but it’s what they have had to deal with for more than three decades, as art dealers and collectors took their heritage away from them.
The Mijikenda are working to develop a center in one of their sacred forests where the vingango from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science will be eventually placed and protected.
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