East Africa

Illinois State Museum Returns Stolen Wooden Artifacts to the Mijikenda of Kenya

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The Illinois State Museum takes a bold step to repatriate over 30 stolen artifacts to the Mijikenda people in Kenya. The recovered treasures, vigango, hold great spiritual importance for the Mijikenda ethnic group, as they serve as a tribute to their ancestors.

Officials from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Illinois State Museum will visit Kilifi this week for the official handover. The Mijikenda, an ethnic group inhabiting Kenya’s coastal region, has endured a long and tumultuous history of cultural preservation challenges.

Kigango/Vigango, a carved wooden 9ft tall artifact, serves as a memorial for departed loved ones in the community. They depict sacred reincarnated spirits and were never intended for removal. These artifacts were taken from Kenya during the colonial era up to the early 1980s, despite Unesco’s effort to prohibit the trade of illegally obtained artifacts.

 Giriama Shrines locally known as “vigango”. Image courtesy of Nation Media Group, Kenya.

The curator of the Illinois State Museum emphasizes the importance of uniting the artifacts with their rightful owners. ‘Separating ‘vigango’ from their rightful owners harms the community’s spiritual well-being. Additionally, it can cause misfortunes such as drought, crop failure, and illnesses in Mijikenda,’ she states in her interview with the New York Times.

Furthermore, The National Museums of Kenya Director of Antiquities, Sites, and Monuments, Dr. Fredrick Kyalo, reveals that they have currently recorded over 35,000 antiquities that are not in the country. The Kilifi governor will receive 35 artifacts during the reparation ceremony, marking their return.

The Illinois State Museum returned sacred wooden memorial statues known as vigango to Kenya.Image courtesy of Illinois State Museum

The journey towards cultural restoration is ongoing. The Mijikenda community commits to educating future generations about their history, traditions, and the significance of the vigango. Through this knowledge transmission, they seek to ensure the continuity of their heritage for generations to come.

As the artifacts return to Kenya, it marks a turning point in the fight against cultural plunder. It raises awareness about the importance of responsible acquisition and exhibition of cultural items. The Illinois State Museum’s initiative is a testament to the positive impact museums can have in facilitating the repatriation process. It sets a precedent for ethical practices within the cultural and heritage sector. This is a profound victory for the Mijikenda people and their ongoing cultural revival efforts. It exemplifies the significance of acknowledging and respecting cultural ownership and the sacred bond between communities and their artifacts.


Rose Mwikali Musyoki is a creative writer from Nairobi, Kenya. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Business and Finance from the University of Embu, Kenya, and is the founder of Bloom Inc, an art startup in Kenya. Currently, she works as a writer for Art News Africa.

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