A few years ago, retired American actor and novelist Eugene Hackman and a Hollywood film producer, Art Linson, donated some 30 totems to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado.
The problem was that these hardwood grave markers had been stolen from Kenya and sold by art dealers in the US for up to $10,000 (Sh1 million).
In essence, they were the preserve of the rich and famous; the celebrities in Hollywood.
Luckily, some of these ended up with two collectors – who then donated them to a museum in Colorado. These sacred items, known as vigango among the Miji Kenda, were returned to Kenya this week in a ceremony that marked the beginning of a tortuous negotiation to have the artefacts returned to the country.
The return of the vigango is part of a larger effort to stop the trafficking and the illicit trade of cultural items into Western museums and celebrity homes – and also the return of items looted during the colonial and post-independent Africa.
These vigango, stolen in their thousands, are now held in many museums and private stores across the US. That African heritage has often been sold for a song is now known.
That there is no clear path and law on how to get them back is our dilemma. Rare cultural artefacts, which ought to be in the continent, dot many museums in the world.
For instance, the stuffed trophies of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo killed by Lieutenant-Colonel John Henry Patterson, the engineer in-charge Kenya-Uganda railway in 1898, were later sold to the Chicago Field Museum for $5,000 a piece in 1925.
Today, these taxidermied killers are the biggest attraction at Rice Gallery and have attracted scientists eager to understand how many people they had eaten (one scholar says 35) or why they had an appetite for human beings.
One of the scientist opined that because they suffered from dental problems, the lions discovered that human beings were easier to catch and chew.
Those who have visited Western museums have come across thousands of artistic and cultural paraphernalia put on display.
I am not sure how Britain would react if Kenya was holding the crown of their King in Nairobi. But western museums get away with such theft.
For years, Britain had held onto Nandi king Koitalel arap Samoei’s three wooden staffs that had been kept by the family of the late Richard Meinertzhagen – the man who murdered the king.
His son returned them in 2006, but Samoei’s skull, lion-skin cape and headgear are still missing.
At times, cultural artefact activists have to stage global campaigns to convince nations to hand over such items as a sign of good gesture.
I still remember the spirited fight by Ethiopia to get back the 180-tonne obelisk that had for ages stood outside the Food and Agriculture Organisation headquarters in Rome.
This was one of the six obelisks dating over 3,000 years and which had been erected at Axum when Ethiopia adopted Christianity under emperor Ezana in the fourth century.
Before the Axum stelae, as it is known, was returned to Ethiopia, Italy used to argue that they had naturalised the pillar – after possessing it for more than 60 years – and that it was fragile.
What we know from history is that when fascist Mussolini stole the obelisk, he wanted to take away Ethiopia’s main symbol of heritage.
The Italians fought back with excuses and pseudo-determination: that the obelisk was fragile; that it had been restored with metal rods in embedded concrete and that it was impossible to disassemble.
We were also told that it could not be transported overland and that only two aircraft in the world – The American built Lockhead C5-A Galaxy and the Russian Antonov An-124 - could transport it.
Those who do not want to give back these artefacts argue there is no international law governing such sales.
But we have many instruments that protect nations from both cultural and archaeological plunder.
The problem is that smuggled cultural objects are now being used by terrorists to raise money and finance war.
We now know from Iraq and Syria wars that priceless historical items have been sold to collectors and the money used to finance arms deals and the activities of extremist groups.
Actually, Interpol has raised concern that the illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects is one of the main avenues for money laundering.
While large-scale looting is not legally possible following the 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”, it has not deterred crooks and collectors from engaging in such trade.
The return of the vigango is another major triumph for Africa. In 2003, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe managed to get the “Zimbabwe Bird” from a museum in Germany.
While such milestones are hardly recorded in Western media, they are small steps towards the recovery of thousands of totems stolen from Africa.
The Zimbabwe Bird is the country’s emblem and was one of the seven known bird carvings that had for years stood at the Great Zimbabwe archaeological site.
While four of the “birds” were later traced to South Africa and returned to Zimbabwe, it took long efforts to get the artefact sold to Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in 1907 by a German missionary, Karl Mauch – the man who told the world that the great Zimbabwe ruins were not the work of Africans but another race.
The movement of this bird helps us understand the intricate trafficking of such items.
We now know that when Russian forces occupied Germany at the end of the Second World War, this Bird was taken from Berlin to Leningrad where it remained until the end of the Cold War, when it was returned to Germany, and later to Zimbabwe.
And finally, we had the South African girl, Saartjie Baartman, whose continued display at a French museum was described by the Time magazine as a “shameful symbol of racist exploitation”.
Ashamed, France was in 2002 forced to change its law to allow the body of Saartjie Baartman – her brains and genitals cut out and placed in a bottle – to be moved to the South African embassy in France.
In the history of human exploitation, no individual went through what the girl went through.
She had apparently been induced to go to Europe by an English surgeon, William Dunlop, who lied to her that she would make money thanks to her protruding backside and elongated labia.
But on arrival, she was exhibited in museums and zoos as a kind of sub-species from Africa. She was then sold to France, after an uproar in London’s Piccadilly where she was paraded naked.
When she died in 1815 of Syphilis, aged 26, and after only five years in Europe, a plaster cast of her body was made by Napoleon Bonaparte’s surgeon and put on display at the Paris Museum of Mankind.
That is why the return of the Kenyan vigango is a big issue and signifies a triumph of sorts. The moral of all these stories is that no nation will hand over these totems without a fight.
[email protected] @johnkamau1