Corrupt middlemen contracted by Western art dealers are looting sacred memorial statuettes carved by villagers living along Kenya's coast.
Hundreds of vigango totems have been stolen from rural homesteads and shipped via dealers living in luxury beachside villas to private collectors and art dealers in the United States and Europe, anthropologists have discovered.
Monica Udvardy, an anthropology professor from the University of Kentucky, and Linda Giles, formerly of the University of Illinois, have calculated that at least 400 vigango are held in private collections and in at least 19 museums in the US.
Their findings match earlier investigations by British anthropologist David Parkin, an expert on Kenya's coastal tribes, who noted what he termed "the disturbing acquisition of vigango by art dealers and others in the Western world."
The thefts, researchers and antiquities officials in Kenya say, are being carried out by poor youths who fall prey to the fat wallets and smooth talking of traders operating for overseas collectors. It's part of a booming trade in non-Western cultural property that's now worth $4.5 billion a year worldwide, up from $1 billion a decade ago, according to Interpol estimates.
The vigango are offered at $300 to $800 in Kenya, but studies have found them valued at up to $5,000 in US museum catalogs. However, central to the belief system surrounding vigango is the prohibition against them ever being moved.
"Moving these objects goes against every cultural and spiritual belief of these people," says Ms. Udvardy. "It would be like us stealing our grandfather's tombstone from on top of his grave, or our grandmother's ashes, and selling them."
Over the past 20 years, the statuettes have been presented in scores of exhibitions, including those held at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., and the New York Center for African Art.
Several permanent exhibitions of African art, including at the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, have opened since 2000.
Private collectors are keen to keep up, and dealers in Africa are lining up to supply their appetite.
The Monitor found four vigango on sale in the coastal town of Mombasa, echoing claims by Udvardy and Dr. Giles, who identified traders in Mombasa and the capital Nairobi who do not display the totems openly but will happily show prospective buyers back-room supplies.
This was confirmed on separate visits to two Nairobi craft shops by the Monitor.
Earlier investigations by Amini Tengeza of National Museums of Kenya, and British scholar Kate Parsons found several statuettes on display in tourist hotel lobbies.
Villagers who spend up to twice Kenya's average per capita annual income to make the statues for their dead relatives talk of ill fortune and angry spirits who come visiting after the relics are removed.
"Things now are very bad; my grandchildren are always sick, 27 cows have died and even when there is good rain we find we have a very bad harvest," says Kache Kalume Mwakiru, an 86-year-old widow living in a village of a dozen mud-walled huts under soaring coconut palms 40 miles inland from Mombasa.
Two vigango erected by her husband to commemorate the death of his two brothers were stolen some years ago.
Her husband died soon afterward, which Mrs. Mwakiru also attributes to the theft of the statues.
"They have destroyed our happiness, our progress, and my family. They are murderers," she says.
Karisa Disi Ngowa last year spent most of his family's savings on four vigango to commemorate the spirits of his father, grandfather, and two uncles.
"I have heard some people from outside come here to steal these things. I'm very much afraid they will find mine and take them, and we will see troubles again," he says.
Legal loopholes mean there is no legislative prohibition on the trade in vigango. As they are not antiquities, they fall outside of bans on trafficking in ancient artifacts.
Also, they are not yet officially recognized by Kenya's government as 'unalienable' objects sacred to the Mijikenda people, and as such fall outside international conventions regulating the movement of such relics.
"We need new laws. At the moment you can only be prosecuted for theft and it is too easy to get away with that here," says John Mitsanze from the National Museums of Kenya.
"But even a new Heritage Bill, which is in parliament, now has failed to close the holes in the law, so we will continue to struggle unless we can sensitize local people that they cannot steal their own heritage," Mr. Mitsanze says. "In Kenya, people are poor. Food is more important than another tribe's sacred objects."
Udvardy and Giles have traced the two statues stolen from Mrs. Mwakiru's village, and are spearheading a campaign to have them returned.
One is among 98 other vigango held by Hampton University Museum in Virginia, and the other is in Illinois State Museum, the academics found.
Letters firmly requesting the repatriation of the statues were sent to both institutions last month from National Museums of Kenya officials and from Mwakiru, who signed with an inked thumbprint.
They hope such a repatriation will prompt other curators hoarding vigango to begin the process of returning them as well.