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  • The Vigango AffairThe Enterprise of Repatriating Mijikenda Memorial Figures to Kenya
  • Joseph Nevadomsky (bio)

On January 15, 2014 the California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), repatriated twenty-seven Mijikenda vigango memorial wood posts. Ten days later the vigango figures were air-freighted to Kenya, their place of origin. The success of this endeavor depends on one’s point of view. University administrators and Kenyan embassy officials in 2011 had signed the transfer documents with a no blame proviso. Bureaucratic procedures and unanticipated hindrances delayed the repatriation and almost thwarted it. Assisted by the US State Department, repatriation went ahead, concluding a process begun in 2008. After nearly a decade success at last! A job well done! Mission accomplished! But where in Kenya? And where are the vigango?

Donated in 1991 to the Department of Anthropology at CSUF, many people had a hand in the repatriation effort. Mitch Avila, then associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, noted, “… it took three deans, a couple of [CSUF] presidents, several provosts, and lots of faculty and staff involvement to pull this off.”1 Ultimately, it included the Kenyan ambassador and a United States congressman.

My involvement began as a casual observer. My curiosity was piqued, however, by discussions about the eventual placement of this disused collection—keeping it, gifting it to a suitable museum in the United States, or repatriation to Kenya—and by in-house debates about repatriation, an issue that looms large in museum epistemology. As discussions became heated, the administration dropped a blanket over the vigango issue, then renegotiated repatriation. After the vigango arrived in Kenya, I became more curious because no one knew or cared where the figures were located. Colleagues had lost interest, administrators were diffident, and Kenyan consular officials had no clue. Experts I contacted—American anthropologists Monica Udvardy and Linda Giles and Kenyan ex-curator John Mitsanze—were as puzzled as I was.

This is the story of that repatriation, a project complicated by law, bureaucracy, advocacy, international marketing, Kenyan internal affairs, and the Mijikenda.2 Although vigango are listed as “protected objects” by the NMK (National Museums of Kenya) and recognized as the cultural patrimony of peoples in the Republic of Kenya under the 1983 Antiquities and Monuments Act of Kenya, Kenya until recently had not ratified the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (Prott 1996: 29–44; Kouroupas 1996: 87–93).

No international laws prevent Westerners from owning vigango and Kenyan law does not prevent their sale. They may be purchased “with impunity,” anthropologist David Parkin tells us (1986: 19). Available in Nairobi and Mombasa art galleries and tourist craft shops, they are objects nobody initially made any bones about. Joseph Murumbi, first vice-president of Kenya and co-owner (with Alan Donovan) of African Heritage Gallery, a popular shop in Nairobi for upscale tourists and collectors, displayed and sold them (Kasfir 1992: fig. 18). They appear in Nairobi coffee shop window displays. In March 2009 Kenya gazetted vigango as protected objects, but restrictions on exporting them are weak. Wiped clean by legerdemain—cash transactions, fake receipts—vigango reside in museums and private collections outside Kenya (Udvardy 2013). Actors Gene Hackman, Powers Boothe, Linda Evans, Dirk Benedict, and Shelly Hack are among the Hollywood celebs who have owned them (Udvardy et al. 2003). Three vigango were in the Sotheby’s catalog for Andy Warhol’s estate (Lacey 2006). They are a collectible cultural art.


The Mijikenda live between Mombasa and Lamu just inland from the Kenyan coastal plain. Known as the “nine tribes” (Giriama, Rabai, Ribe, Kambe, Kauma, Jibana, Chonyi, Duruma, and Digo, although the latter two, heavily Islamized, do not carve [End Page 58] vigango), they are mostly Muslims or Christians, girdled by local animist traditions.3 They share economic niches and a coalesced identity derived from colonialism (Willis 1993: 28–29). They are said to have migrated from what is now southern Ethiopia, finding a safe haven in the rolling hills of southeastern Kenya, along the Indian Ocean, with sufficient rainfall for farming (Wolfe 1979: 4). The map in Figure...


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