TANA RIVER, Kenya — The men and women, some claiming to be nearly 100 years old, gathered in a small courtyard to sing a hymn passed down to them by their forebears.
“Oh, holy vibration,” the call to prayer began, sung as loudly as their lungs allowed. The air hummed with the sound of their voices, but something essential was missing — the source of the holy vibration, the centerpiece of their ancestors’ religion.
The Pokomo people of Kenya’s Tana River valley once worshiped a god represented on Earth by an awe-inspiring drum. It stood taller than any man. Rubbing the cowhide stretched across its gigantic body, fashioned from a hollowed-out tree trunk, made a sound that could be heard throughout the villages clustered around the Pokomo king’s compound.
“Our legend has it that it sounds like a lion’s roar,” said His Majesty Makorani-a-Mungase VII, the current Pokomo king and the descendant of a dynasty he claims goes back more than a dozen generations. “It forced everyone to listen. It was alive.”
That drum, the ngadji, the source of power and pride for the Pokomo, has been relegated to a storage room in the British Museum in London for 111 years.
The theft of the ngadji by British colonial officers is a story well-known among the eldest Pokomo. The British Museum, too, acknowledges the ngadji was “confiscated” before being donated to its collections in 1908. The museum also acknowledges a request by the Pokomo community for its return.
So why is the ngadji in a closet in London, rather than in Mchelelo, Makorani’s sacred grove along a bend in the Tana River?
The answer lies in a fierce debate taking place in Western museums, where halls are filled with the riches of plundered lands, over whether institutions that benefited from colonialism have any right to keep such collections long into the postcolonial era.
To the British Museum and others, even ill-gotten artifacts are now their property. The argument is a legal and utilitarian one: This is where the items are safest and most people will see them.
“The British Museum takes its commitment to being a world museum seriously,” said Nicola Elvin, a British Museum spokeswoman, in an emailed statement. She added that objects the museum holds are viewed by millions of visitors. “The Trustees of the British Museum have always been clear that they will consider (subject to the usual considerations of condition and fitness to travel) any loan request for any part of the collection.”
The Pokomo aren’t asking for a loan, but Makorani and Pokomo elders have accepted the British Museum’s stance, even if they disagree with it. The king’s brother, who lives in Liverpool, was granted access to the drum by the museum and became the first in his community to touch it in over a century. Yet while almost all the roughly 200,000 Pokomo have now converted to Islam and Christianity, including the royal family, the absence of the ngadji is a constant reminder of the ruinous effects of colonialism.
“If you combined Britain’s parliamentary mace and the Queen’s crown jewels, you would still not equal the amount of cultural significance the ngadji had for us,” Makorani said. “Its loss has stripped us of our sense of who we are.”
Elders within the community who have vivid memories as adults of the colonial period, and whose parents and grandparents witnessed the destruction of traditional Pokomo society, are less forgiving. Many are worried they will die before the ngadji is returned, and with their deaths any possibility of keeping Pokomo culture alive will die, too.
“If the ngadji in London is really ours, I will know from the sound that it will make when it will be played in front of me,” said Said Kumbi-a-Wadesa, the chairman of the kidjo, the Pokomo council of elders. His grandfather once held the same position and spoke wistfully of the ngadji’s roar. Wadesa claims to be 99-years-old, has one tooth left and has mostly lost his eyesight. “Those who aren’t blind will see it, but I will know that particular sound.”
‘Britain is the most stubborn’
Since the 1960s, when most African countries gained independence from European colonial powers, the continent’s political and traditional leaders have called for the return of stolen cultural heritage.
But it wasn’t until a 2017 speech in Burkina Faso by French President Emmanuel Macron that the moral argument for large-scale repatriation of artifacts was made by a European leader.
“I cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France,” Macron told a rapt audience of students at the University of Ouagadougou. “Within five years, I want the conditions to exist for temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa.”
A report commissioned by him found that 95 percent of African cultural heritage was held outside the continent and that most of it was obtained by theft, trickery or under egregiously unfair terms.
Little progress has been made on Macron’s demand, but France has vowed to fast-track the return of treasures like royal thrones and carved palace doors to former colonies such as Benin. Governments in Germany and the Netherlands have issued guidelines to investigate collections in publicly funded museums and repatriate “wrongfully obtained” artifacts.
The Smithsonian Institution in Washington has given back thousands of objects to Native American tribes, and museums around the world have returned the remains of aboriginal people to Australia and New Zealand.
But for publicly funded museums, these precedents are worrying. Government-mandated repatriation processes could empty entire collections.
And the questions of restitution are also ones of scope: How far back in time should the process go? To the times of early civilizations, when the borders of countries like Kenya or Greece didn’t exist? In African countries still struggling to overcome the economic setbacks of colonialism, should European governments be helping them build museums first, and only then sending artifacts back?
France’s government is loaning Benin $22.5 million to build a museum to house artifacts it is in the process of returning, for instance.
For Kenyans, what’s concerning is that while some former colonial powers are starting to consider and act upon restitution demands, Britain is not.
“France is leading the way, which is good for West Africa,” said Purity Kiura, the director of antiquities, sites and monuments for the National Museums of Kenya, “but Britain is the most stubborn, which is bad for East Africa.”
The British Museum is one of the largest repositories of cultural heritage in the world — housing at least 8 million objects in total — owing in part to Britain’s once vast empire.
With the Pokomo as with others, the museum has offered to loan back heritage items but not renounce ownership. Considerable pushback within and outside of Britain has not budged its stance.
“The British Museum, born and bred in empire and colonial practice, is coming under scrutiny. And yet it hardly speaks,” wrote Ahdaf Soueif, an Egyptian novelist in a July resignation letter from her position on the museum’s board. “It is in a unique position to lead a conversation about the relationship of South to North, about common ground and human legacies and the bonds of history.”
‘They had the power’
When Jens J. “Bull” Anderssen rode a steamboat up the Tana River in 1902, the Norwegian wood trader commissioned by the British East Africa Protectorate to oversee Pokomo land would have encountered a community already beginning to change.
Missionaries had settled in some villages, and many Pokomo were reconciling the Bible’s teachings with their own traditions. Similar scenes were playing out across the continent, which is now almost entirely converted to Christianity and Islam.
But the ngadji still had supreme sway over the community. Its laws were strict, and sentences carried out in its name could include death or ostracism. They were enforced by the kidjo council, which at the time was a secret society, similar in many ways to the Freemasons.
They would meet at Mchelelo, the sacred grove, in the night’s darkest hours, surrounded by giant trees including the mzinga, from which the ngadji was hewed. The canopies were filled with screeching monkeys and the river with bellowing hippos.
If someone outside of the kidjo spoke of, or even accidentally came across the ngadji, it was punishable by death. When the drum was transported, villages were notified beforehand, and everyone stayed indoors. When Anderssen arrived, he was expected to abide by the same rules.
Instead, today’s kidjo members say, he and his soldiers stole the ngadji at gunpoint. Their predecessors begged Anderssen to at least keep the ngadji out of public sight wherever he took it.
“The British took the ngadji because they had the power to do so,” Wadesa said. The kidjo, which had imposed a sense of law and order on Pokomo society, as well as looked after orphans and widows, quickly began to crumble.
Stuck at the airport
Getting the ngadji back isn’t as simple as convincing the British Museum to return it, though. Locked inside a crate at Kenya’s main international airport is a portent of what might happen if the ngadji were returned without the highest level of governmental coordination.
Thirty intricately carved wooden grave markers known as vigango were shipped to Kenya as a goodwill gesture by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in 2014. They are a small portion of the 400 or so vigango owned by institutions across the United States alone.
When they arrived, Kenyan customs officials said the American museum had to pay a duty tax of nearly $60,000, Kiura said. The museum refused to pay, the government refused to waive the fee, and neither the National Museums of Kenya nor prominent members of the Giriama community from which the vigango were taken could afford the cost.
Government intervention can prevent such roadblocks. In July, the Kenyan government facilitated the return of 30 different vigango from the same Denver museum, while remaining unable to secure the release of the ones stuck at the airport.
Like many governments in Africa, Kenya’s is riddled with officials using their positions to enrich themselves and owes huge debts to international lending institutions, leaving little money for nonessential public services. Its bureaucracy moves at an achingly slow pace.
“Our government has been very slow to take up the issue of artifact restitution,” Kiura said. While a sympathetic official can smooth over some of the challenges, getting back looted cultural heritage is not on the broader agenda of most African governments.
‘That world is lost’
To reclaim the ngadji, the Pokomo are unsure how to proceed. The Kenyan government has no formal process through which to file a restitution claim. But that has not stopped them from trying.
In 2016, Makorani’s brother, Baiba Dhidha Mjidho, got the British Museum to let him visit the ngadji in its east London “large specimen” storage rooms.
“It was quite a relief to see it had not been damaged. Even the hairs on the hide stretched across the drum were still there,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Liverpool.
Before Mjidho’s visit, many Pokomo elders assumed the ngadji was lost or destroyed. That he, a descendant of their kings, had touched it was as if a miracle had occurred. Dreams suddenly seemed attainable of resurrecting a distinct Pokomo identity, blurred by a century and a half of conversion to foreign religions, and re-creating an era when the Pokomo were proud, not mostly indigent.
“The white man took not just the ngadji but brought many changes to our society,” Wadesa, the kidjo’s chairman, said. “Nowadays, our young people are rude, disobedient, they want only money. They are without the guidance of the ngadji.”
Today, the Tana River valley is one of Kenya’s poorest regions. Most Pokomo communities scarcely have access to paved roads, let alone schools, hospitals and jobs. And many Pokomo feel unsure about what place the ngadji would have in their society if it were returned.
“We cannot return to the old days. The world has changed, not just the Pokomo,” Mjidho said. “Yes, the ngadji’s return would restore our pride. It might inspire our youth to look beyond the hopeless world that has been created around them. But they will never know the true value of it — that world is lost for good.”
Rael Ombuor contributed to this report.
Design by Clare Ramirez. Photo editing by Olivier Laurent. Copy editing by Sue Doyle.