Reclaiming Africa’s cultural heritage


Every day we are hearing more horror stories about the cruel brutality and merciless slaughter of women and children, at the same time as whole villages and towns are being destroyed by Russians in Ukraine.

Yet in reading the recently released issue of Jahazi entitled ‘Reclaiming our Cultural Heritage’, one finds that Russians are no worse than were the European powers who came to conquer and colonise Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Whether one is talking about Germans, British, French, or Portuguese, European colonisers all slaughtered families, destroyed whole villages and wreaked havoc on people’s cultures.

That’s the well-documented impression one gets from reading the rich collection of 28 deeply-researched essays contained in Jahazi, the cultural magazine published by Prof Kimani Njogu and Twaweza Communications.

In the past, Jahazi has primarily addressed issues most closely related to East Africa, and particularly Kenya.

But in ‘Reclaiming Our Cultural Heritage’, Kimani has reached out to Pan-African scholars who have lots to say about their countries’ imperative need for not just reparations for all the damage done to the region since the slave trade began, but the restitution of all the cultural artefacts that were looted by colonisers and which now reside either in private collections all around the West or prestigious museums like the British Museum in London, Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and others in cities like Paris, Rome, Berlin, and New York.

It's a marvel that this one issue contains so much history associated with so many African nations and states. And while there’s one unifying theme, the need for virtually every African country to reclaim its cultural heritage after whole civilizations were ravaged viciously, still there is no redundancy in the stories.

Well, maybe one, and that’s the reluctance of those same Western powers to respond affirmatively to Africans’ requests to have their cultural heritage returned.

Within this issue, the writers interrogate both the looting and the struggles to regain their lost legacies from a wide range of countries, including Algeria, Benin, Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia. More specifically, they write about what was stolen from Agikuyu, Amazons, Bunyoro, Chagga, Maa, Mijikenda, and NOK.

What’s more, the artefacts now being sought include everything from a scull, spear or shield, to a Rosetta stone and a sculpted bust of Queen Nefertiti which was smuggled out of Egypt (despite that country having the earliest laws in Africa protecting its antiquities) by a German archeologist and taken back to Berlin where it’s on display at the Neues Museum and seen by more than a million people annually.

What’s also stunning about this historic issue of Jahazi is the realisation that European colonialism was technically only a little more than a century-long (from 1842- 1945). Yet the amount of damage done during those decades was profound and virtually irreparable.

The idea had been to strip African peoples of their symbols of power as a means of stripping them of their dignity and identity, thus making them easier to control.

Yet as Amilcar Cabral said, “One of the most serious errors…committed by colonial powers in Africa may have been to ignore or underestimate the cultural strength of African peoples.” Jahazi’s writers apparently draw upon this cultural strength as they record the many forms of cultural resistance that Africans used to challenge the colonisers.

That doesn’t discount the fact that countless Africans died trying to resist men with more powerful weaponry compared to their spears, bows and arrows.

Nonetheless, there is one story about Karambu ole Senteu (pp. 16-19), the Maa warrior whose cattle were looted by the area’s British District Commissioner (DC) Hugh Grant. When Karambu went to retrieve his cattle, the DC refused his request point blank.

So, in a rage, Karambu (known to his people as a ‘sharp shooter’) “unleashed his spear at Grant’s chest with so much force that the empere naibor pierced the DC and went through his body, killing him on the spot.”

Of course, Karambu was hung and his spear taken. The Maa people want to know where his body was buried and they want the spear returned. Whether they get their requests met is speculation since they don’t have UNESCO support.

Kenya has yet to sign the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of Ownership of Cultural Properties. When it does, the government will be in a stronger position to fight for the restitution of its stolen artefacts.

Until then, the struggle continues.