Kondik, KenyaOn a sunny morning, John Ming’ala Obure shelters underneath the shade of a sausage tree, or yago tree in his native Luo language. For centuries, Luo and other Kenyan tribes have used the tree’s fruits, which contain a natural yeast, to brew alcohol. But today, the yago tree provides a respite from the sweltering sun as Obure prepares to touch for the first time an artifact that belonged to his ancestors: a headdress made from the horns of a wildebeest and decorated with seashells, the original of which was worn by a Luo medicinal healer more than a century ago.
Or rather, a plastic replica of it. The real one is currently more than 6,000 miles away in a German museum. It’s one of more than 30,000 Kenyan artifacts stolen or purchased by Europeans as they colonized East Africa. Now, as many Africans demand the return of cultural objects, a team of Kenyan and German anthropologists are 3D-printing replicas and visiting the communities from whence they came. Some of the replicas are sparking memories among elders as to what the artifacts were used for—and stirring debate over the fate of their ancestors’ things.
“It’s like a digital repatriation. You can connect people back with their objects,” says Juma George Ondeng’, a coordinator for the project for the National Museums of Kenya. “Our objective is not restitution. But we’re not stopping communities from engaging in that kind of conversation.”
The printing is part of the Invisible Inventories Program, an ambitious attempt to catalog every artifact from Kenya that remains outside the country. So far researchers have identified more than 32,000 artifacts in 30 museums across seven countries, including the United States.
As Obure unwraps the 3D replica and beholds it for the first time, a look of confusion crosses his face. “It doesn’t feel the same,” he says, disappointed. “It is too light. And it is missing the piece that goes around your chin to keep it on.”
Asked whether he thinks 3D replicas like this could rekindle Kenyans’ memories of the originals, Obure has a more radical suggestion: “Place these in their museum and bring the originals to us!” he demands. “If the Americans and the Europeans want to see the originals, they should come to Africa.”
Raiders of the Lost Art
The debate over the restitution of African artifacts dates back more than half a century, to the post-independence period of the 1960s when dozens of African nations shook off colonial rule by Great Britain, Belgium, Germany, France, and other European nations. The largest and most famous collection of African artifacts is owned by the British Museum, whose trustees have famously refused to return or even loan back objects such as the famous Benin Bronzes that British soldiers looted as they plundered Benin City, in present day Nigeria, in 1897.
But outside of Britain, the tide may be turning. One of the institutions behind Europe’s newest museum, the Humboldt Forum, which opened last year in Berlin, announced it would return more than a thousand Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, prompting demands that other museums across Europe follow suit.
In June 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced it would return two of its 160 Benin Bronzes. Four months later, France returned 26 stolen artifacts to Benin, and in March the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. announced it would return most of its Benin Bronze collection to Nigeria.
Still, the vast majority of Africa’s artifactual heritage remains outside of Africa. The Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, or Cultures of the World Museum, in Cologne, is one of the institutions involved in the 3D replica initiative. The museum’s Africa collection includes some 13,500 objects, including masks, sculptures, and brass objects from across the continent.
For many of these objects, little is known about where they came from—or how. One of these objects is the Luo headdress, the replica of which Obure held under the yago tree. The original item weighs 1.3 pounds and was acquired by a German merchant. Around the time of his death, in 1910 or 1911, it was donated to the museum in Cologne.
Earlier this year the museum allowed a specialist to take 3D scans of five of its Kenyan artifacts, including the Luo headdress, and send the files to a 3D printmaker in Nairobi. However, nobody involved in the 3D printing project believes the 3D objects ought to replace the originals.
“Digital access is not at all a substitution for physical access,” says Chao Tayiana, a Kenyan digital heritage specialist. Rather, “It’s the start of awareness. There is no reason you should have 50 of the same objects in a museum basement and still be holding on to them. It is a question of power.”
Whose history is it, anyway?
Growing up, Obure’s father would sit underneath the shade of the family’s fig tree and tell him stories about the Seme Luo people’s way of life, including the objects they used in ceremonies and the clothing they wore. Obure longed to see them for himself. So in 2001, at age 25, he began collecting cultural artifacts from neighbors and friends. In 2015 he began displaying them in a small room along the only paved road that passes through Kondik village. The collection includes a shield made of buffalo skin, bows and arrows, an axe, and a wooden paddle fishermen used to canoe on Lake Victoria. But some of the most important artifacts are nowhere to be seen, including headdresses that the Luo wore after an important person passed away.
“The most important ritual among the Luo is the funeral,” explains Obure. “Luos believe in life after death, and in giving the dead a deserving sendoff. A few days after someone dies, the Luo conduct tero buru, a sort of last rights ceremony. “People dress as warriors and scare whatever caused that death away. You carry spears, a shield, and you try to be belligerent.”
Many wore headdresses made of ostrich feathers or skins and fur from other animals. “The headdress is scary! To make you look intimidating!” says Obure.
Obuny Makhongos, the museum’s volunteer curator, puts on a headdress made of banana leaves that was worn by warriors for ceremonies before or after battle. He recreated it from a photo he found; he doesn’t know where the original is. Like the plastic 3D printed replicas, “this is an imitation of what we don’t have now.”
These are just two among many objects that exist only in memories. Many of the objects were taken by Christian missionaries or their followers, says Obure. But the gravest offense is not the theft of the artifacts, he says, but that their significance continues to be misconstrued.
The debate over African artifacts isn’t only about who owns them. It’s also about who tells their stories. Oftentimes, western anthropologists or curators get it wrong. Take the type of Luo headdress that was 3D printed. They are sometimes referred to in Western collections as having belonged to Luo chiefs. But the Luo had no chiefs.
“Chiefs were a creation of the British colonial administration,” explains project coordinator Ondeng’, and colonial merchants may have intentionally misappropriated them. “If they were just selling it as a headdress, nobody would give them money. But when you say ‘chief headdress’ you increase the premium. You make the object worth more money than it is.”
In reality, every elder would have a kondo, a headdress often made of banana leaves, as a symbol of power. The story of the kondo speaks to the reason why, in Ondeng’s view, “We from the global south are the ones who should be leading in this research,” rather than Europeans or North Americans.
Another Kenyan artifact that’s often misunderstood is the ndome. It’s usually labelled as a war shield and displayed alongside other relics of war, but in fact it was used in the coming- of-age ceremony of Kikuyu boys. Some western curators are still getting it wrong, says Ondeng’. “It’s quite a misrepresentation, because it has nothing to do with war at all.”
“The ndome is part of the identity of a Kikuyu boy,” explains Leah Njoroge, who works at Thingira Cultural Village an hour and a half north of Nairobi. “When he is given that ndome, it means you have become a real man—you have met the character of a real man in that community. You have morals.”
But those morals are being lost along with the artifacts that embody them, she says, to devastating effect. “Culture is like a railway, and right now we are off the tracks.”
It’s impossible to know how many items remain in storage in western museums, Njoroge says. Some objects she knows only from movies, such as the beaded choker necklace the famous Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o wears in films such as Black Panther. “It’s our artifact, but we don’t even have one here in Africa,” she laments.
Njoroge estimates that as few as 10 original ndomes remain in the Kikuyu homeland. When the team presents her with a 3D replica, she says: “It’s not the same. I’m not against copy-pasting, but let us have the original. Let these items be back with their culture. They’re supposed to be here.”
Re-imagining the museum
Inside the small, single-room exhibition hall of the Kisumu Museum, the tile floor is faded and the ceiling tiles are brown with water damage. Rose Akinyi Otieno, a 23-year-old volunteer curator, greets visitors with a smile—and tries to manage their expectations.
“People ask, ‘why don’t you have this and this?’” she says. Indeed, the Kisumu Museum displays only a few dozen items, a fraction of the African artifacts on display at the British Museum or the MET. Asked about the potential for 3D printing to replicate the artifacts that have been taken, Otieno replies, “Maybe I’m biased, but I think the originals should come home and the replicas should be sent out of Kenya.”
Tiberius Otieno, a 64-year-old who speaks with Luo elders to collect oral histories about important cultural artifacts (and no relation to curator Rose), agrees. He says while many objects fell out of favor, became unavailable, or were simply lost with time, others still exist—outside their rightful place.
Tiberius believes western museums exploit African culture by displaying their artifacts like “tourist attractions.” If the western museums were to return them, he says, “We can use them for educational purposes. It’s very important these things are returned so we can recreate the past for the next generation. Foreign tourists ought to come and view our culture here.”
Some among Kenya’s younger generation disagree.
“They should remain on the other side, so you can learn more about them,” says 18-year-old Daniel Ochieng, one of some 60 students who visited the Kisumu Museum one recent afternoon. “Africans were considered to be cultureless. But if they see more of our culture, then they can see that’s not the case.”
Omondi Philster, 17, nodded in agreement. But she added, “We should be allowed to travel to see them,” in Europe or the U.S. “Maybe it will create friendliness and cultural exchange.”
In reality, most Kenyans don’t have the means to visit their artifacts abroad. “If elders want to go to visit their artifacts, they have to get visas for air travel. How are they supposed to afford that?” asks Njeri Gachihi, a researcher at the National Museums of Kenya.
Gachihi rejects one argument against returning African artifacts—that African nations lack the proper museums and storage facilities in which to preserve them. “Even if they said they want to destroy them, to chop them into pieces of wood—that is their right,” she says. “Because these are their objects.”
Reckoning with the legacy of colonialism may require rethinking the concept of the museum entirely, says Chao Tayiana, the Kenyan digital heritage specialist. Tayiana founded the African Digital Heritage collective, which uses storytelling and digital technology to preserve and advance African culture.
“What we know of museums is they are a foreign construct that takes items away from their homes, takes history away,” says Tayiana, who also co-founded the Museum of British Colonialism, which seeks to confront, challenge, and document the UK’s violent colonial history and artifactual acquisitions. “One of the greatest injustices for the concept of the museum is that it determines the value of what’s important and what’s not. But whose job is it to document history? We have our own stories to tell.”
For Europe to reckon with its colonial history, says Tayiana, may require re-thinking the concept of the museum entirely.
“What do you want from a museum? A place to sit and talk? Objects that you can touch? It’s about reimagining,” says Chao.
“It’s a first step, and it’s only the beginning” says Leonie Neumann, curator of the Africa collection at the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt that 3D scanned five of its own Kenyan artifacts for the project. “We are the gatekeepers of these objects, and it’s totally clear that it’s not right that some of those objects are here.”
Neumann says museums present a distorted view. “A lot of collectors and dealers were white, old men. Most of them were interested in weapons. That’s why we have a lot of weapons in our archives,” says Neumann. “That’s the danger of these ethnographic collections—they present a special time that these objects were used, but they’re just one moment, one piece of this community—but not the whole.”
Neumann says there’s no reason museums should hold on to the originals. “We can talk about the object without showing them. It’s more about the history and the context,” she says.
“Do we really need these original objects for that? No, I don’t think so. If the communities really want them back and it’s something they can use in their lives, why should they be in our archives where nobody can see them?”
What are objects worth?
Standing underneath the shade of the yago tree, Obure explains how Europe’s theft and purchase of Kenyan’s artifacts still reverberates today.
“If somebody wants to break you, to make you weak, he finds something that is very important to you and tears it from you.” This, says Obure, is what the British did when they colonized Kenya. By taking away the objects that made the Luo who they were, “they replaced our culture with their own.
“Imagine going to UK. You take the (royal) crown, you bring it here and put it on display, and you give a wrong history and a wrong name,” says Obure. “To us, it’s just a piece of art. To them, it’s the symbol of their nation. How do you reduce a symbol like that to just a piece of art? We cannot do that to them. Why do they do it to us?”
For westerners, an African object is “just an artifact,” says Obure. “For us it is not—it’s energy.” He picks up a long, slender spear with an iron tip. When he holds it, he feels a connection to his grandfather, who used this very spear to hunt.
That’s the connection 3D replicas can’t replace, says Ayub Oginga Anyango, 60, who visited Obure under the yago tree that sunny day. “Bringing plastic to us means we are only interested in the art but not the spirit,” Anyango says. “We are not interested in the object, we are interested in the spirit of that object—which plastic cannot replace.”
“The Nairobi National Museum has bullets that were taken out of people’s bodies”—the Mau Mau who fought the British for Kenya’s independence, says Kenyan filmmaker and activist Jim Chuchu. “How can you digitize that? The feeling you get of standing before this piece of metal?”
“There are things in this country you cannot digitize because of the amount of blood that has been spilled,” says Chuchu. “Tech solves the question of access. But it doesn’t solve the problem of justice for these objects that were taken.”