Boston University played a key role in the return of nine hand-carved wooden totems that are revered in the East African nation as memorials to the dead and coveted on the international African art market, according to a report published Tuesday.
The totems known as vigango - decorated with vaguely human shapes, several feet tall and decorated with paint and bits of cloth - were handed over to the Kenyan Ambassador Peter Ogego at the United Nations on Monday, according to the Boston Globe.
The Kenyan government plans to try to find the rightful owners since each clan uses unique designs on the artifacts. Last September, the Illinois State Museum in Springfield returned a stolen piece to Kenya.
That artifact, together with another from the Hampton University Museum in Virginia, were returned to a Kenyan village last week after being stolen more than two decades ago. The pieces once displayed in two U.S. museums are now being displayed in a metal enclosure in the village.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Tanzania Charles Richard Stith, who runs Boston University's African Presidential Archives and Research Center, hopes the university's move will encourage U.S. museums to return the hundreds of other totems in their possession.
"They are treated as objects of art by people outside the continent, but these are sacred objects," said Stith, who ruled out exhibiting the artifacts at BU before shipping them home. "We are compelled to treat them as what they are."
Families often link misfortunes and sufferings to the loss of the pieces which are also known as kigango in the singular.
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969