From the London TELEGRAPH:

February 13, 2006

By Mike Pflanz in Mombasa

Statues sacred to secretive Kenyan tribes are no longer being erected to mark the deaths of revered elders because corrupt middlemen contracted by Western art dealers are stealing them as soon as they are installed.

Hundreds of "vigango" totems have been looted from rural homesteads near Kenya's coast, home to the Mijikenda tribes about which little is known.

The 4ft wooden statues, carved with triangular etchings and believed to incarnate the spirits of dead elders, are shipped via dealers living in luxury beachside villas to private collectors in the United States and Europe.

"Moving these objects goes against every cultural and spiritual belief of these people, and they are too afraid to put them up now because they are sure they will be stolen," said Monica Udvardy, anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky and a specialist in east African tribal customs.

"It would be like us stealing our grandfather's tombstone or our grandmother's ashes, and selling them."

The thefts are being carried out by poor youths who fall prey to the fat wallets and smooth talking of traders operating for overseas collectors who feed the huge demand for "ethnic" African art, researchers say.

Scores of the totems are on sale in Kenya's coastal towns of Mombasa and Malindi, and in Nairobi, where traders who do not display them openly will happily show prospective buyers back-room supplies.

They fetch between £170 and £460 in Kenya, but studies have found them valued at up to £900 in American museum catalogues.

Anxious villagers who spend up to twice Kenya's average per capital annual income on statues for dead relatives talk of ill fortune and angry spirits who visit after the relics are removed.

"Things now are very bad, my grandchildren are always sick, 27 cows have died and even when there is good rain we find we have a very bad harvest," said Kache Kalume Mwakiru, an 86-year-old widow living in a village of a dozen mud-walled huts under tall coconut palms 40 miles inland from Mombasa.

Two vigango erected by her husband to commemorate his two brothers were stolen some years ago. Her husband died soon afterwards, which Mrs Mwakiru also attributes to the theft of the statues.

"They have destroyed our happiness, our progress and my family. They are murderers," she said of the thieves.

Legal loopholes mean there is no legislative prohibition on the trade in vigango. As they are not antiquities, they fall outside of bans on trafficking in ancient artefacts, and they are not covered by international conventions regulating the movement of such relics because Kenya's government does not recognise them as "sacred" to the minority Mijikenda tribes.

"We need new laws. You can only be prosecuted for theft and it is too easy to get away with that," said John Mitsanze from the National Museums of Kenya and a member of the Giriama, a Mijikenda tribe.

Mr Mitsanze and Prof Udvardy have traced the two statues stolen from Mrs Mwakiru's village to the United States. One is among 98 other vigango held by the Hampton University Museum in Virginia. Kenyan museum officials have written to the institution demanding its repatriation.