Thursday, September 14, 2006

The story began 20 years ago in Kenya with one family's grief. It wound halfway around the world, passed through Hollywood and came to a museum in the middle of the U.S.

Now it will end where it began, but this time with the family celebrating the return of a stolen memorial to a dead relative. The Illinois State Museum sent the memorial, known as a "kigango," back to its original owners in Kenya Wednesday.

The kigango was one of two erected by Kalume Mwakiru to honor his dead brothers. Mwakiru's family had suffered a series of misfortunes _ the death of livestock, bad harvests, illnesses, nightmares _ and he believed honoring his brothers would end the family's problems.

The 4.3-foot-tall kigango is a post with a vaguely human shape, decorated with blue paint and strips of cloth.

But in 1985, two years after the memorials were erected, someone stole them.

Thieves can sell them to Kenyan souvenir shops for perhaps $50, experts say. The shops then sell them to art dealers for several hundred dollars. The dealers can get $5,000 from American collectors.

This particular kigango wound up in a California art dealership and was purchased by actor Powers Boothe, who donated it and seven others to Illinois State University, said anthropologist Monica Udvardy, who has traced the memorial's path.

The university closed its museum and transferred its collection, including the kigango, to the Illinois State Museum in Springfield in 2001.

Udvardy and fellow anthropologist Linda Giles say nearly 300 of the memorials _ called "vigango" when talking about more than one _ are owned by American museums. There's generally no way to figure out where they originated or whether they were stolen or somehow obtained legitimately.

But Mwakiru's family got lucky.

Udvardy, while doing research in Kenya, had photographed Mwakiru standing alongside the memorials just before they were stolen. She knew they had been taken and, years later, spotted one during a slide presentation at a conference on African studies.

With Udvardy's photo as proof they had once owned the kigango, Mwakiru's family stepped forward to ask the Illinois State Museum to return it.

Mwakiru, who died in 1987, was terribly upset when the two memorials were stolen, they wrote to the museum earlier this year. After they vanished, the family's fortunes declined. Calves were stillborn. People got sick. Jobs were hard to find.

"We believe that all these troubles will improve if our vigango are returned to us," the family wrote.