The Mijikenda culture, of the African nation of Kenya, covers nine related tribes who inhabit the Kenyan and northern Tanzanian coastal area and hinterland, and like many tribes of the region they have their own deep lore, myths, and beliefs on the spiritual world. One of the main beliefs held sacred by these tribes is the idea that ancestral spirits live amongst them, playing an integral part in the society of their descendants. These spirits give guidance, but also can become angry or vengeful if disrespected or neglected, leading to frequent rituals and even animal sacrifices to keep them happy and appeased, and one intriguing facet of this ancestral spirit worship is that of what are called the Vigango statues, also known by the singular form Kigango. They are also imbued with spiritual forces that do not seem to take kindly to being trifled with.
The statues themselves are crafted from termite-resistant hardwood obtained from sacred forests, usually standing around 4 feet high and shaped in the form of a rough effigy of a human who once lived, the whole of it adorned with symbolic etchings and markings, as well as hand painted designs. The purpose of these statues is to serve as vessels to incarnate the spirits of ancestors, in particular those of tribal elders. The statues are created by those of the secret Gohu society, or the “Society of the Blessed,” who are commissioned by a family to begin work on one, after which it is erected with an associated ritual, offerings, animal sacrifice, and public feasting. Once fully placed and endowed with power, it is said that these statues allow for communication with the deceased, a liaison with the spirit world. The statues are traditionally left where they are until they rot away, even left behind if a village relocates, which happens often, with a new statue put up in which to relocate the spirit, a second-generation figure known as a kibao. On occasion, an abandoned statue will receive frequent care and offerings just to make sure the spirit world is appeased, and it is thought that to disturb or violate the statues at any time in their lifespan is to invite the wrath of the spirits, to tamper with them a major no-no. It is probably unfortunate then that they have long been the target of theft.
Since the 1980s, hundreds of vigango have been stolen from their resting places to be sold to art dealers and private collectors all over the world. The thieves are usually impoverished youth from Mijikenda villages who don’t have a lot of options for income, and a statue can fetch quite an attractive sum, able to sell for thousands of dollars on the international art market. With such a lucrative paycheck, theft of vigango statues has been widespread, creating much strife in a society in which these are deeply sacred items, their theft a slap in the face and a defilement of their traditions and the spirits of their ancestors. Indeed, the theft of such statues is believed to often be followed by great misfortune due to the angry spirits’ wrath, including insanity, natural disasters, crop failures, and dying livestock, among many others, with one tribal elder saying of this:
Vigango may appear simple, but I can tell you for free, the anger of those spirits can have deadly consequences on the entire society. They show no mercy on anyone who disrespects them. Several youths have gone mad and others with seemingly bright futures have unceremoniously abandoned their illustrious careers for no good reason, but, trust me, if you dig deeper, the root cause of their predicaments rests with disrespect to vigango. The spirit of the ancestor represented by the disturbed kigango causes illness, insanity, disappearance of a family member, disagreement between family members, loss of harvest, or a child being born deaf or dumb. It is like stealing the welfare of the family. I feel very bitter. Vigango thieves have deprived us of our blessings, our health, and desecrated our customs. Such situations can only be reversed by elders performing special rituals to appease the ancestors to release affected youths, otherwise their entire lineage will inherit the curse.
Even the thieves believe in this, and so many of them will actually try to carry out rituals before stealing them, in order to try and counteract the curse. When one is stolen, it is believed that time is of the essence, and that the statue must be returned as soon as possible. Few are, although there have been many that have been found in various museums, art collections, and curio shops to be brought back home. Most of the time, they are found quite by chance, or their sale intercepted by those looking for them, where as on other occasions the kigango will be returned by someone who has experienced the curse themselves. Everything from accidents, mishaps, and hauntings have been experienced by those who have come into possession of the statues, many times forcing the owners to return them. One villager named Mwarandu says of his village’s own returned vigango:
They caused a lot of problems in the US where they were placed. People would hear voices of the spirits demanding to be taken back home, where the inhabitants were also suffering. In Europe and the US strange accidents were happening and that is why they had to be returned.
Unfortunately, the illicit trade in vigango continues, although repatriation activism and awareness has been stepped up in recent years, putting the dealers on the run. In the meantime, the creation of new vigango has slowed to a crawl out of fear that they will be stolen, the few actually made being glued into place with heavy concrete bases to prevent theft. In the meantime, the Kenyan government has been pursuing various strategies to make the sale of such relics illegal, raise awareness of their plight, and to staunch the flow of this defilement of their cultural heritage. Media attention brought to the problem has also caused many in possession of such artifacts to voluntarily return them, yet hundreds of the statues remain in museums and private collections, mostly in America. Whether there is an insidious curse or not, it is a travesty, and whether it will ever be fixed is unknown. In the meantime, it very much seems that if you are in possession of such an artifact it might be in your best interests to return it right away. You never know.