Stolen African Treasures
By Munashe O’brian Gutu
Despite Africa’s calls for the West to return its stolen treasures, only a few of the same have been returned. It is now a considerable period after most African States have gotten their independence from former colonial ‘masters’ and still, nothing has been done to address Africa’s spoliation grievances. Pan-African activists, heads of states and African historians alike have called upon the West to honour its commitment towards returning Africa’s stolen artefacts.
In a speech at Humboldt University, prominent contemporary African author, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie outlined a catalogue of reasons why Africa’s treasure must be repatriated from Germany and other European states. The nauseating aspect surrounding the reluctance is the fact that, while some treasures are of monetary and aesthetic value, some bear sacred religious weight.
However, Western powers have turned a deaf ear to Africa’s call. They are holding on to Africa’s heritage as if they own it. David Cameron, a former Prime Minister to the Britain once rubbished the notion of returnism, calling it a senseless idea . This and other superiority complexes have been the reason why the West are reluctant to bring back the stolen loot. Below, we look into the core reasons for the passive resistance to Africa’s noble request by the West.
At the center of the Western countries’ reluctance to return artifacts that they looted from Africa is the need to perpetuate neocolonialism. Neocolonialism thrives on cultural imperialism. The latter relates to a modern conquest initiative where the colonial subject’s cultural history is eroded in order to instill a sense of inferiority complex.
It is a key element that is used against the African continent to subdue her historical evolvement and sway Africans from appreciating their identities. Cultural imperialism often leads to cultural dilution at such a swift pace that the victim cannot calculate the evil machination. Western countries understand the importance of culture in any society’s development. As such, they invest in holding African cultural history to ransom while disguising as the ‘responsible’ custodians of the rich African heritage.
Following this, is the more serious problem that the collections of the looted treasure retain and perpetuate the stereotypical narratives Europeans had—and still have—about Africans. The thousands of articles collected in most museums are not accompanied with their original history neither do they positively sale their actual places of origin.
The items on display are selected, organized and given tags or identifications by Europeans. The power to select, name and decide the meaning of these items makes Europeans the authors of African history. Thus, the treasures are exposed to colonial biases and imperial prejudice.
Colonial bias is one of the key reasons for the continuous reluctance. Western countries often portray African history as a ‘dark’ page in the evolution of humanity. Western narratives often demonize African culture, portraying it as evil and uncivilised. However, it is confusing to understand why they still cling to the very archaeological history that form a tangible resemblance of the so-called ‘dark continent’.
The reason for this is simple. Africa has a very rich cultural history. It is the cradle of human civilisation and evolvement. The Great Zimbabwe heritage site and the Egyptian pyramids are just two testimonies to such broad and rich history. A close read of Eurocentric historical texts have attempted to rob Africans of the credit surrounding these heritage sites.
The rationale for such view has been that, African civilisation could not have made it to such magnificence and sophistication resembled by these sites. In desperate attempts to give credit to the Greeks for building these majestic ancient buildings instead of the deserving African natives, Western countries try to conceal concrete evidence.
A Zimbabwe soapstone bird which was characterised with the Shona life at the Great Zimbabwe was smuggled to Germany during the colonial era, only to be returned after a hundred years. Such mishaps are only meant to conceal, dilute and propagate the genius creativity that is often entrenched in archaeological artefacts bearing African history.
A ploy to curtail decolonisation of the mind
It is also obvious that, when in charge of cultural artefacts that are of pure African descent, Africa would be reduced to a continent without a history of its own. At least, that one continent whose history is better narrated by a foreign grouping. If Africa is to narrate her own history making use of the actual items that are forcefully kept in foreign museums and households, Africa’s history would be nothing short of greatness. The effect of a practical appreciation of our history is an ultimate decolonisation of the mind.
That is what the West thrives to erase. It is not out of care that they invest in maintaining African treasure in their museums, rather it is a deliberate investment meant to stagnate the development of the African child. It can always be absurd to give references to an African artefact and go on to mention its existence in a foreign land. It creates a psychological disillusionment and often develops an African that underestimates the cultural relevance of Africa.
A close example is the stolen okukur which the Oxford University finally agreed to send back home and whose relevance can never be overlooked in the history of Benin Kingdom.
The calls for the West to return African cultural loot is imminent in as far as preserving the African heritage is concerned. What belongs to Africa needs to be kept in Africa. This will mark a vital step towards re-shaping the much tainted African narratives towards a more Afro-centric perspective. Africa no matter how ‘poor’, should be the sole custodian of her treasure just like any other continent.