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Their different perspectives sometimes conflict, but together provide a shifting idea of the sacred place. As the site of occasional large-scale ceremonies, moreover, the settlement becomes especially important at times of national crisis.

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It then acts as a moral core of Giriama society, and a symbolic defence against total domination and assimilation. Have doubts regarding this product? Post your question. Safe and Secure Payments.

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    Back to top. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology. Because vigango are commonly sold to art dealers and collectors, Udvardy searched in coastal hotels and antiquities shops, but to not avail. Museum records noted that the latter kigango had been collected in Kenya by a well-known American art dealer during the same year that it was stolen from Katana and was later donated to the museum by another individual.

    Stealing vigango is especially egregious because they are ritual artifacts that are part of a living culture.

    Fingo (talisman)

    Moreover, according to indigenous belief, vigango are inalienable and should never be removed from their site of erection. The Mijikenda are nine culturally and historically related peoples3 who reside in the Kenyan and northern Tanzanian coastal area and hinterland. As in many sub-Saharan African cultures, ancestral spirits are an integral part of Mijikenda society, and remain active in the lives of their descendants.

    Ancestral spirits can provide useful assistance but they can also punish if they feel neglected or angry. Descendants frequently offer them libations and sacrifice animals for them on special occasions.

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    Although many Mijikenda have converted to Islam, and some to Christianity, ancestors continue to play significant roles in religious beliefs and practices. Most Mijikenda ancestral spirits are incarnated through wooden memorial posts. The markers for the ordinary deceased are short, uncarved pegs of wood, called koma. The Giriama, Kauma, Jibana, Chonyi, Kambe, and Ribe subgroups also erect vigango , which are taller three to nine feet carved posts, for deceased members of the Gohu society.

    Vigango are carved from termite-resistant hardwood. They are abstractly human in shape, with a head and a long straight body which is usually decorated with elaborate chip-carving. Most Mijikenda erect vigango on the graves within their respective makaya kaya when singular , the symbolic politico-ritual centers of each subgroup. The Giriama, however, also raise them in or near the patrilineal extended-family homestead, often not in association with the grave itself.

    Ideally, shortly after a Gohu member dies, his family should commission the local Gohu society to carve a kigango for him and install it with associated ritual, offerings, animal sacrifice, and public feasting. Thus, in practice, the family often does not install a kigango until some misfortune befalls the group and it is determined through divination or dreams that a deceased Gohu ancestor is responsible.


    The kigango serves as an incarnation of the ancestor and receives regular propitiation with palmwine. If a Giriama household moves to a new location, the kigango should be left behind, undisturbed, and a smaller and simpler type of substitute post, called a kibao , erected at the new homestead. Descendants should return occasionally to visit vigango in unoccupied areas, especially if the ancestors indicate that they need attention.

    After several generations such vigango are usually forgotten, whereas those in the main ritual centers, the makaya , should receive continual care by the kaya elders. Even if the kigango is no longer visited, the prohibition on disturbing it remains. The Mijikenda believe that anyone who disturbs a kigango will be cursed by the ancestors, which will result in misfortune for the offender and his associates. Uprooting a kigango to sell is especially offensive, and is thought to result in serious supernatural sanctions, frequently insanity.

    It is not only the culprit, however, who is affected; the descendants of the disturbed kigango will also suffer misfortune. Most vigango thieves are local, often unemployed, male youth who are looking for ways to earn cash. Some are reported to perform special rituals in order to offset the curse associated with disturbing a kigango.

    Selling vigango is lucrative when seen in relation to the local economy, although the vast majority of the eventual profits will go to the Kenyan and Western art dealers. Most Mijikenda view vigango thieves as social outcasts. They have put money as a priority over our cultural values. They need to be seriously punished. Older Giriama blame many general calamities, such as drought, flooding, regional crop or livestock loss, as well as family catastrophes, on the removal of vigango.

    Not all stolen vigango are from unoccupied areas. In one Giriama homestead the same kigango was stolen twice. The kigango was first stolen from the middle of the homestead in , shortly after it was erected. The owners were able to locate, retrieve, and re-erect the stolen kigango , this time setting the base in concrete. But several months later, thieves sawed it off and removed it again. Most Giriama elders and Gohu members we interviewed concurred that a stolen kigango could not be reinstalled unless it was recovered immediately.

    They nonetheless stressed that it is important to recover missing vigango and bring them home. The kigango represents a family member, they explained, and the family should be united. If a family member were to die in the forest, the corpse would be brought back home where it would be welcomed and given libations before burial. Instead of burial, a returned kigango should be laid behind the house under ritually appropriate trees.

    Vigango theft is widespread throughout the Mijikenda area. There seem to be no locations that have been spared.

    Giriama elders say that although some vigango theft took place during colonial times, the problem increased after independence with the growth of the tourist industry and local and foreign museum interest. Despite widespread Giriama complaints about the problem in the mids, theft continued to increase in the s.

    It declined somewhat during the s, largely because most vigango had already been stolen, but also because of growing Mijikenda vigilance and the identification of some of the thieves. Vigango theft, however, continues to be a significant problem. In spite of their fear of theft, Giriama continue to erect vigango. There are a surprisingly large number of vigango in American museums,4 most originally imported by one man. Although this dealer conducted fieldwork about vigango among some Giriama Gohu members, he still collected, exported, and sold vigango.

    In , we interviewed Gohu members in Marereni who remembered this American. He had to have been told at the very outset that vigango can never be removed. Of all the occupations in the world, why did he trade in our ancestors! He wants us to die! He is the main cause of the problems the Mijikenda face today! Giriama complain that Kenyan government officials have long turned a deaf ear to their complaints about vigango theft. Even if police catch someone transporting vigango , there is currently no law against it.

    In the s and s, vigango were displayed and sold openly in Kenyan hotels, galleries, tourist shops, and market areas, not only on the coast but also in the national capital of Nairobi.