A delegation from the United Kingdom (UK) has handed over 196 heads of cattle to four Maasai families in Kenya and Tanzania as reparations for atrocities and injustices meted against them during the colonial era.
Such ceremonies according to Maasai culture are mostly conducted when somebody who killed a member of the community goes back to the affected family and seeks forgiveness and peace.
The cleansing ceremony held at Morijo-Loita in Narok County saw each family receive 49 cows as a way of cleansing and creating peace between the two sides. After that talks commence to establish how ‘sacred community objects’ ended up in Museums in the United Kingdom.
The reparation gives critical evidence of the negative impact colonialism has had on many of the Maasai families for generations now, and according to the community, the artefacts found in the museum belonged to members of their community killed during the colonial era.
The delegation from the Oxford University based in Pits Rivers Museum travelled to Kenya to award reparations to the families whose artefacts were stolen and exported to the United Kingdom over 100 years ago.
Prof Dr Laura Van Broeckhoven, the Director of Pitt Rivers Museum and Professor of Museum Studies, Ethics and Material Culture at the University of Oxford, led the team of scholars and goodwill Ambassadors from the United Kingdom in an event aimed at kicking off talks with the local indigenous Maasai whose ‘sacred artefacts and ornaments’ were stolen and exported to the UK under unclear circumstances.
Dr Laura was leading a team of scholars among them Thandiwe Wilson, (Research Assistant Pitt Rivers Museum), Marina de Alarcon, (Head of Collections, Pitt Rivers Museum), Jessica Frankopan (The Staples TrustIliane) and Ogilvie Thompson (Pit Rivers Museum Board). After the cleansing ceremony, the two sides will now discuss the return of artefacts to the affected families and the community and possible compensation for the loss of lives.
The four affected families, Sulul and Mpaima families in Morijo Loita, Sayialel family in Naikarra village in Narok West, and the Moseka family in Nothern Tanzania were identified as the owners of the objects found in the museum following the guidance of the Maasai chief Loibon Mokombo Ole Simel.
“After we learned that we have some objects that were problematic, our next stage was to work with the Chief Maasai Oloibon to steer the way forward on how we can reconcile with the Maasai community and heal the situation, and we aped their tradition of handing over 49 cows to the affected families to allow talks to start on how the ornaments reached our library and how they can be returned and possible compensation,” said Dr Laura during the ceremony.
“Many of the objects in our museum were collected during the colonial times, many of them were gifted and are okay, but some are problematic because they were never supposed to have been in the museum, and records about them were not clear on how they landed there,” she added.
She said several videos and consultation with elders proved that the objects originated from the Maasai people living in Kenya and Tanzania and along the way many of the owners might have been killed during the process.
“There were several objects that were recognized by Mukombo (Olaibooni). He helped to identify the families which the objects originated from,” she said.
The objects were discovered after a group of Maasai visited Oxford in 2017 as part of an effort to retrieve sacred objects held by the Pitt Rivers Museum.
This is after the Pitt Rivers Museum contacted indigenous peoples directly among them the Maasai about restoring articles as part of the Living Cultures project which works to represent the history and narratives behind artefacts held in museum collections, relating the impact of the colonial past to the present.
Starting in 2017, Living Cultures is a partnership between Maasai representatives from Tanzania and Kenya, the Pitt Rivers Museum and InsightShare and have been spearheading the reparation process.
The Maasai visit came after the Director of a non-governmental organization Pan Africa Living Culture Alliance Samuel Nangiri, a Maasai from Tanzania, visited the Pitt Rivers during a culture conference.
“When I came across the Objects, I asked hard questions on the labels attributed to some of the objects in the museum, like what does ‘collected’ meant? Like when you find something in a forest, so not donated, and not robbed? And how did these sacred ornaments reach here, who brought them,” said Nangiri during the event.
After his visit to the museum, Nangiri returned back to Tanzania and Kenya and consulted the elders on his findings before leading a delegation of seven representatives of the Maasai community to Oxford at the invitation of Laura, director of the Pitt Rivers and Insight Share organisation, to determine where and when the objects were taken.
Among the delegation was the son of the chief Loibon, Lemaron Ole Parit, a spiritual leader with mystical powers and out of 188 Maasai artefacts in the museum, Parit identified five ornaments he thinks are “culturally sensitive enough to warrant a return.”
"The identified artefacts are important to the Maasai because they represent the continuation of a dead person’s life like a member of the community dies, the artefacts are won by the family and are as equally as important as a dead body," said Amos Leuka, a member of the delegation.
Leuka said the five objects were a metallic bracelet known by the Maasai language as ‘Olkatarr’ which is key in Maasai inheritance that symbolizes the transfer of responsibility from the departed head of a family to his sons meant to family lineage.
The second is a ceremonial headgear known as ‘Isikira’ won by girls who have been circumcised and are in seclusion which symbolizes the right of passage, transfer of responsibility and status and enhances the connection between the mother and the daughter.
Another that under the key and lock in the museum is a necklace known as ‘emonyorit’ which symbolizes marriage and is a pillar of inheritance on the girl's side.
‘Enkononkoi Narok’ is another necklace the community claims is very sacred as it is a key object in all Maasai ceremonies especially circumcision ceremonies, and is regarded as an ornament of the life of the community.
When boys are circumcised they were some headgear on both sides of the head that resemble earphones known by the locals as ‘Isuritia’ which identify them among community members on the stage they are in as special and can sleep in any home and given food since they are known to be in seclusion.
According to Nangiri, the ornaments are too sacred to an extent that they cannot be given out of the family lineage or even sold to outsiders and finding them in the Museum raised questions on how such objects had found their way there, and who could be the original owner of the objects.
Nick Lunch, director of InsightShare, an Oxford-based NGO that has worked with indigenous communities for over 20 years, blamed the colonialists for the atrocities saying they are egocentric and separate from the rest of the world and that is why they need forgiveness and healing.
“We are not connected in the land, and we have no knowledge of indigenous people like the Maasai who understand how to care for each other, take care of wildlife, how to design societies with respect which in western culture have never been there and we always want everything for ourselves in whatever way,” said Lunch who attended the ceremony.
Top Maasai leadership led by Governor Patrick Ntutu, former governor Samuel Tunai, Narok South MP Kitilai Ole Ntutu, Emurua Dikirr MP Johana Ngeno and County Women Representative Rebecca Tonkei witnessed the cleansing ceremony and hailed the process.
Governor Ntutu said the day is very important as it brings good relations with the Britains who had taken their sacred objects to their country after allegedly killing members of the community during the colonial era.
”The team from Oxford today, agreed that there were injustices committed against the Maasai people during the colonial era and this process has just started. We will engage each other until the dark past left by British colonialists is done with,” said Ntutu.
Former Governor Samuel Tunai challenged young people and scholars to write books on how the Maasai community were also involved in the fight for the liberation of the country and independence where many Maasais lost life, lost property and inheritance taken abroad under unclear circumstances.
Tunai said the ceremony is very important and asked the current leadership to continue pursuing other objects that could have been captured by the colonial government.
The Women Representative Rebecca Tonkei asked Oxford University to open the oxford university branch in the Maa land as a sign of good relations between Kenya and Britain and compensation to the community for past atrocities.