A few years ago, retired American actor and novelist Eugene Hackman and a Hollywood film producer, Art Linson, donated some 30 totems to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado.
The problem was that these hardwood grave markers had been stolen from Kenya and sold by art dealers in the US for up to $10,000 (Sh1 million).
In essence, they were the preserve of the rich and famous; the celebrities in Hollywood.
Luckily, some of these ended up with two collectors – who then donated them to a museum in Colorado. These sacred items, known as vigango among the Miji Kenda, were returned to Kenya this week in a ceremony that marked the beginning of a tortuous negotiation to have the artefacts returned to the country.
The return of the vigango is part of a larger effort to stop the trafficking and the illicit trade of cultural items into Western museums and celebrity homes – and also the return of items looted during the colonial and post-independent Africa.
One of the scientist opined that because they suffered from dental problems, the lions discovered that human beings were easier to catch and chew.
Those who have visited Western museums have come across thousands of artistic and cultural paraphernalia put on display.
I am not sure how Britain would react if Kenya was holding the crown of their King in Nairobi. But western museums get away with such theft.
For years, Britain had held onto Nandi king Koitalel arap Samoei’s three wooden staffs that had been kept by the family of the late Richard Meinertzhagen – the man who murdered the king.
His son returned them in 2006, but Samoei’s skull, lion-skin cape and headgear are still missing.
At times, cultural artefact activists have to stage global campaigns to convince nations to hand over such items as a sign of good gesture.
I still remember the spirited fight by Ethiopia to get back the 180-tonne obelisk that had for ages stood outside the Food and Agriculture Organisation headquarters in Rome.
This was one of the six obelisks dating over 3,000 years and which had been erected at Axum when Ethiopia adopted Christianity under emperor Ezana in the fourth century.
Before the Axum stelae, as it is known, was returned to Ethiopia, Italy used to argue that they had naturalised the pillar – after possessing it for more than 60 years – and that it was fragile.
What we know from history is that when fascist Mussolini stole the obelisk, he wanted to take away Ethiopia’s main symbol of heritage.
The Italians fought back with excuses and pseudo-determination: that the obelisk was fragile; that it had been restored with metal rods in embedded concrete and that it was impossible to disassemble.
We were also told that it could not be transported overland and that only two aircraft in the world – The American built Lockhead C5-A Galaxy and the Russian Antonov An-124 – could transport it.
Those who do not want to give back these artefacts argue there is no international law governing such sales.
But we have many instruments that protect nations from both cultural and archaeological plunder.
The problem is that smuggled cultural objects are now being used by terrorists to raise money and finance war.
We now know from Iraq and Syria wars that priceless historical items have been sold to collectors and the money used to finance arms deals and the activities of extremist groups.
Actually, Interpol has raised concern that the illicit trade in artefacts and cultural objects is one of the main avenues for money laundering.
While large-scale looting is not legally possible following the 1970 “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”, it has not deterred crooks and collectors from engaging in such trade.
The return of the vigango is another major triumph for Africa. In 2003, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe managed to get the “Zimbabwe Bird” from a museum in Germany.
While such milestones are hardly recorded in Western media, they are small steps towards the recovery of thousands of totems stolen from Africa.
The Zimbabwe Bird is the country’s emblem and was one of the seven known bird carvings that had for years stood at the Great Zimbabwe archaeological site.