In 1902, Jens J. Anderssen, a Norwegian wood trader commissioned to administer the lands of the Pokomo, a small riverine tribe, by the British East Africa Protectorate – the predecessor of the Kenya Colony and, later, independent Kenya – stole the community’s most sacred object, a large drum, at gunpoint.

Six years later, the drum, known in the community as the ngadji, found itself in the ownership of the British Museum, which has kept it in a storage room in East London ever since. Only one Pokomo man, the brother of the current king of the community, has had the privilege of seeing and touching the ngadji in over a hundred years; the museum granted him a visit in 2016.

For years, the elders of the Pokomo have requested the return of their sacred drum. It wasn’t until 2021 that the museum agreed to commence talks about the matter. Reaching this point took 119 years. And, even then, it hasn’t conceded the possibility of relinquishing ownership of the drum; it insists, instead, on merely the possibility of loaning it to the community.

The case of the ngadji epitomises the gathering controversy over the proper handling of cultural artefacts pilfered out of African colonies by European countries. It is a chaotic conversation, with almost as many claims as there are participants. Broadly speaking, there are two camps: on the one hand, the activists and scholars clamouring for the return of all kinds of artefacts, and, on the other, the institutions that must grapple with the issue.

There is no clear line between the two camps. Some institutions, like the British Museum, refuse to consider the ownership question outright. Others, like the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, are unequivocally returning their portion of the famous Benin Bronzes. There are independent actors, such as the non-profit that purchased some of the Maqdala Treasures in order to return them to Ethiopia.

And there’s also plenty of room for virtue signalling. Emmanuel Macron, after establishing through a commissioned report in 2017 that over 90 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is contained in Western museums, promised to much acclaim that, within five years, France would set up the necessary conditions for the “temporary or permanent returns of African heritage to Africa.”

Perhaps the pandemic scuttled those plans. Perhaps he was posturing.

Some things are clear, however. The first is that it is quite difficult, if not impossible, to neatly characterise or draw any general conclusions on these questions, not least because this is a thoroughly modern controversy. For most of human history, after all, it has been normal for the victors to loot and destroy the cultural wealth of the defeated, sometimes gratuitously, often as an expediency of war.

Imperial Rome razed Jerusalem and its temple to the ground. Genghis Khan diverted a river to flood the palace of his defeated enemy. Pizarro and his Spanish conquistadors tricked Inca emperor Atahualpa out of a roomful of golden artefacts. Britain stole a sacred drum from a Kenyan tribe.

In most cases, these losses were accepted, if begrudgingly, by the conquered. Thus the Israelites lament, in their Babylonian exile, as recorded in Psalm 137: “For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

The difference between past and present is that we recognise the evil of cultural rapine and, at least formally, deplore it. We even characterise some cases as war crimes. A whole arm of the United Nations, UNESCO, along with many similar institutions, exist to champion and protect culture and to promote the mutual respect for, and appreciation of, each other’s heritage.

The trouble with these principles, unfortunately, is that they often struggle to survive contact with reality. The tendency of conquerors to attempt cultural erasure hasn’t abated. Thus the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. ISIS desecrated Nimrud in 2015. And Russia has been spiriting away books and artefacts out of Ukrainian libraries and museums since its 2021 invasion.

Additionally, the question of how to deal with artefacts moved before the establishment and wide acceptance of these principles isn’t black and white, despite the insistence of many agitators. The British Museum isn’t being entirely dastardly in its insistence that it owns the pieces in its collections. And the Humboldt Forum isn’t being entirely woke in sending back its Benin Bronzes.

Besides all this, there’s a twilight zone, where practical realities necessitate seemingly arbitrary modes of conduct. In the lead-up to the coronation of Charles III, for instance, Buckingham Palace walked back its plan to crown Camilla with the controversial Koh-i-Noor diamond.

Many saw in this an acknowledgment of the rising power of India, whose Prime Minister had warned that using the Koh-i-Noor would have been insensitive to his country’s painful memories of colonialism.

This view was seemingly bolstered by the fact that no such courtesies were forthcoming for South Africa, from which the controversial Cullinan Diamond, the largest fragments of which adorned the king’s crown and sceptre, was extracted and handed to the royal family in the early 20th century.

Whatever that episode meant, here is another thing that is quite clear: the final word on this matter will not be had for a long time, and there is no telling who will have it. While we await it, however, all parties may avail themselves to few better tools than a spirit of open and lengthy dialogue.

In the meantime, we should all take pride in and celebrate the cultural artefacts we do retain. They might not be everything we want, but they aren’t insignificant.  And in this respect, not even the Pokomo, though they remain one of Kenya’s smallest tribes, are entirely bereft.

For, in 1963, when five musicians were commissioned to compose a national anthem for newly-independent Kenya, they set its lyrics to the tune of a Pokomo lullaby. Think of that the next time a Kenyan athlete takes the podium in your city.

Mathew Otieno

Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and a dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near...