In an article entitled Honour Amongst Thieves Guardian columnist Philip Hensher offers an interesting argument in favour of Western nations keeping hold of historical artifacts and national treasures that rightfully belong to African nations. Using Sudan as an example he states that;
In many instances, national treasures are better off outside their countries of origin â€“ better cared for, receiving more attention, and more accessible.
Hensher does note that;
- These items are in fact stolen treasures; and
- Sudan is a war torn country.
Unfortunately, Hensher’s acknowledgment of these two facts make it even more difficult for me to accept his argument.
Having never witnessed a war first hand I may be wrong (but I doubt it) in my assumption that most Africans, when faced with death, would opt to save lives at the expense of a monument. Certainly as an African woman, who values human life above all else, I would make sure that my family members, neighbours and friends were safe before I searched for any heirlooms.
I think it insulting to label us incapable of looking after our own treasures on the grounds that in times of crisis we seek to save our people first. What seems to escape Hensher is that during and after times of war when we fail to label the items in our museum it is not because we do not value them as individual items but because we value our entire history. This history includes the lifeless heirlooms and the people who contributed towards their creation and those who maintain their existence. Irrespective of how valuable these items are; they are worthless without a people, alive, fit and well who can narrate the histories that these artifacts represent.
As for attempting to justify why the West should keep these pilfered goods; what can one say? It is this same warped logic that the colonialists used when they first arrived in Africa. While preaching to us that all are equal in the eyes of the Lord, they forced us to accept that we were inferior to them. Hensher, on the one hand kindly acknowledges that the West has no claim to any of these items but at the same time is forcing me to accept that because he has decided that we are incapable of looking after what is ours, it is in everybodyâ€™s interest if they do so on our behalf. We didnâ€™t believe it then and I am certainly not convinced now.
What I would really like to know is where does one draw the line? At present this argument is limited to those items that can be moved but what about those treasures that can not moved? What happens when some Western country decides that we can not care for Mount Kirinyaga and decides to send over some of their people to ensure its maintenance and upkeep? What if they decide that we have incorrectly labeled the mountain and it should in fact be called Mount Kenya?