Mijikenda live in the lands stretching across the border between Kenya (Coast Province, Kwale district, south of Mombasa), and Tanzania (Northeast coast, Tanga area). Some Mijikenda groups worship their ancestors through the construction of wooden memorial statues called vigango (singular: kikango), they believe that vigango bring luck and prosperity to the whole community, particularly to the family of the man being honored, and that vigango are living objects—that they are material manifestations of the souls of departed and honored elders. Stephen E. Nash discusses what foreign dealers and collectors have led to ('The Right to Own Living Memorials', Sapiens 29th Apr 2016).
In the early 1980s, American art dealers seeking to grow their businesses “discovered” vigango. They began to sell them as art objects, ignoring their living, protective value to the Mijikenda. Unemployed young Mijikenda and other men in Kenya and Tanzania were hired by art dealers to steal sacred vigango, selling them to middlemen for as little as $7 each. Once vigango reached the art market in Mombasa or Nairobi, they often fetched a price of several hundred dollars. When art dealerships in the United States obtained them, they typically sold for a few thousand dollars each. Today, prices of up to $15,000 for a single kikango are common at auction houses in the United States. Who profits? Not the men who perpetrated the theft or the source community that suffered the loss. Profits accrue up the chain of possession.Collectors of looted art are the real looters. They create a market for these pieces of worked wood.