Illicit trafficking of cultural properties ranks third after trafficking of minerals and drugs, warns principal curator at National Museum & Art Gallery, Winani Kgwatalala.
She is an ethno historian with 25-years work experience in the ethnology division of the museum and is also reading for her PhD on the same subject. Much of our cultural objects like Basarwa’s bow and arrows and clothes and lately rhino horns and elephants tusks among many others, were misappropriated during three distinct periods - first contact with Europeans; colonial period and post-colonial period to foreign lands where they are currently held in museums and are generating huge revenues and incomes for their countries.
This phenomenon, says Kgwatalala, has engendered what is now known as the ‘migrated museum’ whereby cultural objects are found in foreign museums. In fact Kgwatalala makes an astonishing claim that the world’s known largest meteorites – fragments of natural rocks or metals that reaches the earth’s surface from outer space – were found at Kuke in Botswana and then stolen by the Germans during the colonial period and are currently being kept in German museums.
For these reasons, the ethno historian advises Batswana going for studies outside, especially in Europe and the Americas, to make it a habit to visit museums there so they can get to see the large collections of our cultural heritage that were stolen and trafficked to the Diaspora.
These objects and artefacts found their way outside through various forms of manipulation and deceit. In some cases the colonial masters and some of their subjects collected these objects under the guise of research; through excavations or outright looting to keep as private collections or to sell to museums in their countries of origin. The looting continues to this day, aided and abetted in most cases, by conditions of war and conflict in Africa.Kgwatalala says that the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have since developed various legal instruments (Conventions) to respond to these challenges although sadly, not many African countries have ratified them. Botswana is working around the clock to ratify these conventions so that she can recover her cultural heritage in the Diaspora or at least have access to it for purposes of research and knowledge sharing.
The instruments include the 1970 Convention on Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Properties, which according to Kgwatalala gives member states leverage to open dialogue with those that have appropriated the cultural heritage; the 1954 Convention on Protection of Cultural Property, which safeguards cultural heritage in cases of armed conflict. Here, Kgwatalala cautions that terrorists often target museums for bombing in times of conflict, so as to loot the museums of their vast cultural properties and sell them for millions to finance their wars.
The convention also extends to assist during natural disasters such as earth quakes and floods by providing and mobilising international experts to salvage cultural properties for safekeeping. These two conventions says Kgwatalala, are hosted by UNESCO which is based in Geneva, Switzerland. She says the UN organisation gave them funds to do awareness campaigns about these conventions and to set on train the process of domesticating them. The last instrument is the UNIDROIT (Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention which is hosted in Italy but works with UNESCO, as it compliment the 1970 convention on illicit trafficking of cultural properties. Kgwatalala says UNIDROIT provides for legal experts to argue cases for the restitution of cultural properties.
Botswana is almost through with the process of ratification of these conventions. Kgwatalala says they have done community awareness about these conventions by addressing kgotla meetings and council meetings; engaged an expert attorney on cultural heritage in Africa from Senegal to align the conventions with existing laws such as the Monuments and Relics Act; formed a national reference committee composed of all critical stakeholders and have been to the inter-ministerial committee on conventions and protocols which gave them the go ahead.
“We are just waiting for a cabinet memo,” and then the process of domestication will be complete, says Kgwatalala. Once ratified, it is hoped Botswana will then embark on the onerous and often painstaking process of reclaiming her cultural properties from the Diaspora- a process that will hark back to the restitution of El-Negro. But Kgwatalala is confident that where there is a will there is a way. As for the meteorites, she says that they know that they are in Germany but don’t yet know the exact museums where they are being kept. However, cooperation by member states that have acceded to these UNESCO conventions will make their work much easier to reclaim what rightfully belongs to them. However, the convention for the restitution of cultural heritage has an inhibiting clause that exempts cultural properties stolen or trafficked before colonial periods from being reclaimed.Asked if they are aware of the existence of these magnificent stones, officials of the Botswana Geo-Science Institute (formerly department of geological surveys) Mojaboswa Koketso and Dr. Gomotsang Tshoso expressed surprise. While they did not know about these “rare” stones, they knew about the incident in the Tuli Block area where not so long ago, there were reports from Stellenbosch University that meteorites would fall there.
“We did send our team to the area to look for remains after reports that people in the area had witnessed magnificent lighting in the sky, but they did not find anything,” said Koketso.Dr Tshoso said the meteorites are fragments of rocks that fall from space as a result of activity in the stratosphere and may cause natural disasters like fires, earthquakes, depression or even wipe out a whole town, depending on their size. Meteorites are those ‘shining stars’ that frequently shoot across the galaxy like burning balls, but what eventually falls to the earth surface are fragments of the iron rich rocks.
Koketso added that the benefits of meteorites are that they attract geologists, scientists and thereby promote tourism in the area they have fallen. Kgwatalala makes a link between cultural heritage and intellectual property, saying there are certain properties and artefacts that fall with the spiritual realm and cannot be allowed to remain outside their places of origin.