African Tribes mourn theft of burial statues for Western collectors

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Statues sacred to secretive Kenyan tribes are no longer being erected to mark the deaths of revered elders because corrupt middlemen contracted by Western art dealers are stealing them as soon as they are installed.

Hundreds of "vigango" totems have been looted from rural homesteads near Kenya's coast, home to the Mijikenda tribes about which little is known.

The 4ft wooden statues, carved with triangular etchings and believed to incarnate the spirits of dead elders, are shipped via dealers living in luxury beachside villas to private collectors in the United States and Europe.

"Moving these objects goes against every cultural and spiritual belief of these people, and they are too afraid to put them up now because they are sure they will be stolen," said Monica Udvardy, anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky and a specialist in east African tribal customs.

"It would be like us stealing our grandfather's tombstone or our grandmother's ashes, and selling them."

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