Bring back vigango to their rightful locations

Malindi District Cultural Association Chairman Mr Joseph Mwarandu is among those who have been campaigning for the return of the vigango. PHOTO| GEORGE KIKAMI

What you need to know:

  • When a Mijikenda family migrates, the family members do carry the vigango with them to the new home because that is considered as disturbing the spirits of the dead.
  • The kigango of a migrating family is normally left in the abandoned home (ganzoni) and instead, a piece of wood called kibao is carried and installed in the new home to represent it.
  • If the deceased was a  koma, a twig (mkone) from a tree is erected in the new home (chengoni) to represent it.

Vigango, (singular kigango) play a central role in the lives of the Mijikenda, yet for a long time they have been treated simply as African traditional artefacts for sale, with many having been sold to foreigners, who took them abroad.

A kigango is a carved piece of hardwood of abstract human shape with a head and a long, straight body measuring about three to nine feet. Vigango are erected on top of a grave or at a kigojo, a structure where male elders hold their meetings.

Vigango represent the spirit of the Mijikenda’s departed ancestors. They were used mostly by the Giryama people, and can be seen as representing life after death.  The Mijikenda believe that people do not die but transit from the physical body to a spiritual body, which is represented on earth by a kigango.

Vigango demonstrate the concept of unity in a Mijikenda family, which  comprises the unborn, the living, and the dead. The unborn is considered a member of the family and, therefore, abortion is prohibited in the community. Similarly, the dead, while physically gone, are still considered members of the family. 

A kigango represents the departed soul (roho iriyouka), which continues to participate in all matters concerning the homestead and community in spiritual form. In case a decision needs to be made regarding marriage, or calamities or on any issue relating to the family, the kigango is consulted. It is addressed by the name of the deceased, as if one is addressing someone who is actually present.

In fact, even before eating or drinking palm wine, a Mijikenda pours casts a little food or pours a little palm wine on the ground to show that he or she is sharing his or her food and drink with the ancestors.

Kenga Mitsanze, a kaya elder in Kilifi County looks at Vigango (wooden carvings), which play a central role in Mijikenda religious and cultural life. PHOTO | GEORGE KIKAMI


The Mijikenda pray to God through vigango, and that is why they say “Koma tsi mulungu dzulu” (koma on earth and God in heaven). There is a difference between the koma and vigango. Koma are short, memorial statues that are made to represent ordinary people who have died while vigango are tall memorial statues which represent departed souls and are made for members of the Gohu, the society’s religious leaders and law makers.  These aremen in the Gohu society only. The Gohu are both religious leaders (clergy) and law makers (legislature) among the Mijikenda.

When a Mijikenda family migrates, the family members do carry the vigango with them to the new home because that is considered as disturbing the spirits of the dead. The kigango of a migrating family is normally left in the abandoned home (ganzoni) and instead, a piece of wood called kibao is carried and installed in the new home to represent it.

If the deceased was a  koma, a twig (mkone) from a tree is erected in the new home (chengoni) to represent it.


The vigango signify the importance of the clergy in the traditional religion of the Mijikenda. The Gohu are the clergy and deal with any issues to do with the community’s traditional religion. They double up as law makers, so the kigango installed for a Gohu signifies the respect he is given in the community.

Whenever calamity strikes the community, the Gohu pray to the ancestors through the vigango. The vigango are addressed by name and prayers offered to them, and they in turn convey  the petitions to the supreme God, Mulungu. So the departed souls (ancestors), through the vigango, act as mediators between God and the Mijikenda people.  

In addition, the vigango look after the welfare of the people. Whenever a sickness strikes in the community, the ancestors are consulted through the vigango and rituals to appease the spirits conducted. If the spirits are appeased, the sickness is treated. 

The vigango also issue warnings of impending calamities. These warnings are mostly given in dreams. Members of the departed family might see the dead in their dreams and have a conversation during which the message is conveyed directly and in a simple manner or in the form of a metaphor or parable which is analysed or interpreted by the community’s elders.

For example, if there is impending drought and hunger, the ancestor might come in a dream looking emaciated, and with a bowl begging for food. This is a warning to the community of the disaster that lies ahead.

Mr Joseph Mrombo, a laboratory Technician at the National Museums of Kenya in this 2014 photo with some of the vigango that had been returned from the US in 2007. PHOTO| FILE

If this happens, the elders intervene and pray to the ancestors (through the vigango) to convery their petitions to Mulungu not to bring such a disaster upon them. Thereafter, rituals are conducted and sacrifices offered to ward off the disaster.

Given that vigango are a representation of departed family members on earth and sometimes control family issues, they have to be handled with care.

After  a family leaves one homestead to establish a new one and leaves its vigango behind,  elders in the community continue to visit the old home to take care of the vigango and perform the necessary rituals to keep the deceased’s spirit at peace.  


Since vigango look like very special artworks, foreign tourists started collecting them, especially in the 1980s.  However, they did not know anything about their cultural and religious significance. They used the local people, especially the youth, to collect the vigango for them. The youth saw a business opportunity in supplying the tourists with the vigango and failed  to take into consideration the religious and cultural implications of their actions. The biggest markets for the vigango were Europe and the US. These carvings were displayed in exhibitions and were sold at very high prices. For example, it is reported that an ordinary kigango would fetch between $1,000 (Sh101,000) and  $4,000 (Sh404,000).

There was a booming trade in the vigango in the 1980s, when tourists would buy the carvings and other artefacts and take them abroad.  Some of them bought the carvings as decorative pieces for display in their homes while others bought them for resale. 

The tourists bought the vigango simply as art pieces for display, completely unaware of their religious and cultural significance. In the 1980s and 1990s, vigango were openly displayed and sold in hotels, galleries and tourist shops. 

As earlier mentioned, a Giryama family can move a number of  times, leaving its vigango in abandoned homestead, where they can easily be taken away. However, it is important to note that even if a kigango is left in an abandoned homestead, tampering with it, and by extension disturbing the spirits of the ancestors, it forbidden The Mijikenda believe that anyone who disturbs a kigango will be cursed by the ancestors, which can result in misfortune to the offender, or even to the whole community. It is believed that removing a kigango from the kigojo can have catastrophic consequences for the offender  such as madness, illness, a family member getting lost, discord in the  family, loss of harvest or livestock, drought, flooding or having children with different types of disabilities, among others. 

In most cases, those who supplied the vigango to the market were local unemployed youth who were seeking ways to earn a living. 

However, the Mijikenda view vigango thieves as social outcasts and are worried  about the vigango trade. In fact, Mijikenda elders say that a kigango thief should pay the customary fine for murder because a kigango represents an ancestor. They insist that a stolen kigango should be brought back home because the kigango represents a family member who should be reunited with his family. They stress that a kigango should never be removed from its original position or else it becomes restless.



Concerted efforts to bring back the vigango

In the recent past, the National Museums of Kenya have put a lot of effort in trying to stop the vigango trade. However, this has been quite difficult because some of these carvings were been bought by individuals and, consequently, are now private property. That is one of the reasons why getting vigangos back to their original homes has been a challenge. 

A lot of effort has been made to get the artefacts back with the help of scholars and individuals who have a lot of interest in preserving the culture of the Mijikenda.  They include  anthropologist Monica Udvardy of the University of Kentucky, cultural anthropologist Linda Giles, John Mitsanze and  Dr Tsawe Munga Chodongo, a lecturer at Pwani University.

They have called for the repatriation of vigango to the Mijikenda people as a way of preserving the community’s religion, culture and traditions.

However, more commitment from the Kenyan Government and other stakeholders is needed to ensure successful repatriation of the vigango. For instance, some Mijikenda elders say that some vigango which were brought back from abroad are still lying in the Museum at Fort Jesus and no efforts have been made so far to return them to their owners.

Another lot is said to be detained at the airport since duty has not been paid for it yet.

Then there are others that were released in February 2014 from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado, US, and were to be brought back but no follow up has been made so far.

Mijikenda elders say the vigango should not be displayed in museums or detained at airports because they do not belong there. They insist that efforts should be made to return them to their rightful owners and in their original positions. 

They add that the vigango will continue to be restless until they are returned to their original homes. When the vigango are finally returned, certain rituals will have to be conducted before they are re-installed in their original positions in the homesteads.

The Mijikenda elders are, therefore, asking the government to take up the matter and facilitate the release of the vigango  in the museums, as well as those detained at the airport and those in other parts of the world  so that they can be taken back to their original homesteads.

The elders say they must be involved in the process so that the proper procedures can be followed in the re-installation of the vigango in their original positions.

They warn that unless  the vigango  are reunited with their families, the Mijikenda will continue experience calamities because their ancestral spirits are restless.


Dr Ngowa is a lecturer in the Department of Languages, Linguistics and Literature, at Pwani University, Kilifi