Africa robbed of treasures

2005-02-06 10:12

Dakar - The recent seizure of a huge collection of stolen west African art is a bright spot in the sad story of antiquities protection on the world's poorest continent, which has robbed Africans of chapters of their history.

French customs agents searching for drugs intercepted a shipment from the desert state of Niger bound for Belgium in early January.

The 845-piece collection, dating as far back as 70 million years ago, includes antiquities of incalculable value, ranging from dinosaur teeth to neolithic arrowheads and ancient pottery.

While this seizure is notable for the size and breadth of the artefacts contained within the collection, such caches of treasures smuggled out of the continent and into private collections or curio shops around the world are neither rare nor exclusive to Niger.

Virtually every African nation can cite stories of smugglers making off with priceless objects, with tourists, professional collectors and even government officials complicit in the robbery of national treasures.

Mali's Niger Delta region and Dogon country are favourite targets of smugglers, according to Boubacar Hama Diaby, the director of the west African state's cultural mission based in the central town of Djenne.

Living in a string of villages nestled below an escarpment running along the spine of Mali, the Dogon people are among the most important guardians of animist culture, whose rites and rituals are the stuff of legend.

Their masks, carved granary doors and indigo cloth have been mass produced to satisfy the legions of tourists who tramp through the ancient villages to find relics of the pigmies who lived in huts or caves carved into the escarpment hundreds of years earlier.

But other, more seasoned collectors, want something real - a mask that has been danced, for example, or an ancient door carved with the crocodiles, birds and spirits that are prominent in Dogon literature.

Stiff fines and jail terms

And while the prices they offer for such items to the desperately poor Dogon can be a lifeline for individuals, they are contributing to the wiping out of the cultural inheritance of future generations, not only of Dogon but of all Malians, said Diaby.

Both Mali and Niger have taken steps to try and curb illegal smuggling of antiquities, issuing stiff fines and jail terms for anyone caught doing so.

The problem, however, is that recovery of stolen goods takes time and money, more money than many of these cash-strapped governments can afford.

That French authorities were able to recover the cache of artefacts and are disposed to returning them is a boon to Niger, among the world's poorest countries.