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NORMAL - A local anthropologist who spent nearly two decades solving a global mystery joined a Kenyan village last week to celebrate the return of two stolen ceremonial statues, one of which had been housed for some time at Illinois State University.

Linda Giles of Normal and her Kentucky colleague Monica Udvardy have been sending e-mails to Illinois State Museum officials in Springfield, offering accounts of the historic events unfolding in the Chalani village on the Swahili Coast.

This week, the pair continues research in the village.

Jonathan Reyman, Illinois State Museum anthropology curator, called the artifacts' return to Kenya unprecedented.

"This was the first time for such a return. The Kenyan government didn't have a protocol in place," so much of the event was history in the making, he said Monday from his Springfield office.

In an e-mail sent to him Thursday, the women called observing the historic repatration process research in itself, describing the experience as "fascinating."

Artifacts generally can't be traced to their original owners. However, Udvardy and Giles managed to do just that. The two met at a professional conference and matched a photo of Kenyan Kalume Mwakiru's statues to two statues later found among university collections. But it took almost 20 years.

When ISU closed its museum in 2001, the state museum took the school's African collection that contained 38 vigango - wooden statues that are carved and painted into simple human forms and erected to honor deceased ancestors.

In September, the state museum hosted a delegation of Kenyan officials who formally reclaimed the kigango (the singular form of the word) found in the Illinois collection. Since that time, the Kenyans have worked out an arrangement with Hampton University in Virginia to have the kigango loaned to Kenya, said Reyman.

Last week, Kenyan officials held the formal return celebration. The Mwakiru vigango were cemented into the ground, and a steel enclosure was erected to protect them from future robbery attempts, said Reyman.

Feast welcomes their return

In their e-mails to Reyman, Giles and Udvardy described a National Museums of Kenya-sponsored village feast, dances by the local Giriama people, speeches by dignataries and members of the social groups involved. Among those attending was Morris Dzoro, Kenya's tourism and wildlife minister.

Besides the ceremony, the Kenyan government also helped with some repairs on homes for the Mwakiru homestead.

Giles and Udvardy planned to spend this week in the Chalani village interviewing members of the Gohu society, which create the vigango.

The anthropologists are working on a film documentary about international art smuggling, focusing on vigango theft.

Reyman said the museum would entertain legitimate claims to any kigango remaining in the state museum. But, he said the odds of their owners being able to find them are unlikely.

Until then, the museum can preserve them in a humidity-controlled environment. But some good may still come:

"It's been gratifying to be able to return these. We're hoping people see this, and it stops the theft of others," Reyman said.

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