Dekolonial Erinnern … für postkoloniale Beziehungsethik
Decolonial memories … for postcolonial relational ethics

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German Colonial Restitution Monitor

Address presented by his Majesty the Fon of Fontem on 30th March 2024

On the occasion of the handing over ceremony of some Bangwa sculptures to his Majesty the Fon of Fontem by the Sysy or RegARTless House of Fame:

  • Your Royal Highnesses, Chiefs and Mafuas;
  • Notables;
  • The Coordinator of the Muna’s Foundation – Barrister Akere Muna;
  • The Founder and President of the Sysy House of Fame (Madame Sylvie Njobati);
  • The Managing Director of the Sysy or RegARTless House of Fame (Mr Anyi Okoro);
  • Distinguished members of the RegARTless House of Fame;
  • The President General of the Lebang Cultural and Development Organisation (LECUDO);
  • All branch presidents of LECUDO here present;
  • Distinguished guests in your various ranks and prerogatives;
  • My dear and beloved Lebang people;
  • Ladies and Gentlemen.

Minute of Silence

On a day like this, I am a very happy and proud Fon of Fontem. I have a lot to say here today, but before I go any further, I wish to invite you all to please rise for a minute of silence in honour of monarchs, chiefs and notables who began the fight for the return of our artefacts and who were called to the world beyond without seeing their dreams come to reality. I am thinking of HM Fon Fontem Njifua and Ndi Nkematem Asonganyi. May their souls and the souls of all fatefully departed rest peacefully in the bosom of God Almighty.

Revered Lebang art

In the world of art, Lebang Fondom ranks among the most well known in Africa. In 1990, a statue from Lebang, called Ngwi Ndem, was sold in New York City for $3.47 million, and described then as the highest amount ever fetched for an art piece from Sub-Saharan Africa. Art from Lebang Fontem is highly prized by collectors and museums. Lebang art pieces currently grace the display cases of some of the most renown museums in the world, from Washington, D.C. to Chicago to New Orleans to New York to Paris to London and even to Japan.

Ngwi Ndem, “woman of God”

Lebang art is so revered that pieces set to be sold get bought once the auction is launched. Furthermore, buyers choose on remaining anonymous so as to avoid being the targets of art thieves. During the sale of the Bangwa Queen, known in Nweh as Ngwi Ndem, in 1990, it was rumored that the buyer was a private collector from Japan who sent in his bid privately. Ngwi Ndem, the “woman of God” to the Lebang people of centuries past, symbolized the high priestess of the Eseih (Earth) society, the society that blesses the people of the Fondom and brings fertility to its women and abundant crop harvest to the people.

Tanyi at Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ngwi Ndem did not leave Lebang alone. She left Fontem with a male counterpart, called Tanyi, a fact that is little known. This is because Tanyi, the father of twins and high priest of the Eseih society, was separated from his female counterpart Ngwi Ndem and sold to private owners. Tanyi eventually made his way to the family art collection of one of America’s richest families, the Rockefeller Family, from which Nelson Rockefeller donated this masterpiece to the Metropolitan Museum of New York City (the MET) in 1967. May I state here that, during his maiden visit to the United States of America in 1993, His Majesty Fon Fontem Njifua together with some Lebang notables visited Tanyi at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. They saw Tanyi standing his regal prominence, holding rattles in his hands for the performance of Eseih fertility dance in a stance that clearly demonstrated motion (dancing) and singing. Some of those notables with whom the Fon visited Tanyi are right here with us today. I am here referring to Mbe Tazi and Ndi Nkem Ngu John.

Fontem artefacts looted by Germany

As it came to be demonstrated, Tanyi and Ngwi Ndem, accompanied by hundreds of art pieces from Fontem, were taken to Germany by Gustav Conrau and ended up in museums in Berlin. They were subsequently taken from Germany to other museums around the world. Today, Ngwi Ndem (the Bangwa Queen) is in the Dapper Foundation in Paris, France, and we have made a restitution request to this foundation.

The Germany Expeditionary Campaign which saw my people being subjected to collective punishment and enduring misery as well as the looting away of our artefacts many of which were meant for spiritual purposes, cleansing, blessing and protection of the land left an indelible mark in the lives of the people of Lebang Fondom.

Glaring impact of absence

As the spiritual and natural ruler of the Lebang people, King Fontem Defang, frequently invoked the spirit of his father, King Fontem Asonganyi, to intervene for the return of all Lebang treasures looted away by Conrau and the German troops. The impact of the absence of these treasures of Lebang looted away were very glaring. Children died, crop yield dwindled over the years and the orphans and widows of the men taken away by Conrau and who have remained unaccountable till today as well as those killed as a result of the punitive actions of the German troops on Lebang people suffered.

Barrister Charles Taku commissioned

Succeeding his father, His Majesty Fon Fontem Njifua took the fight for the return of Lebang artefacts a step further. The absence of Lebang artefacts especially those with spiritual powers like the Bangwa Queen and King, the staffs of authority of Asonganyi, Lefem status just to name these few made his rein over his people more difficult. Instead of just praying and pouring libations like his predecessor did, he went in search of these artefacts and sought for their return. It was for this purpose that he commissioned his son, Barrister Charles Taku, a decendant of King Fontem Asonganyi, whom we know traditionally as HRH Fuatabongache, to be his eyes, ears, and mouthpiece with which he spoke to all the responsible people of any museum all over the world where Bangwa artefacts are on display.

Fierce pursuit of our artefacts

Upon ascending to the coveted throne of Lebang, I did not only pray and invoke our ancestors, but I equally reiterated the assignment which my father had given to HRH Fuatabongache. Together with Ndi Nkematem Asonganyi (Dr. Atem George) of blessed memory, Dr. Diane Acha Morfaw (HRH Mafua Ngolefe), Dr. Nkobena Bonifac (HRH Fuankengateh), all descendants of King Fontem Asonganyi, HRH Fuatabongache put up a fierce pursuit for our artefacts reaching out to any and every museum where Bangwa artefacts are kept. God Almighty and our ancestors who always listen to us when we cry, soon began opening up doors for us. Some responsible people of some museums began responding to some correspondences sent to them while others did not.

Responses from Hanover, Brunswick and Cologne

On the 28th of June 2021, Prof. Dr. Katja Lembke, Director of the State Museum Hanover and Spokeswoman of the PAESE Joint Project, invited HRH Fuatabongache to partake in the joint research project “Provenance Research on Non-European Collections and Ethnology in Lower Saxony”. This invitation was closely followed by another invitation on the 30th of June 2021 from Dr. Peter Joch, Director of the Municipal Museum of Brunswick. This second invitation which was a result of the new insights of the ongoing PAESE Project and was meant for him in his capacity as my official representative as well as a descendant of Fontem Asonganyi to identify and then examine the origin and the circumstances of the acquisition of the Bangwa artefacts in their collection.

Official restitution request

The above invitations opened room for further communication which led me to officially address a restitution request to the Lord Mayor of Brunswick as well as to the Director of the Municipal Museum. In my letter, I expressed the desire to come personally to Germany and visit and identify our artefacts kept in their museum. In his reply letter, the Lord Mayor regretted the punitive actions on our people by the German colonial masters, a past they are not proud of. He acknowledged our artefacts which are in their museums and heartily expressed his desire to receive me and my delegation to Brunswick. While we were preparing for this historic visit, another request came from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum in Cologne where our Lefem Sculpture is located. This could only be through the power of our ancestors.

Travel to Germany

From the 9th to the 15th of July 2022, I led a delegation to Germany, first to Cologne and then to Brunswick. There, we saw with joy and pain our long-lost artefacts. Prominent amongst them where the Lefem sculpture, the royal staffs of authority of Fontem Asonganyi, sculptures of the Kungang secret society, Fon Asonganyi’s pipe, Lebang war armouries such as spears, machetes and arrows, horse tails, just to name these few. This historic visit was immortalised when I was given the opportunity to sign the Golden Book in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Brunswick. In a nutshell, the Lord Mayor and the directors of the two museums we visited reserved a very warm reception for my delegation and me. While in Germany, we reiterated our restitution request.

Dialogue of governments

Given that most of our artefacts are in the keeping of municipal museums, it will only be proper for the Government of Cameroon to dialogue with the Federal Republic of Germany for the return of our precious artefacts. The ground work has been done and the museums acknowledge that these artefacts belong rightfully to us, but they need our government to support our restitution request. The good news here is that our government, through the Ministry of Arts and Culture, has put in place an Inter-Ministerial Committee in charge of the restitution of Cameroonian cultural properties illegally exported abroad. This committee was in Germany early this year 2024 in the month of January.

Cameroon’s Inter-Ministerial Committee

So far, I have sent two correspondences to this Committee, the first to the head of this Committee who is the Inspector General of the Ministry of Arts and Culture and Coach of Heritage from grass-field in German museums and the second correspondence was sent to the Technical Secretariat of this Committee. In both correspondences, I informed them of the efforts we have made so far and breakthroughs we have achieved so far at the level of the museums. Our fingers remain crossed as we hope that the Committee will write to the museums in Germany to support our claims.

Meeting in Azi Palace

At this junction, I will want to express my sincere appreciation to, first of all, the Sysy House of Fame which is now being rebranded to RegARTless and her founder, Sylvie Njobati, who have gathered us here today the 30th of March 2024. My dear Lebang people, those who say the ancestors are dead, really don’t know what they are talking about. On the 20th of January 2024 during my meeting with the chiefs and notables in Azi Palace, I invited all the chiefs and notables to the German command center located in the palace. In front of this command center, I prayed and invoked the ancestors to help us in our fight for the return of our artefacts. It was from this command center that the German colonial masters administered what they called Fontemdorf.

Living a dream

Barely two months after this meeting, here we are living a dream which our forefathers had desired to live. I received information from the RegARTless House of Fame concerning our artefacts which we are here today to collect. We are here to take back some of our artefacts which have been away from their natural home for over 100 years. Like you will see, most of these artefacts we are receiving today belong to the Kungang society which is the society that cleans witchcraft from the village. I shall not give individual names to each of these artefacts today. Naming them and explaining their various functions is reserved for a much larger ceremony which will take place in Azi Palace when the time is right.

Appreciation to RegARTless and Sylvie Njobati

On this note, I wish to, on behalf of ALL Lebang people all over the world, appreciate Madame Sylvie, the Managing Director of RegARTless House of Fame as well as all the personnel of the RegARTless House of Fame for this magnanimous act they have done. God Almighty and the ancestors of Lebang Fondom will forever bless you people. In our mother tongue, there is a proverb which says, you can never know when a tailless dog is appreciating your good deeds towards it. This is not our case today. The tails of all Lebang people are wagging high up there in appreciation for this memorable gesture you people have done for us. It is my desire that we can become partners and strive together for the return of rest of our precious artefacts still in museums around the world. It is worth noting that your organization is made up of entirely young people. It is amazing to see young people like you lay down your lives, your time, your resources (financial and otherwise) to ensure that valuable works of arts looted and taken away long ago during the colonial era are returned to their natural environment. I have followed with keen interest the lofty work you people have done for the return of the Ngonnso. One thing is sure; one day Ngonnso will return to Nso.

Volunteer work of lawyers and researchers

Secondly, I would like to use this platform and the opportunity to appreciate in a very special way, all the lawyers and researchers who have volunteered to help fight our case. Like you rightly heard me, I said volunteered because we are not paying a franc to them for the great work they have been doing and are still doing for us. These are international lawyers and researchers who have volunteered to fight our case. May Lebang ancestors richly reward you and your families.

Appreciation to Government of Cameroon and Mayors of Cologne and Brunswick

Thirdly, I sincerely appreciate all those who have stood by us throughout this fight, from the beginning till now. In this light, I am thinking of the Sysy House of Fame or RegARTless if you wish, the Lord Mayors of Brunswick and Cologne, and the Government of Cameroon through the Inter-Ministerial Committee. I thank in a special way all Lebang people who have turned out massively today to receive these precious artefacts of ours. Despite the short notice, you have come out in your numbers. I learned about the Whatsapp forum which was created for the purpose of today’s ceremony. From a few members, this forum grew to have over 400 members in just a few days. I have listened to all your ideas and contributions made in this forum.

Our artefacts never forget their home

This act of yours tells me how much joy is in your hearts and how eager you are to have not just these artefacts we are receiving today but all our artefacts still out there back home. I can imagine the joy that will fill your hearts on the day the Bangwa Queen and King, the royal staffs of Fontem Asonganyi and all our other jewels will be returning to us. Just like we anxiously await their return, I can assure you that the song they are singing wherever they are is “oh my home my home, when shall I see my home, when shall I see my native land, I’ll never forget my home”. Our artefacts will never forget their home.

Again, to the RegARTless House of Fame, her founder Sylvie, and her Managing Director Anyi Okro, by this act of today, history will forever remember that you united the Lebang people with some of their lost treasures after more than a century. You have become bonafide members of the Lebang community. Do not relent your efforts in the fight for the return of the rest of our artefacts. Thank you very much.

Historic event

Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you all for your very kind and keen attention. My address has been long but I think it was worth it. I am happy that this historic event is happening during my reign at the helm of the Lebang Kingdom. God bless you all, God bless Lebang, God bless Cameroon.