NAIROBI — Kenya is asking that a Chicago museum return the remains of the infamous “Maneaters of Tsavo,” two lions that terrorized workers who built a railroad from Uganda to the Kenyan coast in the 19th Century.
The request from the National Museums of Kenya falls under larger efforts by the Kenyan government to recover fossils, artwork and other artifacts that were sold or looted before Kenya gained independence from Britain in 1963.
The National Museum will reopen at the end of the year after a two-year renovation, and it wants the treasures on display where they came from.
National Museums spokeswoman Connie Maina says Kenya has not asked for many specific items and has made no formal request yet to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Instead, it is calling for countries with Kenyan artifacts to inform the government and then return them.
“What we are saying is if anybody has got any artifacts that belong to Kenya, we would like to bring them back,” said Mania. “As we are doing the history of Kenya, we would like to show Kenyans that this is part of our heritage. As we rewrite Kenyan history in our own way, we would like to know what was available in Kenya at that time, and we are approaching different people who can give us the history which we may not even be aware of so we can tell where we have come from and where we are going as a country.”
The skulls and skins of the two Maneaters of Tsavo are among the most curious of the artifacts Kenya is seeking. The male lions are believed to have killed more than 130 workers who were building a bridge over the Tsavo River as part of the rail line that runs from the Kenyan coast to Uganda.
The lions scavenged human remains from graves and dragged workers from their tents as they slept. Their attacks got so bad that construction was briefly halted. The railway line’s chief engineer, British Lieutenant Colonel John Henry Patterson, killed the Maneaters in 1898 and later sold them for $5,000 to the Field Museum, where they are on display.
A spokesman for the Chicago Museum refused to comment, saying officials have not heard of the request to return the lions.
Kenya has made successful appeals for artifacts in the past. Recently, two universities in the U.S. returned wooden funeral statues known as Vigango. Many more of these objects, seen as a fundamental part of Kenya’s heritage, are held at museums around the world.
— By Nick Wadhams, Voice of America