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Cameroonian pushes for restitution of deity from Germany

July 1, 2022

A young Cameroonian activist is the force behind a quest to restitute a sacred statue stolen by a German colonialist 120 years ago. Njobati Sylvie believes restitution is integral to confronting Cameroon's past.

Njobati Sylvie standing in front of Berlin's Homboldt Forum
Njobati Sylvie's grandfather was the heir apparent of the Nso communityImage: Okach George/DW

Restitution activist Njobati Sylvie could not hide her joy when Germany's Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation announced that a statue of Ngonnso would be returned to Cameroon.

Ngonnso is a mother deity of the Nso people in northwestern Cameroon. A statue of her was taken by Kurt von Pavel, a German colonial officer in Cameroon, who subsequently donated her to Berlin's Ethnological Museum in 1903.

"I feel super elated, it has been a journey that has culminated to a win for the Nso community, Cameroon and by and large the entire African continent," Njobati told DW.

Photo of Ngonnso displayed at Humboldt Forum Museum
Ngonnso has a central role for the Nso as she is considered a mother deityImage: Okach George/DW

The restitution journey

Njobati started the Twitter campaign #BringBackNgonnso in 2020, which played a large part in raising awareness for the restitution cause.

But her activism actually started before that — when she decided to reconnect with her Nso heritage and trace her roots.

Njobati grew up in Cameroon's Anglophone region with her mother and her grandfather, the heir-apparent to leadership of the Nso community, though he couldn't take up the position because he became a Presbyterian pastor.

"I grew up with my grandfather totally disconnected with my culture and tradition," Njobati said. "I was embedded into Christianity."

Sylvie's identity crisis 

When she went to university in Yaounde — the French speaking side of Cameroon — she says her Anglophone background made her unwelcome, which led to what she describes as an identity crisis and a sense of emptiness.

"I remember one day at the market someone called me an Anglofool," she said. "This was just the beginning of a backlash I received as a young person."

At this point in her life Njobati realized that she had been "fully covered by cultures that are not hers." "I also remember asking myself: Who am I if I'm stripped of the colonial heritage? Who am I if I'm stripped of the English or French system of education, law or even religion?" she said.

Sylvie Njobati
Njobati believes young people should be involved in restitution conversationImage: Okach George/DW

But these multiple identity crises emboldened her quest to reconnect with her original heritage.

History unfolds

"Some of my young peers felt like I'm putting up a show," she recalls. "They thought I'm not qualified to have a conversation with myself. They believe only African diasporas do such things."

This journey of reidentification is what resulted in her realization that Ngonnso — "the founder of Nso community" was not in her rightful place.

When she was told the history of what unfolded before the statue was taken from the Nso people, she felt disturbed, before developing her commitment to restoring the statue.

"Ngonnso was stolen from the palace, in a violent expedition," she said. "The palace where it used to sit was razed down by the German colonialists. There is no way it can continue being away from its rightful place."

"I remember promising my grandfather that I will ensure that we bring back Ngonnso. He also wanted to see Ngonnso back. Unfortunately he died before this could happen," she added.

Tapping into social media's power 

Njobati embarked on a strategic approach that involved rallying masses on social media, through the #BringBackNgonnso campaign she pushed on Twitter and Facebook.

"Some of my peers thought that this was a waste of time and resources. But I asked myself how many people with the desire to see Ngonnso back to Cameroon will die before her restitution happens," she said.

Thanks to the campaign, the statue, which spent decades in the basement of Berlin's Ethnological Museum, was finally brought up for public display.

Stolen Soul — Africa's Looted Art

Youth involvement in restitution

Njobati's resolve shed new light on the conversation about young people's involvement in confronting Cameroon's colonial past. "Young people should be key stakeholders in this conversation," she said. 

But restitution is often seens as a complex and uninteresting topic for the average young African, especially in light of the multiple challenges that affect them, such as unemployment.

However, according to Njobati, a true African rebirth will only be realized "when the youth get reconnected with their true heritage."

Statue of the goddess Ngonnso
The statute of the goddess Ngonnso will be returned to the kingdom of Nso in CameroonImage: Okach George/DW

Why restitution now?

Germany has agreed to return a trove of looted African colonial artifacts in recent times.

According to Njobati, the successful quest she led that began the Ngonnso restitution process should encourage other young Africans.

"For us it's Ngonnso, a sacred statue, but there are thousands of stolen African artifacts still being displayed in multiple European museums. We, the youth, should lead the quest of bringing them back," she said. "For me it's about the principle of justice. Africa has suffered colonial crimes for a long time. We must deal with these issues if we want to remain true to confronting colonial past," she added.

According to the 31-year-old, "continued display of the artifacts at European museums is disrespectful and a simple a show of power." "It demonstrates that the colonialists came, conquered African nations, took their integral heritage, some with spiritual significance, and are holding them captive at museums."

Njobati Sylvie

What's next for Ngonnso?

The Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation is now set to hold further talks with Nso representatives on how Ngonnso will be returned to Cameroon.

Njobati will take part in these talks, and believes this success has opened possibilities for the return of thousands of other objects being held in European museums.

"The quest that began with the need of bring back Ngonnso will now advance to a quest to take back all the heritage that belongs to the African continent," she said. "My intention is to rally young people, historians, researchers in a bid to have what is rightfully ours brought back. This is our heritage. Let the artifacts be brought back to us."

Speaking to DW, Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation president Hermann Parzinger said that objects that were not necessarily looted "should also be repatriated."

"We are open to restitution and after the due diligence is followed we are obliged to return .... In every restitution process we must get a claim and we access them diligently and independently," Parzinger added.

Edited by: Keith Walker