A Kenyan tribe’s search for its leader’s stolen skull

Koitalel Samoei, the Nandi leader
Cheruiyot Barsirian holds a computer-generated image of what Koitalel may have looked like [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Cheruiyot Barsirian holds a computer-generated image of what Koitalel may have looked like [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

In 1905, a colonial British officer killed Koitalel Arap Samoei, the supreme leader of the Nandi tribe. According to oral history, his severed head was taken to the UK. The Nandi have been searching for it ever since.

Nandi, Kenya - As a child, Anne Machii Samoei, now 87, heard many stories about her grandfather Koitalel Arap Samoei, the orkoiyot or supreme leader of Kenya’s Nandi tribe who led a revolt against the British for more than a decade in the late 19th century.

Wide-eyed and sitting around a fire flickering into the night, she would hang tightly onto each word her father spoke as he traced an image of his father as a powerful and majestic leader.

Koitalel, dressed in clothes made from the skins of monkeys and grasping a sacred wooden staff - which symbolised his ultimate and indisputable leadership - would at about 25 years of age, command an army of thousands of loyal men who used spears and arrows to strike fear into the hearts of gun-wielding British soldiers and their African supporters.

Koitalel’s fierce resistance was sparked by the construction of the Kenya-Uganda Railways in the 1890s, which started from the coastal city of Mombasa and cut through Nandi territory - pummelling deep into the country’s interior. Along with it came British colonial administrators and Christian missionaries. The Nandi are a subgroup of the larger Kalenjin tribes; their warriors responded by launching deadly ambushes on colonial convoys along the railway line.

“I loved hearing the tales of my grandfather,” said Machii, sitting on a couch in her dimly lit home in Nandi County, in the country’s North Rift. “He was the last true leader of the Nandi people. His legend has given us a lot of pride even though we lost our lands and grew up in so much poverty.”

But there was one story of her grandfather that haunted her: in October 1905, Richard Meinertzhagen, a British military intelligence officer, killed Koitalel after inviting the leader to a truce meeting.

According to Nandi oral history, Meinertzhagen decapitated Koitalel. Elders believe he transported the slain leader’s severed head, along with several of his possessions, back to the United Kingdom.

“I felt this disturbance inside me ever since my father told me about the British stealing Koitalel’s head,” Machii continued, glancing down at the cement floor. “Ever since I was a small girl until now, in my old age, I have never lost this disturbed feeling. It still affects me.

“I never understood how human beings could do things that are so cruel,” she said, shaking her head. “It made me very scared of the British. Any time I saw a white man I would run away very fast.”

Now, nearly 120 years later, the Nandi are searching for their leader’s skull, which they believe is still in the UK, with the hopes that its repatriation can help them heal from brutal colonial-era atrocities carried out by the British.

“The Nandi have never healed since Koitalel was killed,” Machii told Al Jazeera. “I don’t think I will ever feel peace inside of me until his skull is returned to us.”

Anne Machii Samoei
Anne Machii Samoei, Koitalel Arap Samoei's granddaughter [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Anne Machii Samoei, Koitalel Arap Samoei's granddaughter [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

‘Final campaign’

Meinertzhagen’s killing of Koitalel, who comes from the sacred Talai lineage - a clan the Nandi believe have supernatural and prophetic abilities and was chosen by God to lead and deliver God’s messages to the people - was just the beginning.

According to Kipchoge araap Chomu, a Nandi historian and co-author of the book Unyielding Hope: The Life and Times of Koitaleel Somoei, Meinertzhagen and his men also killed 25 Nandi warriors at the same meeting, which was held in the Nandi Hills - the tribe’s most fertile lands - before fleeing the scene and indiscriminately killing men, women and children along the way. On that day alone, at least 250 Nandi were killed.

Elders say Koitalel’s headless corpse was found under a sacred fig tree, where he had staggered for almost 100 metres after being shot. Many Nandi believe Meinertzhagen or one of his men decapitated Koitalel.

Meinertzhagen, who died in 1967, admitted to killing Koitalel in his memoir, Kenya Diary: 1902-1906. He does not, however, mention severing his head. Meinertzhagen claimed that he removed “two stone-headed knobkerries” from Koitalel’s belt after murdering him.

With their sacred leader no longer around to protect the Nandi, the British quickly unleashed devastation across the tribe’s territory.

Two days after Koitalel’s killing, on October 19, the British launched the “final Nandi campaign”, said Chomu, in which they slaughtered hundreds of Nandi men of fighting age and expelled them from the Nandi Hills.

Like other Africans in the colony, the Nandi were corralled onto a “native reserve” on the tribe’s drier pasture land. The lands of the Nandi Hills were then allocated exclusively for European settlement, with white settlers establishing large colonial farms and tea plantations. Africans were also forced into paying various taxes on the reserves that applied to only Africans. Therefore, many Nandi had no choice but to work on the same colonial farms established on their stolen lands.

Kapsisiywo, Kenya
An area of Kapsisiywo where the Talai were first dumped in 1919 [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
An area of Kapsisiywo where the Talai were first dumped in 1919 [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

No 'true leader'

In 1919, the British rounded up all members of the Talai - Koitalel’s clan and the longstanding leaders of the Nandi - and banished them to an isolated island-like village called Kapsisiywo in the heart of Nandi territory. Situated between two rivers, which encircle the whole area of Kapsisiywo, about 30 Talai families, consisting of at least 150 people, were separated from the rest of their tribe for decades.

“Along the edges of the river, the British made sure to place the homesteads of colonial chiefs [Nandi who were loyal to the British],” Chomu told Al Jazeera. “This prevented any Talai from leaving Kapsisiywo.” More than a century later, most Talai still live there.

The British missionaries moved on to instil fear about the Talai into the rest of the Nandi population. Once revered for their supernatural and prophetic abilities, the missionaries spent decades convincing the Nandi that the Talai were evil witch doctors who were responsible for their state of misery under colonialism.

Before the arrival of the British, the Talai were considered royalty. But once Koitalel took his last breath, their lives would transform into a never-ending nightmare. Immediately after Koitalel’s murder, the British hunted down the slain leader’s relatives; all of them were either killed, detained, or banished to Kapsisiywo.

There was also a practical problem facing the Talai: the sacred leadership staffs, passed down for generations among the Talai that symbolised the transfer of leadership from one orkoiyot to the next, were missing. “Whoever Koitalel would have given those staffs to would have been our next leader,” explained Machii. “But without those staffs, we were left without any true leader, and we don’t know to whom Koitalel would have given them.”

The British colonial administration appointed a known collaborator as the new Nandi leader, but he died just three years later, in 1912. Nandi elders were subsequently able to convince the colonial government to recognise Lelimo araap Samoei, Koitalel’s first-born son and Machii’s father, as leader of the tribe. But after only a few years, Lelimo was forced into hiding after killing one of his Nandi bodyguards who was spying for the British.

“My father took over the leadership, but the British were so brutal and controlling he could not actually lead anything,” said Machii. “I remember my father being so bitter. He hated the white men. He never forgave them for killing his father - that’s why his leadership didn’t last long.”

Koitalel’s second-born son Barsirian Manyei was chosen as leader of the Nandi in 1919, secretly and without the knowledge of the British. But in 1923, when colonial authorities caught wind of Manyei's plans to restore a sacred Nandi ceremony in which power is handed over to successive age sets, he was arrested. For four decades, Manyei would be transferred between prisons and house arrests, making him Kenya’s longest-serving political prisoner.

At the time, the especially rowdy Talai leaders were banished to Mfangano Island, in the eastern part of Lake Victoria. Manyei would also end up there.

Cheruiyot Barsirian, 76, was just eight years old when he was detained with Manyei, his father, on Mfangano Island. “We were always sick from malaria because of the mosquitoes,” Cheruiyot recounted, cradling a portrait of a computer-generated image of what his grandfather Koitalel was believed to have looked like. “And there were so many snakes. I remember never being able to sleep because of the snakes and insects.”

“Life was very hard there,” he continued. “We used to get food rations from the British. They monitored our every move to make sure no Talai escaped from the island.” The Talai were made to live in mud homes built in straight lines, making their movement easily observable to colonial officers. “The [colonial officers] would come each morning and count us to know that no one had fled.”

Koitalel Samoei Museum
Outside the Koitalel Samoei Museum [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Outside the Koitalel Samoei Museum [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

Artefacts returned

When Kenya gained independence in 1963, the Talai were released from Mfangano Island. But 120 years after Koitalel was killed, little has changed for the Talai; most continue to live in abject poverty - secluded in Kapsisiywo.

“We used to be powerful, but the British transformed us into the most miserable people,” said Cheruiyot. To this day, other Nandi still fear the Talai, believing the clan has supernatural powers and can issue curses against them.

But, in 2005, the Talai received a rare glimmer of hope. Kalenjin academics tracked down three of Koitalel’s sacred wooden staffs that were stolen by Meinertzhagen - the missing of which had paralysed the Talai for decades. They were found in Meinertzhagen’s home in the UK. His son, a 78-year-old retired banker, graciously returned the artefacts to the Nandi.

“These staffs were like the arms of the government, passed down from generation to generation among the Talai, until the time of Koitalel,” explained Kibnyaanko Seroney, a Kalenjin translator and linguist residing in the UK who met Meinertzhagen and brought the staffs back to Kenya.

“These staffs were the core symbol that held together the office of Koitalel and the previous leaders.”

The three staffs symbolised different roles assumed by the incumbent orkoiyot - military, spiritual, and administrative. One was especially important during times of war, according to Seroney, and was believed to have divine powers that would inspire the warriors. Another was used for leading prayers for requesting rain, according to Kipkoeech araap Sambu, a Kalenjin Egyptologist. The third was a more common rungu, or wooden club, but represented the leader’s administrative role.

According to Chomu, the meeting between Meinertzhagen and Koitalel in 1905 would not have fallen under the auspices of these royal staffs. This suggests, he said, that at some point after Meinertzhagen murdered Koitalel, he or a colonial agent sent by him ransacked Koitalel’s homestead.

A Nandi historian with old artefacts
Kipchoge araap Chomu, a Nandi historian, shows the sacred staffs returned to the Nandi [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

To the cheers of thousands of people who gathered in the Nandi Hills, the sacred staffs, enclosed in a glass case, were returned to the Nandi in 2006, stored in a hut built at the site, beside the fig tree where Koitalel is said to have taken his last breath. This has since been built up into the Koitalel Samoei Museum, which continues to display the sacred staffs and various other traditional Nandi items.

“People were reconnected with their identities from seeing these cultural symbols,” explained Seroney. “They got a lot of pride from them. It was like returning a part of the body that was missing. These artefacts are not like pieces of art or toys; they are something real. People look to them as a testament to their values and history.

“If you go to the Nandi today and they hold a traditional event, you really struggle to see them in their traditional attire because most of it was stolen from them,” he continued. “Then you have these staffs returned to them that gave a people [the Talai] the power to the throne - from one generation to the next. The community finally feels like they have a future because they now have the tools they need to build that future.”

The Nandi have since been imbued with optimism that Koitalel’s skull, along with more of his stolen possessions believed to be in the UK - including a shield, a ceremonial gown, and traditional headgear - could also be located and returned.

“It never crossed my mind that any of the items stolen from Koitalel would be returned to us,” said Machii, the granddaughter of Koitalel. “I was shocked, but so happy. I had to go see them with my own eyes or else I wouldn’t believe it. I feel like anything is possible now.”

Pitt Rivers Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK [Mockford & Bonetti/Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]
The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK [Mockford & Bonetti/Eye Ubiquitous/Universal Images Group via Getty Images]

Where is the skull?

Seroney and Nandi leaders have for years attempted to locate Koitalel’s skull.

It was believed that it could be held in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which has admitted to possessing other human remains - including skulls - from various continents to support academic studies that measured and compared brain sizes of different racial groups; this was to uphold theories of white racial supremacy. Museums in the UK often obtained these skulls through colonial officials or Christian missionaries.

Pitt Rivers, however, has strongly denied that it possesses Koitalel’s skull. Seroney told Al Jazeera that he was given access to the museum’s collections and counted 102 artefacts from the Nandi. The British Museum and The Natural History Museum, both of which had connections to Meinertzhagen, have also denied possessing the head, as has the Imperial War Museum. According to Seroney, the British Museum is in possession of 4,000 artefacts from Kenya, half of which are from the Kalenjin.

Some Nandi leaders believe the skull could be held at Cambridge University, which has 18,000 human remains - among the largest archive of human remains in the world. These skulls were brought to the UK as “trophies”, Seroney explained, when colonial officials would behead leaders and collect their skulls as souvenirs of their war conquests.

Seroney, however, believes the skull is in a private collection. Others, still, do not believe the skull was taken to the UK at all. Sambu, the Kalenjin Egyptologist, told Al Jazeera the Nubian colonial soldiers who were with Meinertzhagen at the time were known to cannibalise the body parts of those they killed, including their heads - a grim habit that even Meinertzhagen complained about in his diary. It is possible Koitalel’s head met such a fate.

However, Meinertzhagen had donated three skulls to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, which was also supporting academic studies in eugenics and theories of white racial superiority at the time, according to George Juma Ondeng, who has worked for years with the National Museums of Kenya and is one of the founding members of the International Inventories Programme, a research and database project that investigates Kenyan objects held in museums and heritage institutions around the world.

“In our conversation with the Hunterian Museum, the museum said it was bombed in 1941 during the second world war and they lost a significant part of their collections and records,” Ondeng told Al Jazeera. “So the few human remains left in the museum were given to the Natural History Museum in London and none of them seems to be from Kenya. So the trail has gone cold.”

The process of tracking down Koitalel’s skull - if it was indeed brought to the UK nearly 120 years ago - has been weighed down by financial and institutional shortcomings. While Seroney says the process of repatriation of artefacts and remains from private collections is more or less straightforward, initiating restitution claims with museums is much more complex and often necessitates government and institutional support.

A village in Kapsisiywo
A village in Kapsisiywo [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
A village in Kapsisiywo [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

'Decolonial act'

According to Chao Tayiana Maina, a Kenyan historian and digital heritage specialist, one of the biggest challenges around repatriation of stolen artefacts or remains is locating where exactly they are being held. Ondeng has so far identified slightly more than 32,000 artefacts originating from Kenya from only 33 museums in the UK - a country that has over 2,000 museums. However, not all of these items were stolen or acquired through unethical means.

“Museum inventories in the West, even in the UK, are still quite closed off,” Maina told Al Jazeera. “We need institutions to be more transparent and to say what they have and how they got it and for how long they have had it” - along with making these details easily accessible to the public, she said.

“It becomes a big challenge for those in source communities who are seeking to repatriate or even wondering where do we start in the first place and who do we contact,” Maina added. There is also a lack of institutional support to buttress local communities which have restitution claims, forcing communities or individuals into using their own limited resources and time to begin an inevitably exhausting endeavour.

Ondeng, however, told Al Jazeera that the UK museums have been very open to restitution claims. But there is a lack of action being taken on behalf of governments and local communities. “We don’t currently have a single body that can handle restitution matters. So we have a lot of local discussions around restitution, but no one is putting pens to paper,” Ondeng explained. “Many have not started the [official] process of approaching the museums.”

Kimani Njogu, the director of Twaweza Communications, an arts and media institution in Kenya, believes civil society must assist the government in filling these gaps around the restitution of Kenya’s cultural heritage; he has been developing a draft policy framework for eventual adoption into government.

“It’s a question of how do we get a national framework that involves the state, communities, and researchers that can facilitate the return of that heritage from the Global North and other places, including Asia,” Njogu explained. “The first thing the state would need to do would be to start providing sufficient information through research, on what is out there that belongs to communities [in Kenya] and where it could be.

“It’s very difficult for communities to know where their artefacts or ancestral remains ended up,” Njogu added. “Even if they know it was the British who took it, they have no idea where in Britain. And that makes it very difficult for communities to start the [restitution] process.”

But for communities which have grievances stemming back a century or more ago, time is running out. Many of those with original memories of colonial atrocities have already passed on.

“We are largely in a space where things are moving out of living history,” explained Maina. “If you look at the [ending of the] colonial period being 60 or 70 years ago, the painful fact of the matter is that many people who experienced this colonialism firsthand are either in old age or have passed away. So it is also time-sensitive that they see justice in their lifetime.

“Being able to connect the memory, which is the intangible aspect of our culture and history, to the tangible representations, which are the artefacts and the ancestral remains, is time-sensitive,” she continued. “Restitution as a whole is a decolonial act. But it is not just the physical return that is the focus of restitution. It’s an entire set of processes of people reconnecting, going into dialogue, and people coming to terms with painful losses and demanding justice.”

A member of the Nandi tribe, Kenya
Samuel Ngetich Metto described how his father was killed for being Talai [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Samuel Ngetich Metto described how his father was killed for being Talai [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]

‘We want our leader back’

For the Talai, locating and repatriating Koitalel’s skull would be a symbolic rejoining of a painful history in which their culture was ripped apart and their esteemed standing in their tribe was turned inside out.

Samuel Ngetich Metto, 65, sits on a couch in his small home in Kapsisiywo, to where he and his family fled more than three decades ago. He is holding his father’s death certificate in his hands. “He was killed for being a Talai,” Metto said, shaking his head.

Metto and his family had lived in the Nandi Hills since colonialism, working on a white settler’s tea farm. After independence, the family was able to buy a plot of land there. But in June 1989, Metto’s brother, who was 22 at the time and is now deceased, had proposed to a girl who was suffering from tuberculosis. The girl rejected his proposal and, soon after, her condition worsened; she died a few months later. The girl’s family accused the Talai family of using their supernatural abilities to put a curse on her.

Charging towards Metto’s family’s home, a group of about 200 enraged Nandi men found Metto’s father and attacked him with machetes and rocks, bludgeoning him to death. They continued to the family’s homestead and burned all of it to the ground. “They were hunting for us, but I ran for my life and escaped into the bush,” Metto told Al Jazeera.

Metto fled until he reached Kapsisiywo, the island-like area in Nandi territory to where the Talai were banished more than a century ago. “I will never leave Kapsisiywo again,” he said, dragging his palms across his face. “I’m scared someone will kill me. I don’t even like to tell people I am a Talai. I tell them I am from another clan.”

But, like other Talai, Metto blames his hardships entirely on the British. “All of this hatred of the Talai came because of them,” he said. “All because our leader decided to resist them. And, to this day, we are still being punished for that.”

“We want our leader back,” Metto added, referring to Koitalel’s skull. “It is only then that the Talai’s dignity will be restored to how it was before the white men came. We have never had a strong leader like him since. We have so many conflicts and divisions among us - and even within ourselves.

“It has felt like something is missing and we believe that the return of that skull can make us whole again,” he added. “It would be the beginning of a longer journey to heal from this past.”

A view of the Nandi Hills
A view of the Nandi Hills [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
A view of the Nandi Hills [Jaclynn Ashly/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera