Could the recent court judgment ordering the return of Patrice Lumumba’s tooth mark the beginning of a mass restoration to Africa what was looted by Europeans?

Nontsokolo Mhlotshana

A Belgian court has ruled that a tooth of murdered Congolese independence leader, Patrice Lumumba, should be returned to his family.

The tooth is amongst the last remains of Lumumba, whose body was dissolved in suphuric acid after his execution by firing squad on 17 January 1961.

Finally, the denture will be returned to and buried in the Democratic Republic of Congo. This is after the Belgian state seized the tooth from the family of an officer who took it and several fingers as a trophy.

In June, Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana Lumumba, wrote a letter to the king of Belgium, Phillippe, asking for her father’s remains to be returned to the land of his ancestors.

The battle to return Africa’s belonging is extensive, but not an impossible assignment. But what remains unclear is the need for European countries to retain Africa’s treasures and artifacts. These include human remains; bones, fingers and teeth.

In recent years South Africa successfully fought for the return of the mortal remains of Saartjie Baartman, the Khoi woman who was humiliated as a sub-human species by Europeans in the early 1800s.

But the long wait for the return of the remains of other African heroes such as Kgoshi Makgoba, Inkosi Hintsa, Bambatha and many others continues.

The restitution of artifacts has been a long battle between Africa and Europe and Congo is no stranger to this.

In 2017, French President, Emmanuel Macron, announced his intention to return all looted African artifacts in France to their countries of origin. What seemed like a victory to Africans unsettled many former colonial powers such as Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States of America whose tourism industry thrive on the museum collections, contributing millions to their GDP.

African countries still suffer the consequences of colonial rule, weeping for the loss of their loved ones who never returned home and died at the hands of the coloniser, who in return claim their artwork and keep their body parts as trophies for their victory.

Julian Lumumba writes in the letter to the Belgian monarch: “Three years have pass, and our father remains a dead man without a funeral oration; a corpse without bones.”

I imagine a young woman who waited for years for her father to return home only to learn that he is no more and his remains, the only connection to him after his death, are nowhere to be found.

How do we prepare for the funeral without a body, which would be the only proof that the person is indeed gone? Burials in Africa are part of our culture and heritage, which forms part of our collective history; a reflection of our life.

Through this we make sense of our belonging and identity. It connects us to our ancestors. Through this process, we understand who we are and where we come from. Why would anyone want to keep that kind of information, vital for human growth, away from its original people, only to present it to their countries, where its dignity is meaningless, only when its worth millions?

For Africans, these artifacts and body parts, including many other resources taken from them, are a true reflection of their past, they form part of our heritage. What could be the reason for a country to shamelessly present the painful tragedy, instigated by them, in their museum, like it forms part of their identity?  Could it be that European countries are not ready to share with Africa, what they know about our history?

Or could it be the fact that Europeans are not ashamed for the colonial damage caused by their ancestors to Africans? Or could it just be the fact that the coloniser keeps taking what belongs to Africa to enrich themselves, leaving hopeless Africans with no identity and no economic empowerment creating a system of dependency?

What is clear is the importance to celebrate the victory of the the return of Lumumba’s remains for our own historic and cultural preservation for our children, to learn about Africa’s contribution to the world, and to make a meaningful historic understanding of their past.

Africa welcomes the return of the remains of our fallen hero, Patrice Lumumba, back to the land of his ancestors, where he will finally be reconnected with his family and ancestors. The restoration of Lumumba’s dignity should mark a turning point in Africa’s efforts to reclaim what rightfully belongs to the continent.

Nontsokolo Mhlotshana is creative director and cultural practitioner, currently doing her master’s degree at university of Witwatersrand.

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