“Our legend has it that it sounds like a lion’s roar. It forced everyone to listen. It was alive.”
That is how the current Pokomo king, His Majesty Makorani-a-Mungase VII of Kenya describes the influence and the spirit behind the powerful ngadji drum.
The unique sound from the drum has identified with the Pokomo people of Kenya’s Tana River valley as long as its people have revered the sanctity of their tradition but this source of power no longer resides with them physically.
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For 111 years, the ngadji drum, stolen by the British from the Pokomo during the colonial era, has been relegated to a storage room in the British Museum in London. Today, its original owners want Britain to return it to them.
The awe-inspiring ngadji drum was once worshipped as a god represented on Earth and believed to have stood taller than any man.
Yet while almost all the roughly 200,000 Pokomo alive today have now converted to Islam and Christianity, including the royal family, the absence of the ngadji is a constant reminder of the ruinous effects of colonialism.
The ngadji, rubbing its stretched cowhide across its gigantic body, fashioned from a hollowed-out tree trunk, made a sound that could be heard throughout the villages clustered around the Pokomo king’s compound.
“Our legend has it that it sounds like a lion’s roar,” said His Majesty Makorani-a-Mungase VII, the current Pokomo king and the descendant of a dynasty he claims goes back more than a dozen generations. “It forced everyone to listen. It was alive.”
The theft of the ngadji by British colonial officers is a story well-known among the eldest Pokomo. The British Museum, too, acknowledges that the ngadji – the source of power and pride for the Pokomo – was “confiscated” before being donated to its collections in 1908. The museum also acknowledges a request by the Pokomo community for its return.
Elders within Mchelelo, Makorani’s sacred grove along a bend in the Tana River community who have vivid memories as adults of the colonial period, and whose parents and grandparents witnessed the destruction of traditional Pokomo society, are less forgiving.
Many are worried they will die before the ngadji is returned, and with their deaths, any possibility of keeping Pokomo culture alive will die, too.
“If the ngadji in London is really ours, I will know from the sound that it will make when it will be played in front of me,” said Said Kumbi-a-Wadesa, the chairman of the kidjo, the Pokomo council of elders.
His grandfather once held the same position and spoke wistfully of the ngadji’s roar. Wadesa, 99, has mostly lost his eyesight but confesses “Those who aren’t blind will see it, but I will know that particular sound.”
In the last century since the ngadji was stolen from the Pokomo, only one man has had the chance to see and even touch it.
The king’s brother, Baiba Dhidha Mjidho, in 2016, got the British Museum to let him visit the ngadji in its east London “large specimen” storage rooms.
Mjidho, who lives in Liverpool, was granted access to the drum by the museum and became the first in his community to touch it in over a century.
Before Mjidho’s visit, many Pokomo elders assumed the ngadji was lost or destroyed. That he, a descendant of their kings, had touched it was as if a miracle had occurred.
Dreams suddenly seemed attainable of resurrecting a distinct Pokomo identity, blurred by a century and a half of conversion to foreign religions, and re-creating an era when the Pokomo were proud, not mostly indigent.
While the Kenyan government has no formal process through which to file a restitution claim, that has, however, not stopped the Pokomo from trying to reclaim the ngadji.
“The white man took not just the ngadji but brought many changes to our society,” Wadesa, the kidjo’s chairman told The Washington Post.
“Nowadays, our young people are rude, disobedient, they want only money. They are without the guidance of the ngadji.”
Today, the Tana River valley is one of Kenya’s poorest regions. Most Pokomo communities scarcely have access to paved roads, let alone schools, hospitals and jobs. And many Pokomo feel unsure about what place the ngadji would have in their society if it were returned.
Pokomos are mainly farmers and have all along depended on the flooding regime of River Tana to grow rice, bananas, green grams, beans and maize. The staple food of the Pokomo is rice and fish.
Since the 1960s, many African countries where slavery was rampant, have been making demands to their colonial masters to return especially artefacts that were stolen from them and have since been kept or displayed in secured places or museums. Benin, Namibia, Egypt, are among some of those countries.