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Tanzanians demand return of ancestral skulls

Simone Schlindwein
September 22, 2023

Colonial-era skulls were lying in a Berlin archive for over 100 years. Once looted as war trophies, they have now been matched by DNA tests with living descendants in Tanzania, who are demanding their return.

The Molelia family receives DNA results from Valence Silayo (r)
Two skulls stored in Berlin have been assigned — without doubt by means of saliva samples — to the Molelia family Image: Konradin Kunze

Zablon Kiwelu never knew that his grandfather's skull had been gathering dust in a Berlin cellar for decades.

The news was only confirmed at the beginning of September during a workshop at the foot of Tanzania's Mount Kilimanjaro, where he was presented with a document from the Berlin-based Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).

"Positive" was written on the document, confirming Kiwelu's relationship to one of the skulls stored at Berlin's Charite hospital.

"I was so happy that after more than a hundred years, we finally know where my grandfather remained," said the Tanzanian.

Hanged by German colonial troops

"Akida" is written on the skull — the name given to the high-ranking warriors and advisors of the then-leader of the Chagga people in Tanzania.

Zablon Kiwelu's grandfather, Sindato Kiwelu, was the advisor to Chief Mangi Meli, the leader of the Chagga people of Kilimanjaro, during his lifetime, grandson Kiwelu explained. German troops hung him and 18 other Akidas and chiefs in the 19th century.

According to the evidence, the German colonial rulers shipped Sindato Kiwelu's severed skull to Berlin after his execution.

"For the German occupiers, the bones, especially the skulls, were war trophies, for one thing," explained Valence Silayo, an archaeologist and genealogist at Tanzania's University of Dar es Salaam.

On the other hand, the skulls were taken away for scientific research — mostly with racist motives, he said.

Silayo led the search for relatives in Tanzania as well as the workshop and ultimately presented the DNA results to the families.

The descendants Zablon Kiwelu (l) and Isaria Meli (r) at the memorial for the executed in Old Moshi on Kilimanjaro, Tanzania
Zablon Kiwelu does not yet know exactly what will happen to the remains of his grandfatherImage: Konradin Kunze

In a major research project, scientists from Berlin's Museum of Prehistory and Early History, together with colleagues from Rwanda,  investigated the origin of around 1,100 human skulls from Germany's former colonies in East Africa.

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, told DW that it was "a small miracle" to find living relatives for three skulls through DNA analysis and that it was like finding a needle in a haystack.

In addition to the skull of Sindato Kiwelu, two other skulls stored in Berlin could also be assigned without doubt using saliva samples — namely to the Molelia family, whose members live in Kibosho, a district in Tanzania's Kilimanjaro region. One of the two skulls is apparently the descendant of Chief Mangi Sina, who ruled a powerful kingdom in Kibosho during colonial times.

After prolonged warfare, Mangi Sina's army defeated the German Schutztruppen in 1891, but the Germans took revenge in another campaign in 1893. Mangi Sina was defeated, his fortress destroyed and his fighters arrested. The chief died only a few years later, in 1897.

But his son and heir to the throne, Molelia, was a proud warrior who attacked the Germans again, Silayo said. But he was captured.

"On March 2, 1900, he was hanged by the Germans," he noted. They shipped Molelia's severed head to Berlin. There it lies to this day.

Boxes containing the skulls of the Luschan collection in a storehouse
Thousands of skulls could still be stored in German archivesImage: SPK/Birgit Jöbstl

Demand for traditional burial ritual

The fact that the Chagga could not bury their leader at the time according to their traditional rituals has had consequences for them to this day, Silayo acknowledged.

"Because the Chagga follow the iron rule that all relatives may only be buried at Kilimanjaro, nowhere else," said Silayo.

If the rites are not followed, and the dead are not buried properly, then "their spirit continues to wander to this day," the archaeologist explained.

"Since then, the Chagga explain many epidemics, economic failures, crop failures or other bad things with this spirit that finds no rest."

Relatives are therefore calling for the human remains to be returned to Tanzania as soon as possible.

"For the Germans, it may be a symbolic act," Silayo said. But for the descendants in Tanzania, the whole thing has much greater significance.

Silayo pointed out that Germany is now a close partner country of Tanzania, and the German government finances numerous development projects in the country, but the colonial history should not be forgotten because of that.

"The Germans have to take responsibility and acknowledge that what they did was against human rights. That it was not right and that they apologize for it," said Silayo. "And then these aid projects will have more meaning."

The skull of a victim of the genocide in German Southwest Africa (1904-1908) during a church service in Berlin (Aug. 29, 2018)
Germany has formally recognized as genocide the crimes committed by its colonial troops at the beginning of the 20th century against the Herero and Nama people in what is now NamibiaImage: Gregor Fischer/picture alliance/dpa

Painstaking choice: Museum or burial?

Zablon Kiwelu said he does not know what will happen to his grandfather's remains. The idea of displaying the skull in a museum has been considered.

The family will decide once the remains have been transported to Tanzania. According to tradition, the whole body must be buried in a ritual ceremony.

"But because it's just the skull, I don't think we can bury it. We will put it in a museum where people from all over the world can come and see the remains," he suggested.

Tanzania has been increasing pressure on the German government to take responsibility for colonial-era atrocities in East Africa. In early 2020, Tanzania's ambassador to Berlin, Abdallah Possi, called on the German government to "negotiate reparations" for these crimes.

Kiwelu said he has hired a lawyer to contact the German government directly.

"I want to fly to Berlin this year and bring the skull home," he added firmly.

This article was originally published in German and has been adapted for English by Okeri Ngutjinazo. 

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