And here she sits, 5,000 kilometers away from her home, as she has been for the last 120 years. She isn’t particularly conspicuous among the dozens of exhibits in the Cameroon hall of the Ethnological Museum at Berlin's Humboldt Forum. The label somewhat imperiously describes the figure as a "palm wine vessel," since the sculpture, less than a meter in height, is holding a bowl in her lap. Her body is covered with cowrie shells, earrings dangle from her ears and her expression is impassive. She is made of wood.
But Ngonnso, snatched by German colonialists in 1902, is a princess, a deity. She is the ancestral mother and founder of the Nso people.
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That is the belief held by the Nso people in Cameroon, where Ngonnso is dearly missed by thousands of people. Some are convinced that Ngonnso’s absence is to blame for poor harvests and famine, for the premature deaths of two former rulers, and even for the war that is currently raging in her homeland. Every year, tens of thousands of people come together for the multiday Ngonnso Cultural Festival in Kumbo, the capital city of the Nso people. There are elderly people in Cameroon who will tell you that they wish for nothing more fervently than to see Ngonnso’s return before they die.
"Ngonnso must finally come home," says Sylvie Njobati, an Nso activist from Cameroon who is focusing all her efforts on freeing her goddess from the Humboldt Forum.
Last September, when the Ethnological Museum was reopened in the newly completed Berlin Palace in the heart of the city, Njobati traveled to the German capital to plead her case, to apply pressure and to deliver a letter from her king demanding the sculpture’s return. She organized a vocal protest in front of the Forum, mobilizing her allies on social media under the hashtag #BringBackNgonnso. And she attended the press conference in order to ask uncomfortable questions to Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which has legal ownership of Ngonnso. "Ngonnso came to Berlin more than 100 years ago. For decades, we have been asking for restitution. When will you finally engage in dialogue with us?"
Njobati, 31, is a resolute woman who wears her hair in long braids. She was pleased when, at the grand opening ceremony two days later, the award-winning Nigerian writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explicitly mentioned the Ngonnso statue. "Not everything was stolen. But those things that are sacred, those things for whom people were killed, those things that have in them the stain of innocent blood should be returned."
Nso activist Sylvie Njobati of Cameroon, is pictured here in the National Museum in Yaoundé. She traveled to Berlin to request that Ngonnso be returned.Foto: Daniel Beloumou Olomo / DER SPIEGEL
The ghosts that the Humboldt Forum has gathered, it seems, are not going to go away quietly.
The colonial past of the artifacts from Africa, Asia and Oceania that are on display in the Forum has dominated the debate recently – one over the advisability, or inadvisability, of the 860-million-euro construction project, one of the most expensive cultural edifices in Germany and the final undertaking of its kind during the Merkel era. No other building in the country is more controversial, with the palace’s location, architecture and content all a focus of criticism. It’s not enough that it was built on the site of the Palast der Republik, the communist East German regime's "People’s Palace," which was torn down to make way for the Prussian palace replica that is now there – a symbol to many Eastern Germans of the slight they continue to feel. Nor is it enough that this building’s architecture, a contrived mixture of imitated baroque pomp and cold modernity, has for years been the focus of mockery and disgust. And now that the edifice has been completed, the exhibitions that it houses have become the target of ceaseless opprobrium.
First, the spotlight was on the Benin Bronzes, the return of which Nigeria was demanding – a process scheduled to commence this year. Then, German historian Götz Aly pointed out last year that one of the most important pieces in the exhibition, the outrigger from the island of Luf, was acquired during a period of colonial oppression.
It is like a curse. The discussion over looted art has resulted in even more attention being paid to the discussion as to why Germany would willingly rebuild a structure that is reminiscent of a period when the German Reich was a land-grabbing colonial power. Which transforms the objects on display inside into symbols of German hegemony. Indeed, the reconstructed palace, which some initiators of the project hoped would become a radiant emblem of past greatness, has ironically been transformed into a very public display of Germany’s open historical wounds. A forum for the country’s bad conscience.
It's a spring afternoon in Berlin, and a group of visitors stops in front of Ngonnso. The museum tour guide explains to his guests that the sculpture is one of the pieces that has been the focus of return demands because it "could be looted art." Whether that is true, however, is far from clear, the guide continues. Nor is it clear, the guide tells his group, whether the sculpture really does have a mythical function for the Nso people as the tribe’s ancestral mother, adding that the story could be "the fabrication of a tradition." In order to legitimize the demands for its return, the guide says, it may be a case of ascribing relevance to the object that it doesn’t actually have.
Hmm, interesting, the group mumbles, before heading off to the next room: "Sounds of the World."
Sylvie Njobati is familiar with such arguments, and they infuriate her, even if they do reflect present-day research – which can be summed up as follows: Nothing certain is known. Until recently, museum directors took the position that objects could only be returned if Germany’s acquisition of them was accompanied by violence. That position was neatly summarized in 2012 by Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation President Parzinger, who told the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel: "Legality at the time of acquisition is the decisive factor. What was legal then can hardly be illegal today."
But Njobati, who is familiar with her people’s oral traditions, isn’t particularly fond of being told by Germans how things were back then. She also isn’t a fan of Europeans casting doubt on the sacredness of their deity. "If you want to understand the true story of Ngonnso, you have to come to Cameroon," she says over the phone from Yaoundé, the country’s capital.
And she is right. A trip to Ngonnso’s homeland, a country that was a German colony from 1884 to 1919, is necessary to clear up questions that are difficult to clarify. Does it matter at all for the possible return whether Ngonnso was bought, presented as a gift or stolen? What does the king of the Nso hope to accomplish with the return of this sculpture? And if Ngonnso is to be returned, to whom should it be given?
The War in Ngonnso’s Homeland
Ngonnso is from Kumbo, a city in the northwestern grasslands of Cameroon. That's also where the palace of the king of the Nso people is to be found, the place where the sculpture allegedly lived until it was taken.
But it is impossible to visit Kumbo and the palace because a bloody civil war has been raging in western Cameroon since 2016 – a war that Europe has largely ignored. The Norwegian Refugee Council keeps a list of the world’s most neglected crises, and Cameroon is right at the top. Thus far it has produced 6,000 deaths, three-quarters of a million displaced persons, more than 500,000 children without access to schooling, and over 2 million people in need of humanitarian aid. The king was forced to flee, says Sylvie Njobati. "He now lives in exile here in the capital."
We are sitting together in a café in the capital of Yaoundé as Njobati explains how the war in western Cameroon is a "delayed consequence of colonialism." The roar from the unending river of taxis and motorcycles penetrates from the outside, while inside, experts on the television screen are arguing about an upcoming football match. "First the Germans came, and then the French and the English," says Njobati.
After the German Empire’s defeat in World War I, the victorious powers of France and Britain divided up the country into French Cameroon and British Cameroon. Since 2016, anglophone separatist groups in the west, where the Nso live, have been engaged in armed conflict to establish their own country called Ambazonia. The king of the Nso also became ensnared in the conflict when he was abducted by separatists for several days in 2020 after declaring allegiance to the party of the French majority.
When Sylvie Njobati speaks of the identity crisis that has gripped her home country, scathed as it is by colonialism and corruption, she is also speaking of her own. Since her childhood, she has watched as the Nso community has eroded – as pre-colonial traditions have been forgotten and religious rituals have vanished. "I didn’t know where I belonged, where I came from. So I decided to search for my roots," she says. And she found them in Ngonnso.
She begins relating the founding myth of her people, which today includes 500,000 members. In the 14th century, an apostate king’s daughter from the Tikar Dynasty named Ngonnso – which literally means "Mother of the Nso" – is said to have established the Nso kingdom. Her son became the first king, and his successors have all allegedly been direct descendants. "Ngonnso represents our ancestry, our culture, the core of our identity," Njobati says. "She connects us to our history prior to colonialism. But because she isn’t with us, we are unable to establish who we are."
An archive photo of German colonialists in Cameroon in 1905, pictured here with members of the subjugated Kom tribe. The two large Kom figures on the left and right of the photo are also on display in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, in the same room as Ngonnso.Foto: Bildarchiv der Deutschen Kolonialgesellschaft, Universitätsbibliothek F.a.M., Nr. 043-3037-14
The National Archives of Cameroon, which also houses historical documents pertaining to the period of German colonial hegemony, is currently under renovation and getting inside requires squeezing past cement mixers and scaffolding.
Verkijika Fanso, 80, a former director of the archive, is sitting in an office with no natural light and a lazy fan on its ceiling swirling the warm, stuffy air. "I have no doubt," the historian says, "that Ngonnso fell into German hands through violence." With his certitude, Fanso finds himself in opposition to the ethnologist Anne Spletstösser, who conducted research into Cameroon’s colonial heritage while at the University of Göttingen. In her dissertation, she arrived at the conclusion that "it can no longer be determined how exactly (the Ngonnso sculpture) came into Pavel’s possession in 1902."
Curt von Pavel, whose extensive bestowals resulted in Ngonnso’s arrival in Berlin in 1903, was named commander of the Imperial Protection Force in Cameroon and led his troops on several "punitive expeditions" to discipline insubordinate tribes at the barrel of a gun. Cameroon had been considered a "German protectorate" since 1884, when the German Empire confirmed its claim as a colonial power at Bismarck’s Congo Conference in Berlin. What followed were several decades during which the interior of the country and its residents were violently subjugated and exploited. During Pavel’s military operations in the Cameroonian grasslands, almost 1,300 Africans lost their lives, and almost 500 were taken prisoner.
Activist Sylvie Njobati: "Ngonnso represents our ancestry, our culture, the core of our identity."Foto: Erik Hesmerg / Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum
As Pavel would later record in the Das Deutsche Kolonialblatt (the German Colonial Journal, an official publication of the German colonial authority), he arrived in Kumbo on Jan. 15, 1902, where he met the king of the Nso, the grandfather of the present-day regent. "The Kumbo chieftain received us in a friendly manner and indicated his willingness to fulfill all of the demands made of him in a timely manner. The effects of the (punitive expeditions) can be seen here as well."
It is likely that he came into possession of Ngonnso during this visit, Splettstösser believes, but it is unclear whether it was a gift, or if it was stolen or bought. Pavel maintained that his spoils were acquired "by way of purchase or barter."
The Nso historian Fanso, however, is convinced that the sculpture was stolen during a later campaign, led by a German lieutenant named Houben, who engaged in a 1902 battle with the Nso in Kumbo. His matter-of-fact report submitted to the imperial military base can be found in the Yaoundé archive: "Alarmed by the sentinel, I ordered the attack. At 5° in the evening, I gathered my troops, burned down the town and set up camp on a rise south of Kumbo."
But does it really matter whether it was stolen or bought? Can a purchase even be considered legal when the "buyer" had previously led his troops on a bloodthirsty rampage through the country? It is a question that Chimamanda Adichie also raised at the grand opening of the Humboldt Forum, referring to Ngonnso: "Why would you willingly give up your guiding spirit?"
Somewhat surprisingly, Verkijika Fanso says in parting that "Ngonnso would no longer exist had she not been stolen." The deity, he adds, was doubtlessly protected and preserved extremely well in Germany, whereas in Kumbo, Fanso believes, she would not have escaped the termites over time. The historian also doesn’t believe that a return at the present time makes much sense. "There is war in Kumbo. The palace isn’t safe. And where else should Ngonnso go?"
King Sehm Mbinglo I. is living in exile in the Cameroon capital of Yaoundé.Foto: Daniel Beloumou Olomo / DER SPIEGEL
The Voice of the King
That is a question for the king himself, who is demanding a return of the sculpture. Sehm Mbinglo I. rents an inconspicuous house in Yaoundé, situated on one side of a steep, dusty road covered in potholes. A metal gate is pushed aside to reveal a small courtyard and a large number of people, some of whom are introduced as palace guards, others as princes and princesses, the king’s children in other words. They are sitting around on white plastic chairs. The king, it is said, has 15 to 20 wives and countless children.
Then, before the king’s arrival, his private secretary and interpreter, a man named Bulami Edward Fonyuy, goes through the rules for the interview. Nobody but the king is allowed to sit down. A traditional head covering must be worn, of the kind he was nice enough to bring along. Nobody may approach the king without one. The king, a demigod who has the ability to communicate with gods and ancestors, must be addressed as "His Royal Highness." The questions must be submitted to him, Bulami, who will then translate them for the king, who actually speaks perfect English, into the tribal language. The king will answer in the Lamnso language, which Bulami will then translate back into English.
The guests are served kola nuts and local beer, which we had been instructed to bring as a gift for our host. The nuts are bitter and earthy, the beer is warm. And then, the king is suddenly standing there, a stocky gentleman with a stern face. Everyone stands and falls silent as he sits on his throne – which is really just a camping chair covered in a colorful blanket and set on a piece of artificial grass. He leans his long, thin staff, called a kitoome, against the wall of the house.
"The king would like to welcome you very warmly on behalf of the Nso people," Bulami translates. "And he would like to inquire how Germany and the German people are doing."
Sehm Mbinglo I., 66, has a deep, tired and slow voice. I thank him for his inquiry and respond that Germany is deeply concerned because a war has broken out in Europe, but aside from that, the Germans are doing well. The king nods. I then inquire about the wellbeing of His Highness. Bulami does what he does each time he speaks to the king: He claps three times and then mumbles his translation through his folded hands into the king’s ear.
"The king says he cannot act as though he is happy, because the absence of Ngonnso, the founder and goddess of our people, inflicts fresh pain every day. The king would like to know how Ngonnso is doing in Germany." I assure His Highness that the statue has all it needs, that it is on exhibit behind glass in a magnificent new museum, together with hundreds of other works of art. The king scowls, the idea seems rather distasteful to him.
What does Ngonnso mean to him? Why is her return so important? Bulami translates his response: "Ngonnso is the spiritual leader of the Nso. He and his people feel incomplete without her. Certain rituals cannot be performed without her. He needs her in order to communicate with the gods and the ancestors, to ask them for health, prosperity, protection and fertile land."
Dini Relindis Fowah, also known as Yefon, is a kind of ritual mother to the Nso and she impersonates the goddess Ngonnso at festivals.Foto: Daniel Beloumou Olomo / DER SPIEGEL
Over a decade ago, in 2011, the king sent a letter to Berlin with his first request that Ngonnso be returned. In response, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation offered to relinquish the sculpture to him "for a limited time on loan," though the foundation stipulated that it must be kept in a museum that "conforms to international standards." Why did the loan not take place? The king laughs and says: "This was not an acceptable proposal," Bulami translates. "It was an insult. You cannot steal something from someone and then loan it back to him. That is unfair."
Multiple attempts by the Nso to get Ngonnso back have been unsuccessful. Why should this time be any different? "The king says that ever since the day Sylvie came to inform him of her fight, he started believing that success might be possible. Because Sylvie is a woman and Ngonnso is a woman. All previous efforts have come from men. But Ngonnso has lent her voice to Sylvie as a woman, and she will combine the power of all Nso women to bring Ngonnso back to him."
In Berlin, it is said that it isn’t totally clear who the new legal owner should be if Ngonnso really is returned. Should Ngonnso belong to him, the king? Or to the Cameroonian state? Or the national museum? "The king says that he is the rightful owner of Ngonnso and that she belongs in his palace in Kumbo. Because of the war, that isn’t possible at the moment, but the king is convinced that the conflict in the lands of the Nso will end quickly once Ngonnso returns. He is extremely confident that all problems of the Nso will be solved once Ngonnso is finally with him."
But until peace returns, where and how will the sculpture be preserved? "The king says that it will be his decision to find a temporary solution if necessary. There are already plans in place for this eventuality."
In closing, the regent says he isn’t angry with Germany. The Nsos, he says, have a saying: To end a war, don’t look back and don’t count the dead. What happened is forgiven. Should he be invited to Germany, he says, he would be happy to come to personally explain his position. He concludes by saying he has a positive image of Germany and wishes me a pleasant journey home.
Should Ngonnso be returned, this rather fanciful museum is a possible temporary home. it is the Palace Museum of the Sultan of Bamum in the city of Foumban.Foto: Daniel Beloumou Olomo / DER SPIEGEL
The magnificent National Museum, one of the few places of interest in Yaoundé, "would be the appropriate place for Ngonnso," says its director, Hugues Heumen Tchana, as he leads the way through his museum. "After all, we are home to Cameroon’s cultural heritage." That includes a glass case on the ground floor containing an alto saxophone that once belonged to the late Manu Dibango, who died in 2020. Dibango was the legendary Cameroonian creator of the global hit "Soul Makossa." Heumen is aware that neither the king of the Nso nor Sylvie Njobati agree with him that the National Museum would be a proper home for their deity.
But he doesn’t think there is much of a rush anyway. He says that an interministerial commission has only just been established to examine the issue, of which he is the chair. The museum director makes it clear, though, that negotiations with Germany regarding the return of cultural artifacts "is the state’s responsibility, not that of individuals." It’s not just about Ngonnso, he says, there are hundreds of objects in many different European countries. A national strategy for restitution is currently under development, he says, but it is a long-term project with a horizon stretching out over years rather than months. He would like to ask Germany to make no rash decisions. And he takes a rather critical view of the campaign undertaken by Sylvie Njobati and other Nso activists: "With these high-profile actions, they benefit themselves first and foremost. But not the cause."
Hugues Heumen Tchana, director of the National Museum of Cameroon, insists that Germany should not rush the return of Ngonnso and is critical of the efforts of the Nso activists.Foto: Daniel Beloumou Olomo / DER SPIEGEL
Since the turn of the millennium, there have been numerous attempts by the Nso to get Ngonnso back, but none of them made much progress. In 2008, the request even apparently reached then-German President Horst Köhler, who, according to the ethnologist Splettstösser, "promised to look into the issue," and who, King Sehm Mbinglo I. told me, "consented to a return" – but he then stepped down from his office in 2010 before action was taken. His successor as German president, Christian Wulff, was also approached. "His premature resignation put an end to his involvement," says Splettstösser.
Ngonnso stayed in Berlin.
The Inseparability of Hearsay and Truth
For much of the 20th century, memories of the wooden figurine faded in Kumbo. Until the 1970s, as Ngonnso slumbered in storage in Berlin, identified as object III C 15017, nobody in Cameroon apparently knew where she was or even if she still existed. That changed in 1974, when a Nso poet and university lecturer named Bongasu Tanla Kishani "discovered" the sculpture in the Ethnological Museum during a visit to Berlin and spread the news and distributed photographs back home.
In her study, Anne Splettstösser discusses the theory that Kishani was the one who actually named the figure in the first place. In previous ethnological research into the Nso, the name "Ngonnso" never appeared. Which raises suspicions that the sculpture and its significance as an effigy of a founding goddess is actually an invented tradition, a "reinterpretation of an ancestral figure into a goddess," as Splettstösser quotes the assessment of one expert.
Edward Bulami, the royal translator and Nso activist, seems to unintentionally confirm that idea with his proud claim that he was the one who first popularized the name Ngonnso in his homeland. As co-organizer of the Nso Cultural Festival in 2008, he rechristened it as the Ngonnso Cultural Week. The festival, which has been suspended since the outbreak of war, includes rituals, masked dances, discussion rounds and the election of "Miss Ngonnso." Prior to that, says Bulami, people didn’t know the name of the goddess nor her importance. "Now, they’re talking about Ngonnso everywhere."
It is difficult to say in the Ngonnso case what is historical truth and what is hearsay. Sylvie Njobati construes the interpretive claims coming from European researchers regarding the provenance of Ngonnso as a new expression of colonial hegemony. "They want to explain our history to us. They believe their scientific methods are superior to our oral traditions." It all adds up, she says, to excuses for why the stolen artwork cannot be returned. That is also what she told Herman Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, who received her for a discussion following the opening of the Humboldt Forum.
And who, to her surprise, suddenly indicated that he was receptive to the idea of a return.
The Sultan of Bamum (under the parasol), Mfonrifum Nabil Mbombo Njoya, stands in front of his palace in the city of Foumban. He has declared his willingness to accommodate the Ngonnso sculpture, should it be returned, in his museum until it can safely be housed in the Nso capital of Kumbo.Foto: Daniel Beloumou Olomo / DER SPIEGEL
Catalyst for a Colonialism Debate
When the foundation board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation meets on June 27 with representatives from the federal government and the 16 German states, a decision will be made about Ngonnso’s return. And Hermann Parzinger, as he says in a discussion with DER SPIEGEL, believes the sculpture will be given back. That, at least, will be his recommendation to the board.
Why the change of heart? Parzinger takes a deep breath. It’s a different era, he says. He admits that over the course of several decades, the museums sought to thwart all attempts at restitution. "They simply didn’t want to give anything back." But a paradigm shift has taken place over the last several years, he says, a reconsideration. Germany, he says, is becoming more aware of its colonialist transgressions, a process pushed forward by the official recognition in 2015 of the genocide committed against the Herero. Germany, he says, spent far too long paying far too little attention to its colonialist past. For quite some time, he continues, there seems to have been a feeling "that we had to process enough guilt with the Holocaust." Because of its difficult history and conception, he says, the Humboldt Forum has had a "catalytic effect on the colonialism debate."
Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, at the opening of the Ethnological Museum in September 2021Foto: IPON / IMAGO
The Ethnological Museum has accepted – to a certain degree, at least – it’s new role as a memorial to colonialism. A number of artifacts are now being presented in a way that highlights the violent history of their acquisition, and entire rooms shed light on the colonialist context of the collection. Parzinger says that if Ngonnso ultimately leaves Berlin, he could imagine putting a copy on display or a 3-D scan as a way of explaining to visitors her importance and the long journey she took. Should the possession be transferred, Parzinger intends to stress to the new owner the importance of "proper safekeeping" so that the object remains in the best condition possible.
Even if the foundation board votes in favor of Ngonnso’s return on June 27, that would not immediately translate to the sculpture’s return. It would mean that Parzinger would be given a mandate to negotiate the return and that talks at the official level could begin. It is unclear, however, who the negotiating partner and potential recipient might be and where she would be kept. Nor is it clear how the Cameroonian state will approach the issue. Because the king is hoping that the return of Ngonnso will strengthen his power, the restitution discussion in Cameroon has a political dimension that also may affect the ongoing conflict. There are some voices in the country who fear that a strengthened Nso king potentially seeking with great pomp to return with Ngonnso to his palace in the renegade anglophone west of Cameroon could trigger new local conflicts.
And the king of the Nso, as he said during our interview, does indeed have grand plans "to welcome our goddess." It will be a day of celebration across the Nso territories, he says, of the kind nobody has ever seen before. Construction of a new museum in the Kumbo palace, foreseen as a new home for Ngonnso, was started long ago, the king says, though building activity has been suspended because of the war. Until stability returns, says his private secretary Bulami, the sculpture is to find accommodation in the palace of his friend, the Sultan of Bamum, in the city of Foumban.
When Ngonnso returns, Bulami says, rituals will be necessary to purify the figure so that she can regain her spiritual powers. She will have to be rubbed with palm oil and a red tree pigment, which could contravene Western ideas of "proper safekeeping." A white goat and a white rooster will be sacrificed in her honor when she returns. The earth will be pacified and the ancestors appeased. When Ngonnso returns, "my mission will be over," says Sylvie Njobati. And all will be well.
If Ngonnso returns.