‘Elephant’ scandal now rocks Kenyan Smithsonian show

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A multi-million-shilling scandal has rocked Kenya’s cultural and heritage show that ends today (Sunday) in Washington DC, the Nation can reveal.

The scam involves a series of barren plans and decisions that resulted in a white elephant— a 13-tonne monolithic granite stone sculpture that was to act as Kenya’s centrepiece at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

The carving by world renowned sculptor Elkana Ong’esa,70, never made it to The National Mall, the venue of the festival at which it was to be erected.

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The sculpture that was to embody the “Hands Off Our Elephants” campaign, which seeks to promote conservation of Kenya’s jumbos, is lying idle at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi after a national government corporation failed to transport it to DC.

The aborted project has cost Kenyans millions of shillings in heavy expenses incurred by Kisii County and the national government without getting value for money.

Kisii County Trade and Industry Chief Officer John Obwacha on Saturday said they had pumped over Sh10 million in the sculpture project.

The funds, according to Mr Obwocha, were used to buy the stone, pay carvers, insure the sculpture, hire a crane and truck, and transport it to Nairobi from where the national government was to fly it to the US.

Several millions were spent by Governor James Ongwae and 12 members of his government and County Assembly, who travelled to Washington DC to receive the carving.

They flew to the US political capital after the national government assured them that the cargo, which was transported from Kisii to Nairobi by road on May 28, would be delivered by air.

Dr Ongwae and his team waited for the sculpture in vain and returned to Kenya after spending a week in DC, according to the chief officer.

Kisii County and the national government also transported and are catering for the upkeep of seven stone artists who were supposed to put final touches to the carving, set up base and erect it at The Mall.

The group has been having little to do at the Rock Art tent since June 25, with their tools of trade being used by visitors to try out stone carving.

“It’s a big scandal. It has economic, social and political consequences… I may not be able to quantify but it runs into millions,” Mr Obwocha told the Nation at The Mall. “How do you commit government money to a project that looks like a white elephant?”

Problems best the project immediately Arts and Culture ministry officials received the carving and handed it over to Postal Corporation of Kenya (Posta).

Posta was to transport the 12-foot-high stone to Washington DC through its Expedited Mail Service (EMS), according to Arts and Culture Principal Secretary Patrick Omutia.

“After they took over the project, a lot of complications arose about the size, the weight, and the possibility of getting an airline that was ready to take 13 tonnes,” he said, adding that “each airline that saw the object said ‘No, No, No’”.

After failing to get an airline, the PS said, the bid was re-tendered. And although they finally got a carrier that was ready to do the job, Mr Omutia said the conditions attached by its managers were too much for the government.

“One even said we must give guarantee that should the cargo damage the plane then we would be prepared to pay for it (plane). No one would give in to such an undertaking… .It’s not worth it,” he said.

Posta, the PS said, called off the process after it turned out that the earliest the sculpture could arrive in DC was next Tuesday— two days after the end of the festival of culture, food, crafts, music and dance.

But people familiar with the deal told the Nation that national government officials keen to get kickbacks from the deal denied a firm that had won the tender in the first bid after getting one that could offer the services cheaply.

However, the cheaper carrier turned out to be more expensive— it bowed out after realizing that none of its aircraft could take 13 tonnes plus packaging, which increased the weight to over 17 tonnes.

Mr Ong’esa,70, an award winning stone artist, was not at his Stone Art tent at The Mall on Saturday. Although he told Nation that he was forcing himself not to be sad “because of other people’s mistakes”, his son and daughter said he is depressed.

“My father spent all his money on this project and even took a bank loan. He has been asking where his artwork is but no is providing answers,” Ms Emily Ong’esa, who came with friends from Dallas to see her father’s work, said.

Mr Obwocha said Kisii county leaders read mischief in the transport arrangements after delivering the carving to Nairobi.

“When it was weighed in Kisii, it was 12.8 tonnes. But what puzzled us is when it reached Nairobi, it had grown. By the time it was supposed to be shipped to Washington, the tonnage was 18,” he said.

He accused the national government and officials who handled the transaction of failing Kisii County and Kenyans, saying Governor Ongwae’s plan was to ship the stone early so that Mr Ong’esa could carve it at The Mall.

“First, we were told DHL has agreed to transport it. Next, it was a KLM cargo… . The last thing we were told is the carving cannot be transported. One plus one cannot be three,” he said.

But Mr Omutia exonerated his ministry from any wrongdoing, saying they handed over the project to Posta.

“We did everything that was humanly possible because that is not our line of expertise,” he said.

Both the ministry and the county government are scouting for prospective buyers of the artifact but Mr Ong’esa told Nation that he was not aware of such plans.

Mr Obwocha has already taken his market hunt to Texas and Minnesota, and today he is headed to New York.

“We must get our money back. That stone belongs to the people of Kisii as much as it is part of Kenya. They can demand to have it back or they can ask to have a different buyer,” he said. “It’s not coming to Washington DC that puts food on the table. It’s what you made in Washington. That’s what these carvers are crying for.”

On his part, Mr Omutia said they were welcoming anybody interested in buying the sculpture to “come and inspect it at the National Museums of Kenya”.

But Mr Ong’esa on Saturday disowned the two market seekers.

“Who is selling it? I don’t have any agreement with anybody,” he said. “No one has involved me. I want it (sculpture) back without any problem or conditions.”

It is a tradition that every country featured at the Smithsonian festival develops a work of art that acts as the centrepiece of its exhibition.

China, the other country featuring in the 48th edition of the event, for instance, has erected a flower plaque—a decorative bamboo structure designed by artist Danny Yung. The 34-foot high and 112-foot wide plaque is one of the largest structures in the festival’s history.

“China has left a mark on the US soil. What about Kenya?” said Samson Ong’esa, a stone carver and one of mzee Ong’esa’s sons.

The absence of the elephant carving rendered Kenya’s efforts to highlight its conservation efforts and draw global attention to poaching menace a low-key event.

According to Mr Omutia the campaign was carried out by word, video and pictures taken during the flag-off of the undelivered sculpture in Nairobi.

Nation spotted several participants donning “Hands off Our Elephants” T-Shirts but not many visitors bothered to know what it was all about.

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