Gussman and Robbins were upset by the attitude of the government officials who repeatedly asserted that the statue would remain in Yaounde--and someday be put in a museum. In the meantime, the Afo-a-Kom was displayed in the Office of Tourism, with a sign saying "This statue is worth 15 million francs in America." When it was clear that the plan was for the statue to remain in Yaounde, the American delegation held strategy meetings to find ways of persuading the government to return the statue to Kom. They invoked the names of powerful American politicians and continually asked when the party would proceed to Laikom; they got only embarrassed non-responses. This went on for several days, with all parties apparently becoming very nervous. Then, suddenly, late in the week, they were told they were going to Laikom. Three days later, they flew to Bamenda, capital of the North West Province, and went by road from Bamenda to Fundong, then up to the Laikom palace. All along the way, there were roadside festivities: people danced and fired guns in celebration. The statue itself was carried in a grey packing crate, most often described as coffin-like, and people lined the roadsides to see the crate and the delegation pass.
Sophy Burnham says there were seven welcoming ceremonies altogether. In Fundong, the penultimate ceremony was held, with the Fon greeting the statue and welcoming it home again, and the delegation members and government officials making their speeches once more. Then the statue was taken up to the palace at Laikom, and, after appropriate ceremonies, restored to its home in abe kwifoyn, the house of the Fon's advisers. The Fon gave gifts to the delegation members and they went on their way. It was at Laikom that Burnham met Paul Nkwi, a Kom man who is also an anthropologist, and noted that Nkwi was more amused than impressed by the Americans' piety about the "sacred" statue. The rest of the story is told by Burnham:
"The next day we were kicked out of Cameroon. It wasn't our fault. We tried to stay. We made such a stink, asking what would happen if we rented cars and returned for the Festival of Arts, that the Minister exploded in a rage. It was over, he announced. We were guests of the government and should know how to behave. He was really mad. Then the Cameroonians escorted us onto planes, out of the country.
. . . After we left, Laikom was cordoned off. No nonresidents were allowed in. The Cameroonians didn't want us elevating one tribe over another, I guess. One Peace Corps officer was detained and his film and camera were inspected when he was found photographing ceremonies, . . . and the army . . . started maneuvers in the area, making mock war.
Soldiers were everywhere. The State Department telephoned me in New York asking me not to mention the names of Americans in Kom for fear they'd be kicked out of the country. A month later, I heard, the police were still swarming around, confiscating cameras" (1974:194).
Ferretti mentions but does not explore these details, nor their implications. He ends his book by pointing out that this episode added a new chapter to the matter of art thefts, and that "It changed henceforth the way museums with moral guidelines will acquire and even consider works of dubious provenance" (1976:124).
In Ferretti's book, the overall tone is of Americans as the good guys, as people who do others an enormous favor by their magnanimous gesture in returning a stolen art object. As Warren Robbins points out, the early seventies was also the time of the Nixon scandals and Americans had few reasons to feel good about themselves, so the Times stories were a diversion. If Ferretti's tone is self-congratulatory and smug, however, the tone of the next version, the Kom story, is similar but with an element of bemusement. Overall I would characterize the Kom attitude as one of puzzlement with some other common themes, one of which is great pride that their statue caused such a fuss. The Kom version of the story was first told me by Johnson Mbeng, (Sandra Blakeslee's Bamenda informant) who volunteered it to illustrate a point during a discussion of colonialism and racism; he was commenting on the Western view of Africans as superstitious, foolish people.
III. The Kom Version: How Kom Outwitted America
According to Mbeng, soon after it was established that the statue was in New York, he received a letter from America, from someone I will not name. Mbeng said that the person promised that he and any or all of his children could go to any university they chose in America, all expenses paid, if Mbeng could arrange to get the other members of the set of Ufwu-a-Kom out of Laikom, that is, if he would steal the other two statues that went with the Afo-a-Kom.
The letter-writer was not well acquainted with Mbeng who, in addition to being an honest man, was the adopted son of Fon Nsom. The first thing Mbeng did was to show the letter to the Fon, who was angry that someone wanted to steal the other two statues as well.
Fon Nsom thought about the letter for a while and then he said, "That statue is beaded with beads exchanged for people in the days of the slave trade, so each bead represents a Kom person. The statue has no particular value for us but it is not fair that the Americans should have both the people and the beads; let's see if we can't get one or the other back." And Mbeng adds, the Fon thought it would be very interesting to see if they, the poor Africans, with their tiny little kingdom, could trick a giant Western nation into giving them back something that was rightfully theirs anyway.
They worked out a strategy. Mbeng responded to the letter he had received with very pious statements about how terrible everything was in Kom, and then he proceeded to write to everyone he knew in America, to say there was famine and impotence in Kom and general mourning about the statue's disappearance. This is the point at which Sandra Blakeslee entered the picture and Ferretti and the New York Times got involved.
The Fon's plot worked, of course, but it worked a little too well in some ways. It worked so well that the Cameroon government got upset about a tiny little former kingdom having a sacred object that was its most important possession and that helped it to identify itself; ethnic identity as Kom people, not as Cameroonians, is the stuff of which civil wars or uprisings can be made, and no one wanted that (Mbeng and Fon Nsom included).
When the statue was to be received by the government in Yaounde, Fon Nsom was invited, along with many other officials. When the Fon go to Yaounde, he was told in no uncertain terms that the statue had to remain there, that it could never return to Kom because it was now a national treasure and not just the specific possession of the Kom people.
The Fon replied very graciously that it was too bad for his people, that even though everything in Kom shut down when he was away, things would just have to stay shut down, because his rightful place was with the statue since he and the Afo-a-Kom were supposed to be inseparable. But, he said, since he was an old man, he probably would not live much longer and there was just a slim chance that his successor, the next Fon, would not come to live in Yaounde with their statue. According to Mbeng, once the officials heard that and had consulted about it, they, with equal grace, decided to restore the statue, and the Fon, to Laikom.
I have said already that this is Mbeng's version of the story; the late Fon is the only other person who could confirm it directly. But there is a great deal of indirect evidence beginning with the Kom people's assessment of Fon Nsom Ngwe, who was widely believed to have had the sort of temperament to do such a thing, to have been a "trickster," fond of intrigue for its own sake. Several of those who accompanied the Fon to Yaounde say that the government definitely did not want the statue brought back to Kom, and they tell different stories about how the Fon persuaded the officials to return it. In one, the Fon is quoted as saying that if the Afo-a-Kom were to remain in Yaounde, then the Kom palace and all the Kom people (at that time a population of about 85,000) would have to move to Yaounde. In another, when the Fon was told that the Afo-a-Kom would be sent on a tour of all African countries, he pleaded that the statue be allowed to return to Kom and he be sent in its stead for, as he said, he, too, was a thing of Kom, an "Afo-a-Kom." I was surprised when Mbeng quoted the Fon as saying that the statue had no particular value in Kom, but credence was lent to this by a highly-placed police official who told me that when the statue disappeared the Fon showed no interest in the matter and consequently that the officials suspected him of having had a hand in its removal.