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African-American repatriates tribal treasures through eBay diplomacy

African-American genealogist William Holland, dressed in traditional garb, shows off the ceremonial masks he bought on eBay. He plans to return the masks to the tribes from whence they came during a trip to Cameroon this month.
African-American genealogist William Holland, dressed in traditional garb, shows off the ceremonial masks he bought on eBay. He plans to return the masks to the tribes from whence they came during a trip to Cameroon this month.Courtesy of William Holland

When family researcher William Holland flies back to his ancestral homeland in Cameroon next week, he'll be bearing gifts: ceremonial masks that were taken out of Africa decades ago, purchased by Holland in online auctions, and now destined to be returned to the tribes from whence they came.

It's an unusual exercise in citizen diplomacy, but one that's fitting for Martin Luther King Jr. Day — an occasion that celebrates the late civil-rights leader's legacy and encourages volunteer service.

"You're always supposed to give back," Holland said. "Even if you have nothing, at least try to give something to somebody so they can move ahead, even if it's something as simple as a book. Now I'm able to do what's right and return these items that were stolen. And I hope that it leads the way for other people to give back as well, whether it's to a school, or an organization, or to society."

'Roots' for the 21st century

Holland has spent more than a decade fleshing out his ancestral connections. He's used documents, DNA tests and extensive interviews to trace his family back through the slave era in the South, back to Cameroon in West Africa, and maybe even back to Syria in ancient times. He's learned how people from Cameroon's Oku clan were kidnapped by slave traders in the 1700s, rounded up and sent to America. Those were the people who passed down their genetic heritage to Holland.

Now he's giving back, thanks in part to eBay.

The Atlanta businessman's project began when he learned about a statue of Ngonsso, the founder of Cameroon's Nso dynasty, which was taken from the country in the early 1900s during the colonial era and ended up in a German museum. Cameroonian officials have been working for years to get the statue repatriated, and Holland was looking for ways to support the campaign. During his research, he and his contacts in Cameroon came across items of cultural interest that were coming up for sale on eBay auction sites.

"Throwing knives, caps, many things from the palaces are on sale here in the U.S.," Holland said.

Holland decided to spend his own money to buy some of those items, including the masks. "One has been identified as an Oku mask, the other is Nso," he said. The Nso mask, depicting a colorful elephant, was said to be used by a secret society in their ceremonies, while the humanlike Oku mask was worn during funerals.

The masks were apparently taken from Cameroon in the 1970s or 1980s under murky circumstances, Holland said. Now he's gotten both of them back, along with some Cameroonian throwing knives, at a cost of more than $1,000 (including shipping).

"I'm doing this on my own, because it's the right thing to do," Holland said. "This is hopefully a preface to the return of the Ngonnso statue. It's not fair that you sell something that's sacred to the community."

Holland also plans to bring a set of slave-era shackles he bought on eBay, to use them as a visual aid when he tells his distant Cameroonian relatives the American side of the story surrounding his ancestors' abduction. "I don't think many of them know what happened during that time," he said.

What's in it for him?

In addition to forging better relations with his presumed relatives, Holland hopes his eBay diplomacy will lead to a role in future development projects, such as U.S.-supported programs to upgrade Cameroon's water and sanitation facilities and preserve the remains of a historic slave-trade port in Bimbia. He's also looking into starting a tour business that would be focused on his ancestral home in Oku country, with a twist of genetic genealogy added to the mix.

For Holland, this isn't just a business proposition. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, he has a dream: that the sons and daughters of former slaves will be able to work together with their African kin to make Africa — and America — a better place. 

"I'm glad that my eyes have been opened," Holland said. "I've learned a lot, and now I can do something to help change cultural awareness here in the U.S. and also in Cameroon. Now is a good time to do it."

Previous chapters in the African saga:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.