It had all begun when Lisa read a BBC report on the extensive collection of African art housed in museums across Europe. The Benin people of Nigeria had appealed to authorities at the British Museum to return artifacts, which had been stolen by British soldiers over a hundred years previously. The museum authorities hemmed and hawed, saying the artifacts were safer in their care and insisted the Nigerian government prove they possessed adequate facilities in which to house the art.
Following an uproar from other African leaders whose own art was in European museums, the British Museum authorities capitulated and agreed to return a few of the sacred items, but only on loan. That was one of the success stories. Other countries were still negotiating with the former colonial powers to return what was rightfully theirs. Spoils of war was a phrase that was bandied around a little too often, which was a convenient way to forget one’s morality, Lisa said. Tawanda had told her about the Zimbabwean ancient bird sculptures also in the British Museum.
“We have to do something,” she said.
“Steal their art too. An eye for an eye as it were.”
“Doesn’t that make the world blind?”
“Gandhi said something about an eye for an eye making the world blind. Or at least it’s been attributed to him though I did read somewhere that it may have originated from a Mesopotamian king.”
Lisa put her palms on either side of his face and looked into his eyes. “What do
you think of my idea?”
“I think it’s ridiculous, how would we even do that? Where would we start?”
Tawanda had always felt his life was meant for adventure and up to that point it lacked any excitement. Lisa’s suggestion elevated his heart rate and tapped into the rebellious part of his brain. Tawanda thought of his father and what he would want his son to do in that situation. The answer was clear: do what needs to be done. But he suspected he did not possess the determination of his father or the willingness of Lisa to recover the sculptures.
“We need to think of another way,” he said.
“There is no other way but direct action at this point.”
Tawanda refused, he was on a student visa and had an academic scholarship at Leeds to consider. He didn’t have the luxury to be a rebel. If caught he would be deported home with no degree to show for the time he had spent in the cold country. He said as much to Lisa. She, whose father had fought in the Iraqi War and had returned bitter at having fought for no discernable or honorable reason. That high moral authority blood seemed to run in her veins too and as she spoke. Tawanda wondered how they worked as a couple despite their differences in culture and temperament. They had been together for a year, having met at a first years’ welcome party where they bonded as they stood watching others dance. Tawanda, out of shyness, did not join in the dancing while Lisa did not feel inclined to show off her skills in front of other first years eager to make an impression on their peers. “We just have to approach international newspapers and CNN, Al Jazeera and tell them your story. If they try to deport you, they will just bring attention to our mission.”
Tawanda thought about it for a week, weighing the pros and cons and all the while knowing Lisa wanted to get back at the British government for using her father so miserably. Her father had quit shortly after his return from Iraq and now worked as a mechanic at their family-owned garage. Tawanda eventually agreed on condition they steal something impactful, which would guarantee attention and therefore protection from prosecution for both of them.
So, the couple formulated an idea, which initially began with ambitious plans of an art heist at one of the big museums in London. However, after a few months of visiting and casing several buildings, they adjusted their expectations.
“It will have to be a smaller, arbitrary but significant non-secure place,” said Tawanda.
“I can’t think, I am all museum-ed out,” said Lisa lying on his futon. “What
about museums in this area?”
“In Leeds? Do we even have any worthwhile museums?”
“I mean you are from around here—don’t you know?”
“I suppose I’ve been to one or two. We can try those, and also maybe further up north.”
They started a second list, which had smaller museums as far afield as Newcastle and Manchester. They slashed the list almost immediately because the cities were too big and the area they mapped would be difficult to cover in a few months especially with their busy class schedules. So, they set their antenna on Leeds and its environs. After a few visits separately to galleries and museums in the area and a few beyond, they settled on the Brontë Museum, which Tawanda had visited.
“The British love their literary icons and who better than the Brontës?” said Tawanda.
“Maybe Jane Austen?” said Lisa.
“There’s too much focus on her right now.”
“But all the more reason to steal something there, it would make more of an impact.”
“True, but you said yourself when you went there was tight security and the Austen house museum is smaller and everything is behind glass.”
“Not everything, but I did see cameras in those areas.”
“So we have to be realistic about our own capabilities.”
Tawanda cycled up the hill and glanced below at the mist-enveloped valley. A grey haze hovered over the grass. It confused him; he wobbled a bit before focusing on the race. Multitasking was not a part of the understanding that had served him well in his nineteen years. He would explore the Yorkshire countryside one day, perhaps with some satisfaction at having accomplished what his father could not. It was an ordinary day, as ordinary Saturdays go in university towns, and Leeds was no different. Beer cans and bottles were strewn over the front lawn near his residence, remnants from a particularly heavy night of drinking. Tawanda, who rarely partook of such vices, navigated his way through the obstacle course, carrying a backpack, pushing his bicycle with his left hand; he crossed the length of the courtyard without seeing a soul. It was five a.m., a blue grey film settled along the perimeter of the yard. He could never get used to the dreariness of the place; no wonder the students drank so. The university was not Tawanda’s first choice, but it did prove convenient for his love of cycling with its vast tracts of open land and its proximity to the bicycle race where he was headed. The day’s race was a truncated version of the famous Tour de Yorkshire in which he hoped to race one day. He planned to meet Lisa in Haworth, where she’d stayed overnight at a hotel so he could store his backpack and shower after the race. At Leeds Station, he boarded a train to Keighley. A few months earlier, when he’d decided to enter the race and wanted to view the course ahead of time, he’d asked a railway worker at the station how to get to “Keelee” and Haworth to view the bike trail.
The man laughed. “Where you from, lad?”
“You from Leeds? Give over. Your family, where they from?” He said slowly. “Zimbabwe, actually, I don’t see the relevance.”
“The relevance is, round ‘ere we don’t say Kee-Lee.” He shook his head. “It’s Keeth-lee.”
Tawanda ground his teeth and resisted expressing his annoyance at the man. They weren’t exactly intuitive, those Yorkshire names. He then boarded the train, which passed non-descript towns he would never visit, and arrived at Keighley a few minutes before his bus was due to leave. He asked the bus driver on the B2 to tell him when they arrived at the Haworth stop and sat in the front section reserved for the elderly or handicapped. An older couple sat opposite him. The bus was nearly empty, and the couple talked to each other in voices loud enough for the other three passengers to hear. The woman kept glancing at Tawanda at odd moments in her conversation. He would periodically smile to disarm her since she seemed nervous.
“Where you off to dear?” She finally said, looking squarely at him. “Haworth, to the Brontë Museum.”
Which was partially true, he just didn’t add the bike trail part because he didn’t want to continue with the conversation.
“Oh aye? Yorkshire has more to see than that museum you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Look to your right, down there, at that railway track.”
Tawanda looked out at a valley that was parallel to the road on which they were traveling. The railway track extended for several kilometers as far as he could tell, and it looked in disrepair.
“That’s where they filmed The Railway Children, you know the BBC film?”
“I don’t know it. When did it come out?”
“In the 1970s, I think.”
Tawanda nodded. The woman smiled a half smile and whispered something to her husband, who looked at Tawanda briefly as if seeing him for the first time, nodded at his wife and stared away again. She turned to Tawanda with the same smile that didn’t reach her eyes. He looked away and out the front window.
It had been his father’s mission in life to see the return of the Zimbabwe birds which were at the British Museum, and among them one of his ancestor’s birds looted during the first Chimurenga war in the late 1800s. Appeals to the Zimbabwean government to seek a return of the birds from England had proved unfruitful. It was never a good time for such demands. Right after independence, Tawanda’s father, as the first black curator at the National Art Gallery, gained an audience with the prime minister. While the newly elected leader was receptive to the idea of reclaiming the stolen sculptures, he informed Tawanda’s father that the country was in the midst of negotiating with Britain for funding to rebuild their broken country.
Priorities, the prime minister said, we have to prioritize what’s important.
And you don’t think our country’s national bird is a priority? Tawanda’s father had responded a little sharply, and seeing the prime minister wince, he changed tack and appealed to the man’s sense of duty. Who do you think won the war for us? Who was looking out for you and the boys on the war front? Our ancestors, that’s who, and those birds represent them. Tawanda’s father said the prime minister paused before responding.
That’s all very well, but we have to prioritize. In a few years’ time, we can revisit the issue of birds and whatever else.
So Tawanda’s father had waited and waited. As the years passed, access to any government official became almost impossible and the infrequent times when he gained admission into the hallowed halls of their offices, there was one excuse after another. We have to keep our relationship with Britain intact, you understand, they are threatening to withhold funding if we don’t adopt ESAP. According to the curator, membership and visits to the National Art Gallery dwindled over the years due to the drop-in government funding and the lack of new and interesting items to view. He became more desperate for the birds to be returned so his gallery could be the attraction it once was. However, more excuses greeted his impassioned appeals to government officials whose lower and lower ranks showed how his cache had fallen. On his last visit to one such official, the man had said:
Blair wants to remove us from the Commonwealth if we don’t comply with his directive to compensate farmers for taking their land, which is actually our land, but what do I know, ha-ha. So, you see we are in no position to be making demands about sculptures.
Ancient bird sculptures, Tawanda’s father corrected.
Yes, the man replied, sacred birds if you like, but the problem remains, doesn’t it?
And so Tawanda’s father went to the grave a heartbroken man to become an ancestor himself, restless and haunting his descendants because of one bird. The mantle then fell to Tawanda after his older brother, the heir, refused to pursue the nonsense matter any further.
On race day, Tawanda could only glimpse the rusty railway track as a shadowy outline in parts not covered by the mist. As he ascended another hill, he slowed down and shifted gears to climb it. He approached a telephone box by the entrance to a village where hundreds of people lined up cheering; some had water cups, which they extended to the passing cyclists. He looked to see if Lisa was there with his Zim flag waving, screaming in her high pitched sometimes annoying but loving voice. She was there. He winked at her in response to the cheers, but couldn’t be sure she saw him wink. As he passed, her voice blended in with all the others.
He labored to breathe evenly, hoisting himself up to press his feet harder on the pedals. The hill became steeper as it curved. He spied some sheep. From his past excursions he knew them to be sheep, though that day what he saw could be something else altogether. He didn’t care really; it was just a passing thought, which made him grin. He knew his nervous restlessness was about something else entirely. He couldn’t wait for the race to be over, his legs were weary, and his mind was already at the finish line; the last 20 minutes became a slog, dampening his spirits, but he continued knowing there was a greater purpose ahead.
Lisa waited for him at the finish line; she hugged him and whispered for him to hurry up, he was five minutes behind schedule. He sighed. Despite being tired, he cycled back to the hotel and left his bicycle with a bellboy, who would place it in storage. Tawanda opted to take the stairs two at a time to their fourth-floor room. The hotel was old, maybe dating back to the turn of the 20th century. There was one elevator, which rattled and took its time visiting the six floors. Lisa had laid out his clothes on the bed, which he put on after a timed five-minute shower.
He decided to use the elevator; it had a sliding latticed gate and a heavy door; a small space that hardly warranted such grandiosity. His watch showed 11:35 a.m. He was still well within the agreed time range, but Lisa would be upset if he was late, so he walked quickly to a taxi parked at the corner.
Lisa waited by the bright red telephone box as the sun bore down on her. A solitary union jack hovered on a nearby pole, hardly moving. Tawanda had spotted her easily because the area was clear of cyclists and spectators. The only evidence that something had occurred earlier was the triangular yellow, white, and blue flags strung together, hanging along the race route, a few volunteers picking up rubbish and paper cups from the ground.
“You’re late,” Lisa said, but she was not angry.
They started towards the museum. The sidewalk narrowed until they were forced to walk on the cobbled road. There were a few parked cars, but otherwise it looked like a pedestrian walkway with people wandering freely along it. Above them were the triangular flags of union jacks zigzagging all the way up the hill in the direction in which they were headed. Tawanda noticed, not for the first time, that he was the only black person walking those streets, and possibly for kilometers around. It didn’t bother him as much as it used to when he first moved to Leeds and found himself in places where he was one of only a few Africans. Leeds itself was diverse enough, but there were still some homogenous enclaves and usually, more often than not, those were the places he was sent for group projects for his civil engineering course. For that day, his standing out was a positive; everyone’s attention would be on him and not Lisa.
They passed The Fleece Inn, which had a black sign with a white fluffy sheep on it. Sheep, sheep everywhere, he thought. They walked through the village with shops called Daisy Days and The Stirrup Eating House. They passed the Brontë parsonage sign and the road narrowed even farther as they approached the museum. Tawanda pointed out the moors beyond the museum and the undulating terrain that characterized the county. On another day, they could have strolled along the famous moors as the Brontës did, walking the same path they walked, but this day wasn’t the day for that.
They presented entry tickets to the security guard when they reached the museum, nearly out of breath from the climb. Tawanda had purchased the tickets with cash on his previous visit so nothing could easily be traced back to him or Lisa. Inside the entryway were only a few people. By late afternoon it would be packed and maneuvering around crowds to glimpse the Brontë family’s material goods could prove to be a problem. Tawanda had calculated that just before midday was the ideal time to visit. There was enough of a crowd for cover but not too many to impede Lisa’s lifting of a certain item.
They listened attentively as the guide spoke of the Brontë family’s triumphs and tragedies. He pointed out the sofa on which Emily Brontë was thought to have died of tuberculosis. Lisa asked questions and the guide, pleased, became more animated.
The family heirlooms, clothes, and other artifacts were either behind glass or roped off, except for Branwell’s Studio, which was scattered with items from his life. It was dark and depressing. The sign outside his studio said: Enter the chaotic mind of Branwell Brontë through a dramatic reimagining of his room. The room was a reproduction and contained antiques and replicas, unlike the other parts of the museum, which had original items. Except the guide on Tawanda’s first visit let slip that the inkwell on Branwell’s desk was authentic and had actually belonged to the curate Patrick Brontë, patriarch of the famous family. Only a few people were allowed into the studio; it was the smallest room in the house. While the rest of the group remained outside, the guide entered with Tawanda, Lisa, and three other people. The guide positioned himself annoyingly close to the desk by Branwell’s unmade bed. Lisa glanced at Tawanda trying some sort of telepathic communication. He shook his head. He needed her to wait until he positioned himself near the drawings, but with more people than usual in the small space, it was proving difficult to move without bumping into someone.
“Tawa, didn’t you have a question about Branwell’s art on that table?” Lisa said a little loudly, “I remember you talking about it after your visit last week.”
“Oh, you have been here before, sir?” the guide said, turning to Tawanda.
“Yes, yes I have. What materials did Branwell use? Like for instance in this piece.”
Tawanda pointed to a sketch amidst a pile of drawings scattered on the table across the room. The guide and the rest of the group moved towards the table, or rather shuffled because there was little room to do more. Lisa stood to the back of the group and casually rested her hand on the desk; she glanced at the entryway to see if the rest of the group was nearby. No one was there; she lifted the inkwell in one swift motion and dropped it into her open canvas bag. In doing so, she displaced some dust that had been on the desk, which led to a coughing fit. Tawanda turned to her in question. She moved closer to the door to breathe in some fresh air. The guide also looked at her in concern. She informed him that the other members of their group looked to be returning and should they be moving on? He ushered them out a side door, which led to the second half of the exhibit, and he went out the other door to call the rest of the group in.
Lisa stayed just inside Branwell’s room and opened a grape soda, which she’d hidden in a compartment in her bag; the security guard at the entrance had missed it; she spilled the juice onto the hardwood floor.
The guide returned.
“I’m so sorry—my coughing—I needed a drink,” Lisa said pointing to the floor.
“It’s all right,” the guide said, inspecting the puddle that was spreading. “We’ll have to
close this area for cleaning.”
Some groaned at hearing of the delay.
“We will come back, it won’t take long, but in the meantime, you can go round that way to the other exhibit.” He waved his hand distractedly as he spoke into a handheld radio.
There was confusion, as the group didn’t know what “round that way” meant since there were several doors leading out of the corridor.
“Oh, bother, I will take you,” said the guide, returning the radio to his back pocket.
As the group followed, Tawanda and Lisa went out another door to the museum shop. They’d calculated that they had at least 15 minutes before the inkwell would be discovered missing.
Lisa bought two journals with pink roses and Charlotte Brontë’s signature in cursive on the front. While Tawanda wanted to leave as quickly as possible, they didn’t want to draw attention for having left too soon. Lisa purchased the journals and added a quill and glass inkwell set to her haul. Tawanda did not like that little bit of improvisation on her part. He walked out of the shop ahead of her.
“What was that all about? Buying that inkwell?” Tawanda stopped, turning to face her.
“A bit of irony, you know?” Lisa laughed.
“It’s not funny, we need enough lead time to mail the inkwell.”
“Just relax, Tawa, honestly.”
“Me? Relax? How about you relax, monitoring my time when I’d just finished the race, knowing how tired I was.” His voice was shaky. “You didn’t even congratulate me for finishing the race.”
“Can we talk about this later?”
The crowd on Main St. had swelled. It was harder for Tawanda and Lisa to make their way back to the tarred road even though it was a downhill walk and should have been faster than their earlier journey. The taxi was waiting at the entrance.
“We did it!” Lisa kissed Tawanda on the cheek.
“Yes, we did.” He patted her thigh.
The taxi driver glanced at them in his rearview mirror. He looked like he was about to ask the reason for their excitement but Tawanda started talking about a class project. Within a few minutes they’d reached the hotel, thanking the driver with a generous tip. All that remained was to recover his bike, check out, and return to Leeds.
The plan had been simple enough. Steal the inkwell; send a letter to the museum and national newspapers demanding the total release, not loan, of all the Benin artifacts. Tawanda and Lisa decided it was best to draw attention to the more famous art, which had already been reported in major news organizations months before. Geographically, Zimbabwe was too far away from Nigeria to be immediately linked to Tawanda. If the case garnered enough attention, Scotland Yard would become involved and eventually make the connection. Once they discovered his involvement as well as Lisa’s, the couple’s story would be further covered in international newspapers and on broadcast news worldwide. That’s when he would draw attention to the stolen Zimbabwean birds.
Lisa was to mail the inkwell to Tawanda’s mother in Zimbabwe by DHL express as soon as they arrived in Leeds from Haworth. Tawanda would inform his mother that a package would be arriving but not to open the surprise. He knew his mother would be upset if she opened the box and discovered the inkwell and the reason for it being in her house. She’d lived with a husband with an obsessive personality. Once he decided on something, he would not let it go until he either became exhausted or accomplished his mission. It could range from an obsession with one song, which he would play on repeat for several days, then never again, to the decades-long pursuit of the birds. The sculptures belonged to the country, that much was true but whether her husband’s lineage was the true guardians of even just one of them was murky. Every Zimbabwean could claim a link to the Munhumutapa Kingdom and the famed Moyo Mondizvo clan who’d sculpted the sacred birds. She’d tolerated his obsession but was glad that she no longer had to hear about the birds.
Her peace would be disrupted the day she turned on BBC, as she did every day, and saw her son’s face looking back at her. She would look from the TV to the unopened package and back again and know what he had done.
About the Author:
Wadzanai Mhute is an author and journalist with an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College and an MSc. in Journalism from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Warwick Review and Farafina among others.
Feature image by engin akyurt/Unsplash