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The Return of Sara Baartman

The Return of Sara Baartman

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In a storeroom at Paris's Musée de l'Homme, a man carefully wraps a jar in heavy white paper. Inside is the brain of Sara Baartman, which, along with the rest of her remains, is finally going home to South Africa.

Sara Baartman arrived in London in 1810. For the next five years, she was a popular freak show attraction. When she died in Paris in 1816, at age 26, Baartman was dissected by the French scientific icon Georges Couvier, who saw her as little more than an ape.

The full story of her life and death is told in The Life and Times of Sara Baartman. Now, five years after its release, THE RETURN OF SARA BAARTMAN continues the story, and tackles difficult issues of artifact and human remains repatriation and the rights of indigenous people.

Sara's repatriation involved years of lobbying by people in South Africa including Professor Phillip Tobias and many activists, a connection between a French parliamentary assistant and a South African poet Diana Ferrus, and French senator Nicolas About who, when told that only a law could force the country to give up Baartman, introduced one.

THE RETURN OF SARA BAARTMAN offers some closure on a tragic episode of racism and imperialism. Speaking at her funeral, South African president Thabo Mbeki said Baartman's story 'is the story of the loss of our ancient freedom... It is the story of our reduction to the status of objects that could be owned, used and disposed of by others.'

However, after returning Baartman to South Africa, questions and uncertainties remained. For how does an exploited spirit return home, when home, and the accompanying culture, is gone? And who could speak for her now, almost two hundred years after she left? What are the meanings of her legacy today? Even, what to call her, Sara, Sarah, or Saartjie - what would she have called herself? The colonial legacy may be receding, but it is still a long way from vanishing.

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