Postcolonialism Listening to One Another

Dance performance “The Mourning Citizen” by Trixie Munyama in Windhoek
Dance performance “The Mourning Citizen” by Trixie Munyama in Windhoek | Photo: Themba Dredz Mbuli

There is a debate on post-colonialism being conducted in Germany more vigorously than ever before. The Goethe-Institut is tackling the topic in a series of projects, thus providing a platform for those voices from the countries of origin that are still not heard often enough.

Whether at the recent symposium in Senegal or at the Museum Talks in South Africa, Burkina Faso, Rwanda and Ghana - it’s about listening to one another – especially when it comes to critically reappraising the colonial era.

Material and immaterial heritage

In late November, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy published their report “The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.” Four months later, the Goethe-Institut Senegal and its local partners organised a high-calibre symposium at the Musée des Civilisations Noires. Titled Patrimoine matériel, immatériel et altérité (Material and Immaterial Heritage and Otherness), over 150 participants from more than ten countries discussed the possibilities, limitations and requirements surrounding the topics of restitution and museums. “So the challenge is to rethink the museum, its functions, its locations, its discourses, and to regain its heritage both in terms of its materiality and its significance,” said Felwine Sarr in his opening address.

The range of contributions showed how broad the debate must be conceived and conducted – and how important the exchange between the discourses in Africa and Europe is. “The idea is to have these discussions here, because it’s about rethinking the relationship between Africa and Europe. We would also like to articulate the debates here that are taking place in Europe. That explains the cooperation with the Goethe-Institut,” continued Felwine Sarr.

Secretary-General Johannes Ebert during the symposium „Patrimoine matériel, immatériel et altérité“ in the Musée des Civilisations Noires Secretary-General Johannes Ebert during the symposium „Patrimoine matériel, immatériel et altérité“ in the Musée des Civilisations Noires | Photo: Stéphanie Nikolaïdis

Legal and historical evaluation of colonial injustice

Bringing together the discourses in Europe and Africa was also the aim of the symposium Colonial Injustice – Addressing Past Wrongs in Windhoek, which focused on the genocide of the Ovaherero and Nama peoples during the German colonial era. In addition to many Nama and Ovaherero, German-speaking and other Namibians as well as guests from Germany, South Africa and the USA accepted the invitation of the Goethe-Institut Namibia and its Berlin partners, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and the Akademie der Künste Berlin. A professional audience from academia and culture, activism and journalism was present including Zed Ngavirue, special envoy of the Namibian government. The panels and debates focused on the legal and historical assessment of the colonial injustices that occurred more than 100 years ago and the role of the arts in the reconciliation process. The finale was the dance performance “The Mourning Citizen” by Trixie Munyama.

Open wounds

The symposium was one of the few occasions when German-speaking Namibians, Nama and Ovaherero met directly to talk about the open wounds of the past. Many basic comments made it evident that this exchange has not found sufficient space in the past. For example, the Ovaherero activist Brian Black emphasised that he was concerned that a 115-year-old crime had been hushed up, and he also missed the support of his own government. Namibia’s raison d'état is still focused on the liberation struggle from the South African occupiers and leaves little room for a broad social debate on the German colonial era.

The symposium at the Goethe-Institut clearly demonstrated the need to intensify civil society discourse in order to advance the dialogue within Namibia and also to accompany the negotiation process between Germany and Namibia. Further formats are now being developed together with the Namibian partners in order to constructively confront the dramatic events that took place during the German colonial era – for example through the proposal of the Minister of Education to teach them in history lessons at the schools in Namibia.

Johannes Odenthal, Isabel Katjavivi, Nelago Shilongo and NoNtobeko Ntombela (left to right) during the symposium at the Goethe-Institut Namibia Johannes Odenthal, Isabel Katjavivi, Nelago Shilongo and NoNtobeko Ntombela (left to right) during the symposium at the Goethe-Institut Namibia | Photo: Themba Dredz Mbuli