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“The Burden of Memory”
Finally starting the conversation

During the cultural week “The Burden of Memory” in Yaoundé
During the cultural week “The Burden of Memory” in Yaoundé | Photo: Yvon Yamsi

How African artists see German colonial history became clear during the cultural week “The Burden of Memory” organised by the Goethe-Instituts of the Sub-Saharan African region, held in the Cameroon capital city of Yaoundé.

By Vladimir Balzer

Last week, more than 100 artists from nine African countries came together in Cameroon’s capital Yaoundé to appraise the German colonial era. Overwritten with terms such as burden, grief, memory, resistance, reconquest and reinvention, they discussed, performed, played or just listened to each other. Time and again, one could feel an immense need for confrontation and for mutual understanding. The programme was planned by three African curators: Nontobeko Ntombela from South Africa, Rose Jepkorir Kiptum from Kenya and Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell from Cameroon. With a few exceptions, the invited artists came from Africa. The Goethe-Institut initiated, organised, but otherwise stayed in the background, which was also met with a divided response. Some of the African actors wished for more German voices, but they deliberately remained quieter because what happened here was a very modern way of reappraising the past; with no set agenda, but with the will to understand and network.

Secretary-General Johannes Ebert in conversation with two participants Secretary-General Johannes Ebert in conversation with two participants | Photo: Y. Aboueme

Connecting theme for joint projects

Remarkably, many of the invited artists came in contact with one another for the first time at this event and began to plan their first joint projects. The artists have a connecting theme: the shared fate of having been oppressed by the German colonial power. While the worst atrocities were committed in Namibia, the colonial power in Cameroon acted with comparatively less destructive force. At that time, the Germans pitted the many fragmented ethnic groups against each other, thus weakening their resistance. The colonial rulers invested, built rails and roads and even entered into legal contracts with local representatives. This circumstance and the harsher regimes of the later colonial powers France and Great Britain gave rise to a sort of Germany nostalgia, as one of the curators, Princess Marilyn Douala Manga Bell, explains, saying, “The Germans had rules that could be followed.” The descendant of the prominent insurgent Rudolf Manga Bell ascertains that the Cameroonians never dealt with their history before independence. It was repressed, partly because the collaborating politicians of that time, now old men, still have an influence today and determine the discourse.

Performance in Yaoundé Performance in Yaoundé | Photo: Yvon Yamsi

The burden of history

This was exactly what the young artists attending the cultural week could not accept. They want to finally understand what happened back then and what it means for their future. For this they go on the trail of their ancestors or rediscover mourning and cleansing rituals. For example in “After Tears,” when the Cameroonian performer Chistian Etongo asks the Germans present onto the stage so that he can dance with them to together cleanse themselves from the burden of history. Just as the title of this cultural week says: “The Burden of Memory.” It became clear during this week that it is a burden shared by the descendants of the colonial rulers as well as the descendants of the victims. At times, however, accusations were made. For example, in the very personal film by Cameroonian Sylvie Njobati in which she set out to search for a statue of the Nsu people of West Cameroon to which she belongs. For the colonial rulers, it was an exotic figure with its eyes wide open, the long chain earrings and the shell-studded body. “For the Nsu people, this figure is sacred,” she says. “It represents the spiritual core of our people.”

Questions from the audience Questions from the audience | Photo: Yvon Yamsi

Finally talk about the colonial era

Now the statue is in the warehouse of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin and may go to the Humboldt Forum. The German side offered the Cameroonian ethnic group a copy of the figure – but that’s of little use to them. The Namibian artist Trixie Munyama is also audibly angry, saying, “Neither our ancestors nor we younger ones were able to mourn. We had no place where we could heal the trauma of colonization.” Artists like her demand what is urgently needed: to finally talk about the devastation of the colonial era, to open up. And for an autocratically ruled country like Cameroon, it is especially important to leave the closed spaces. Performances on the street in the city centre, but also in socially stressed neighbourhoods, attracted many curious onlookers. And on the sidelines, always watching were the Germans. The directors of the Goethe-Instituts in Rwanda, Namibia and South Africa had come.

Secretary-General Johannes Ebert (centre) with institute director Fabian Mühlthaler (right, next to him) and the curators and participants of “The Burden of Memory” Secretary-General Johannes Ebert (centre) with institute director Fabian Mühlthaler (right, next to him) and the curators and participants of “The Burden of Memory” | Photo: Y. Aboueme

The answer comes from Africa

Johannes Ebert, secretary-general of the Goethe-Institut, was also present at the event. He couldn’t and didn’t try to conceal his nervousness about speaking in the plenary on the topic. “It’s a very sensitive process,” he said, referring to what was on the minds of many African participants: Why must the Germans come, of all people the old colonial rulers, to enable the descendants of the victims to work through their history? But Johannes Ebert sees the Goethe-Institut less as an agenda setter than as an enabler. He emphasised the power of art for reappraising history as German history has shown. Today Ebert feels the German responsibility for the crimes done in the name of Germany. This responsibility should now also be extended to what happened in the colonies. For him, however, this leads mostly to questions and hardly any answers. “What can we Germans do?” he asks on a podium. And he already knows where the answer has to come from: “Solely from Africa.”