Minerva students have repeatedly criticized the global rotation for lacking a city in Africa. Given that Western Europe and East Asia each have two cities, how can the rotation be genuinely “global” if such a major continent is neglected? As Barbara Walder, Minerva’s Global Director of Operations, told the Quest for our series on the global rotation, “Minerva cities must be widely chosen — a representation in Africa is necessary.”
According to Ben Nelson’s article explaining the global rotation, a city in the African continent is currently off the rotation because of logistical concerns. Minerva cities need to be safe, politically stable, and possess a robust internet infrastructure. So far, African cities such as Johannesburg and Durbin in South Africa, where violent crime rates are high, and Accra, Ghana, and Dakar, Senegal, where infrastructure is unstable (well, in the Western sense maybe), have failed to meet these standards.
Kigali, Rwanda, however, is an auspicious candidate as it becomes more globally prominent. Although Minerva has not detailed its criteria for stability or prominence, my personal research shows that Rwanda has seen impressive economic growth in the past two decades. These accomplishments are credited to the success of state-owned enterprises under the tight grip of President Paul Kagame’s regime. Still, the administration has also been accused of fiddling with numbers to report false growth rates and poverty levels. Nonetheless, as Nelson’s article suggests, Kigali might become one of the seven cities students travel to.
Until then, however, how can students engage with African cultures? I found one answer by engaging with the Afro-German community during my global rotation semester in Berlin.
Kigali might become one of the seven cities students travel to. Until then, however, how can students engage with African cultures?
Like many others, I was drawn to Minerva for the chance to explore different global contexts, and I wanted to include an African presence as part of that immersion. I am from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, and before university, I studied at a high school in the American Midwest for an exchange program. I was also in India for various portions of my education, such as spending a year at a Methodist boarding school in the serene hills of Darjeeling and attending summer camp in the teeming city of Pune. Going back even farther are my memories growing up in a Hindu-Muslim household in a nearly homogenous Muslim-majority country — all of which left an open wound in my heart in search of the meaning of “home.”
Because of these experiences, I have felt continuously drawn to the lives of diaspora groups, recent migrants, and refugees. In their individual and collective ways, these groups offer many answers to questions of belonging and demonstrate extraordinary resilience in the process. As a result, I looked for opportunities to engage with diaspora groups in Germany, including Afro-Germans.
Before I came to Berlin in Fall 2019, I did not know that African and German identities could co-exist. That changed in November 2019, when I volunteered at a cultural restitution conference organized by an Afro-German advocacy group in Berlin. The event took place at the Südblock hall, which was only a 10-minute walk from our residence hall in Kreuzberg. Volunteering at the conference was critical for me, as it helped me feel that I had a place in the discourse, being neither German nor African. Perhaps, the distance also helped me explore different sides of the argument and choose freely where my sympathies lay.
At the conference, I learned about Germany’s history with the continent of Africa. In 1884, Otto von Bismarck met with European powers at the Berlin Congo Conference and together decided Africa’s fate without the presence of a single African. Afterward, Germany violently seized territory in “Togo and Cameroon in the west, German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia), and German East Africa (today’s Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi) in the east.”
German colonial powers made not only unfair trade deals and committed genocide of numbers that are still undetermined but also looted many cultural objects and ancestral remains from the colonized Africans. As of 2016, for example, Berlin’s state museums held nearly 1,000 skulls from Rwanda and 60 from Tanzania. Succinctly described by Israel Kaunatjike, a postcolonial activist and political refugee to Germany from Namibia, “Skeletons were brought here. Graves were robbed.”
The image shows the memorial head of a queen from the Kingdom of Benin. The copper alloy memorial is dated to the 16th century but the Bode Museum in Berlin, where I last saw it, did not disclose the details of how it was taken from Benin. Instead, the museum placed the memorial in an exhibit with European artifacts, an inappropriate juxtaposition when German museums, and the country at large, has yet to confront its colonial past and ensure social justice for present-day Afro-Germans.
Though progress towards historical reconciliation is slow, since the Afro-German movement of the 1980s, individuals with African heritage formed a “new, visible, and vocal Black German community.” Many of these Afro-Germans are descendants from the former German-occupied territories, from colonized soldiers of France and Britain, Black GIs, “Vertragsarbeiter” (contract workers) from East Germany, and refugees. Berlin, in particular, includes a network of political advocacy organizations such as AfricAvenir International e.V., ADAN, and EOTO that host art exhibitions, dialogue forums, and professional activities related to the needs of Afro-Germans. Owing to the efforts of such activist groups, significant streets that were named after German colonial officers have been renamed.
Still, at present, it is difficult to quantify the situation of Afro-Germans from official records because the German census doesn’t collect demographic data about citizens’ race. Additionally, the country’s colonial history is rarely taught in German schools, and the persecution of Germany’s Black people during the Second World War is equally left out. Further, Germany’s colonial legacy is often not discussed in school curriculums of formerly colonized countries, leaving many in a historical limbo about the conditions of the present day.
Since my engagement with activists and Afro-Germans, I have continued my education through different resources such as books, articles, and movies. In Buenos Aires, German student Katja Della Libera and I huddled together to watch Otomo, a German film released in 1999 about the experiences of a West African asylum seeker in Stuttgart, a city close to Katja’s hometown in Southern Germany. Loosely based on actual events, the social melodrama shows the racism, economic exclusion, and harassment in the hands of law enforcement, which Black individuals faced — experiences that words can rarely describe in full.
Overall, after my semester in Berlin, I have become more conscious about diasporic African communities in our rotation cities. Consider Argentina, for instance, where “two centuries ago, a third of Buenos Aires was Black. Today, it’s less than one percent.” The stories of African influences on modern-day Argentine traditions have been wholly erased, in everything from tango and gaúcho symbolism to asado barbeques. However, unlike in Berlin, most activist groups and related events in Buenos Aires are in Spanish, so my engagement with afroporteños has been disappointingly limited.
Interactions with Black diaspora groups cannot replace the experience of actually living in an African city. Among other reasons, this is because diasporic identities are morphed by the political, economic, and social forces of the new home country. Unlike citizens in African countries, recent diasporic Africans, for instance, may have the dual experience of being treated ‘as foreigners in their adopted homes, and as traitors in their place of birth.’ Further, second-or-third generation descendants can find it unfitting when they are seen as an ‘African’, a category which is far removed from their everyday lives and can be used to reduce their claim as citizens of, for instance, Germany. Notwithstanding these complexities, my experience with the Afro-German community helped me learn about the continent’s historical relationship with Germany, and get a glimpse of African perspectives within the global rotation. In the future, I hope that SXP can increase programming with marginalized communities, and speed up efforts to include an African representation in our travels.
A shoutout to Sonja Hohenbild from Berlin for her valuable suggestions and edits to the piece.