Posted by: Trina | September 3, 2009

“How Not To Write About Africa”

In Berlin there has been quite a bit of controversy about an exhibition called “The Third World in the Second World War“. This exhibition – scheduled to take place in Berlin’s “Werkstatt der Kulturen” – was designed to tell the widely ignored story of people of color who contributed to the fight against nazism during World War II.

The controversy began when Werkstatt curator, Philippa Ebènè, wanted the exhibit to focus solely on the contribution of people of color during this pivotal time in history.  She was especially sensitive to the highlighting of Arab collaboration with the Nazis in the face of a growing anti-Muslim atmosphere in much of Europe. Her decision to cancel the show when it was extended to include collaborators started a wildfire in the media, that included Ms. Ebènè being decried as an racist/anti-semite and “political lightweight”.

The exhibit opened yesterday in another venue. Especially telling within the context of the living diversity in Germany is this article on the opening about the allegations of racism against it is this sentence:

…die Tatsache, dass die Ausstellung von AfricAvenir getragen wird und die Anwesenheit von Professor Kum’a Ndumbe III. sprechen in meinen Augen eine eindeutige Sprache…”

(Translation: …the fact that the exhibit is sponsored by AfricAvenir and the presence of Professor Kum’a Ndumbe III speaks for itself…”)

This wouldn’t be the first time that the opinion/support of one minority party is utilized by the dominant culture to denigrate the opinion of other minorities (see my blog posts on the Green Party campaign poster in Kaarst here and here). This is one of the main tenets of resistance to true diversity.

I personally found it interesting to note that everyone of color – incl. black America G.I.’s or Maoris from New Zealand – is considered “Third World” in the context of this exhibit.

Less interesting – and even less surprising – was the tenor of the comments from the “usual suspects” during the public discourse.

All this – yet again – makes my head want to explode. So, on a lighter note (ok, not really) I leave you with a video production of Binyavanga Wainaina’s thought-provoking essay “How Not To Talk About Africa” narrated by Djimon Hounsou.

Food for thought anyone?



  1. Hello Trina.
    To pick out just one sentence from a long story is absolutely misleading. I think you know it. This has nothing to do with “utilisation”. Don’t forget, it was Werkstatt der Kulturen who gave the order for this show to AfricAvenir. There had already been a cooperation between these two parties on a show in 2008 concerning slavery and slave trade.

    I agree, the term “Third World” is miserable. However, I hope there will be a lot of Germans who visit this exhibition to realize that this war not only affected europeans, us-americans and japanese people.

    • Thanks for you comment.

      I picked out this specific sentence because I consider it truly symptomatic for a certain stance within the diversity dialogue. Not only here in Germany. Something similar happened in the discourse about the poster the Green Party in Kaarst. When first criticism of the poster arose, the local party attempted to neutralize its impact by quoting “Menschen mit Migrationshintergrund” who had seen the motif and allegedly found it fine – even anti-racist!

      IMHO it’s an attempt to play “tit for tat” – and distracts from the content (and validity!) of the actual criticism itself.

      Changing to term “Third World” to something more acceptable – and accurate – wouldn’t seem to be such a big problem. If a sense of accuracy and fairness is important, that is.

      “I hope there will be a lot of Germans who visit this exhibition to realize that this war not only affected europeans, us-americans and japanese people.”

      I’m sure they will, and that’s a good thing.

      However it would have been a much more constructive and uniting moment without the distasteful preface, don’t you think?

  2. @blikeberlin

    “Götz Aly, the popular historian, accused black Allied soldiers of the systematic rape of German women during the Second World War.

    He also dismissed their contribution to defeating the Nazis on the grounds that they were forced to fight.

    Mr Aly, the author of the controversial Hitler’s Beneficiaries, made the remarks during a press conference at “The Third World in the Second World War”, a Berlin exhibition aimed at recognising the role of thousands of Africans and Asians in defeating Nazism.”

    After reading this article* about Mr. Aly’s outrageous and defamatory allegations, (almost) every positive effect I was hoping could be eked out of this exhibition has been nullified.

    As someone with many family members who served proudly in all branches of the military service, I feel personally affronted and am deeply ashamed that someone like this was allowed to desecrate their service and spread his hate-filled, false propaganda at an event initial meant to honor the contributions of the very people he defamed!


  3. Hi Trina.
    After your answer I discovered the story from/about Götz Aly in DIE WELT*. Please don’t ask me for a comment…

    Fact is, there have been many people who made a deal with the devil Hitler – some did it by convincement, others for business advantage and others just because he was the enemy of their own enemy. I can’t judge it. But I would like to know all facts und I don’t want anybody to make the choice for me.

    I have friends from brazil, from Polynesia, from Africa, from… – my kids too. Nobody of us is talking about colour. We are all men. And there are good ones and bad ones.


  4. Hi again,

    “…But I would like to know all facts…”

    On this we most certainly both agree.

    However I think the point here is context. In a case like this – where the involvement and sacrifice of entire groups of people had been almost patently ignored – it’s almost like it would be if you organized an exhibition about women’s contributions to the arts & sciences, and then within that context also highlighted the dire deeds of female serial killers who also painted…

    Thanks for responding to my blog entry and sharing your viewpoint on the situation.


  5. […] Lions Have Their Own Historians…” In connection with my last post I ran across an article in the German newspaper “Die Welt” that literally left a sour […]

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