Cameroon: Exploring Germany's Colonial History Through Theater

Many don't know how closely Cameroon and Germany are connected through their colonial past. But those who look closely are in for a shock. Thespians from both countries are now facing their common history together.

When German theater director Fabian Lettow traveled to Cameroon, he was struck by the energy of its capital, Yaounde. "The city is extremely lively, sometimes even aggressive. People are selling things, bargaining, they make music and celebrate."

But as Lettow walked the streets together with his theater colleagues from Germany, he was also thinking of the countries' little-known shared history. "Bit by bit you realize that Germany actually has a lot do with Yaounde's past," Lettow said. "The city basically emerged from German history. And hardly anyone knows that."

Lettow was in Cameroon as part of a cooperative theater program, working with Martin Ambara, Lettow's director counterpart in Cameroon. Together, they initiated a cross-border theatre project after Ambara spent time working in Germany. Ambara was invited to the Berlin Theatre Festival (Berliner Festspiele), the high-point of the theater industry.

Ambara is well acquainted with German playwrights - from the literary celebrity Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) to the East German poet and dramatist Heiner Müller (1929-1995). And it was Müller's piece "Hamlet Machine," that was the inspiration for a joint theater project.

The play paints grueling pictures of power-obsession and contempt for mankind in German history. "It's a Cameroonian piece," Ambara said. Reason enough to re-examine it with an ensemble from both countries.

Yaounde used to be an asset of German colonial rulers, today Western advertising dominates the streets

Expedition in Yaounde

"Heiner Müller often said that you shouldn't just take a piece and show it as it is but rather look at it as a landscape and go somewhere else with it," Ambara said, laughing. "That's kind of what we're doing."

And in fact they moved away from Müller and the GDR- the project is now called "Fin de machine. Exit Hamlet." Lettow's ensemble "kainkollektiv" and Ambara's team from the Othni theater in Cameroon have undertaken week-long expeditions in Yaounde and have delved deep into Cameroon's and Germany's history.

The city of Yaounde was in fact founded by German colonial rulers who seized Cameroon in 1884 as a "dependency." After that, forced labor, resettlements, pillaging, and executions were part of daily life in Cameroon's capital. The German reign lasted until World War I, when French and British occupation took over.

Lack of knowledge in Europe

Actors from Cameroon and Germany work together on the production

However, this history has been completely erased from Germany's collective memory. "First you are astonished when you hear that they don't know about that part of German history. Then you realize they're being honest and they really don't know. And then you wonder why you blame them," Ambara said.

"In Africa people always say the whites have caused us so much harm. Then you talk to the whites and you realize - they really don't know what their ancestors did. They don't even know that Cameroon once was in German possession."

Ambara calls this the "trench of ignorance," and his theater project aims to bridge this. In the process, he has unearthed facts about Cameroon's own history that come as a shock.

For instance, national hero Charles Atangana is known as a freedom fighter. "But in reality he didn't fight for freedom, but instead for personal gain," Ambara said. "He worked for the Germans and when the French people came, he changed his name and started working for them."

Popular memorial for Charles Atangana in Yaounde

Living with the pain

The history of collaboration has been slipped into the visual design of the theater project, which is currently in its second phase of development in Germany. Heiner Müller's brutal pictures, which speak of power and murderousness, melt together with the drama of a country whose history was taken by Europe.

Video recordings of present day Yaounde, an African megacity that is being spammed with Western advertising, are shown on fragmented screens. Even decades after the end of the colonialism, the city is still closely related to Europe.

"I've always lived with this pain," Ambara said. "But no one here knows that the smallest decision in Europe has a huge impact on Africa. When I talk to people here who don't know this, I always wonder what kind of a world we actually live in. It just shows how isolated Europe is. Sometimes I get the impression that if Europeans talk about the world, they really only think about Europe."

New European image

At least the German actors from "kainkollektiv" were able to reach beyond Europe's borders to engage with the rest of the world. Thrown into the middle of the megacity Yaounde, they had to face the "purgatorial fire," Lettow's reference to the capital city's busy streets.

What makes us the contemporary witnesses we are with all the differences in our living conditions? That's the question the audience of both countries will now have to grapple with. The production is touring through Gernany until the end of November and in January will be performed in Yaounde.

At least for the actors "the trench of ignorance" has become smaller. The theatrical work was very "friendly," Ambara said. "Now I look at Europeans differently than before. I don't say how much they have done to us anymore, but instead I say they really don't know what they did."

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