“But remember that words are signals, counters. They are not immortal. And it can happen – to use an image you’ll understand – it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.” Brian Friel, Translations
I am interviewing a number of South Sudanese people living in Berlin. They live in Afrikanisches Viertel, which is a neighbourhood in the Wedding area of Berlin. The Afrikanische Strasse U-Bahn station is different to other U-Bahn stations, embellished as it is, with huge photographs of elephants, giraffes and zebras. You are filled with an expectation of something different to the rest of Berlin lying above ground. However, that expectation is soon dashed, as you emerge from the U-Bahn station, there is nothing African about the area.
Except, that is, the street names – Zanzibar Street, Congo Street, Transvaal Street – they are the only thing that appear to be African.
So, what’s going on? Well, apparently a lot. The African Quarter has being at the centre of a raging debate in Berlin regarding whether the names of streets in the African Quarter should be changed or not. The streets are named after former German colonies in Africa and the colonialist leaders who ruled them. So, on one side, there are activists campaigning for the name changes because they represent Germany’s shameful colonial past. Whilst on the other side, some want the area to remain as it is, as a way of not hiding that shameful colonial past.
During the Scramble for Africa, in the late nineteenth century, Germany seized Togo and Cameroon, German Southwest Africa, which is today’s Namibia, and German East Africa, today’s Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi; and also parts of present day Congo-Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Chad, Kenya, Uganda, Cameroon, Guinea, Ghana and Nigeria. The Scramble for Africa is a fluffy name for the invasion of African countries by European powers, who committed abominable atrocities whilst conquering the continent.
There are twenty thousand people of African heritage living in Berlin, many of whom live in the African Quarter, these street names must be galling to them. Ana Naomi de Sousa, writing in The Guardian, states – “Even in a city that seems to specialise in monuments and memorialisation, Germany’s colonial past, and with it the history behind the African Quarter, had until recently slipped out of public consciousness. “While Germany is often praised for its critical engagement with its Nazi history, it still struggles to acknowledge that the Holocaust was preceded by this history of overseas colonialism and genocide,” says Sinthujan Varatharajah, a German scholar of political geography.
The source of the African Quarter can be traced back to a bizarre plan by the wild animal merchant Carl Hagenbeck to create a permanent zoo in Berlin to exhibit wild animals and Jesus merciful God, humans to celebrate the German colonial project and its spoils.
But de Sousa also writes – “Many of those in favour of maintaining the street names say it is precisely this “historical amnesia” that they are fighting against. Karina Fulusch is a spokesperson for PAV, a residents’ organisation who oppose what they say is a “politicised and ideological” debate around the street names. She cites local resident Johann Ganz: “The simple disappearance of controversial street names from the cityscape does not do away with the need for a deep-reaching discussion about Germany’s colonial legacy.”
A majority in the district parliament of Berlin-Mitte recently voted for new street names. If the district office gives the go-ahead, Lüderitzstrasse would then be renamed after Cornelius Frederiks, a resistance fighter in what was then German South-West Africa; Nachtigalplatz would become Bell-Platz, to commemorate Cameroonian King Rudolf Magna Bell, who was put to death by the Germans in 1914; Petersallee would have two new names. One part would be named after the Namibian independence fighter Anna Mungunda. The other part would be called Maji-Maji-Allee, after a resistance movement in former German East Africa.
In Brian Friel’s play, Translations, a detachment of Royal Engineers are engaged on behalf of the British Army in making the first Ordnance Survey in County Donegal, Ireland. For the purposes of cartography, the local Gaelic Irish place names have to be translated into English. Friel reveals that what is initially perceived as an administrative practicality becomes an action that has an invasive and unexpected impact on a community of people and their culture.
During the weeks that I have spent recording in the African Quarter, I have thought more and more about street names and how we take them so for granted, we think they are what they are, rarely do we consider their impact on our consciousness because we think after all they are only names, aren’t they?