By Grace Montesano
This morning Baheya, Ivy and I sat around our dining room table discussing the plans for the day and enjoying our breakfast—sort of. While Baheya and Ivy had opted to make eggs and toast, I went the muesli route. I was only partially surprised to find out that the milk I bought was actually liquid yogurt. The surprise was partial because I seem to make this mistake in almost every new country I visit. This wouldn’t be a problem for someone who could appreciate liquid yogurt, I’m just simply not that person. I dejectedly ate half of my cereal concoction (I needed the sustenance) and then left the apartment, hoping for a better experience with our first visit with Katharina Oguntoye, Founder and Director of Joliba Intercultural Network.
Joliba is housed in two unassuming buildings in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg in Berlin. Upon entering, we were greeted by several large paintings by Young Eun Sun, one of the current interns. Katharina Oguntoye also greeted us. Katharina was a highly influential figure in the early Afro-German women’s movement in Berlin. For instance she co-edited Showing Our Colors: Afro-German Women Speak Out, which is regarded as the first and one of the most important books about the experiences of Afro-German women. Along those lines she’s been working towards liberation for many years, and it was neat to talk to such an important leader of the movement.
Katharina founded Joliba (another name for the Niger River, meaning “big river”) in 1997 as a place for intercultural networking and aiding immigrants. According to Katharina, this name was chosen because the Niger River connects many countries in West Africa, and the organization brings together many different people within Germany. This reminds me of the foreword to Showing Our Colors, in which Audre Lorde writes, “This book serves to remind African-American women that we are not alone in our world situation. In the face of new international alignments, vital connections and differences exist that need to be examined between African-European, African-Asian, African American women” (xiv). It is clear that the movement Katharina participated in so heavily with Lorde has informed the rest of her life’s work.
In her office, Katharina gave us a bit of history of the organization, and then we were able to ask her some questions. One of the themes she spoke about was her own experience with racism. In “What I’ve Always Wanted to Tell You” from Showing Our Colors, Katharina writes about the feeling of otherness she experienced when she was the only Afro-German that she knew. More specifically she explains reuniting with her brother: “It felt so good that the form of his hands and feet looked so much like mine. i loved him for making me feel that i was not alone, not an accidental exception” (215). Today in our discussion, Katharina strengthened this observation in several ways. She told us that Black Germans weren’t (and perhaps still aren’t) automatically recognized as German citizens. People would often ask her where she was from despite her being born in Germany. She went on to give the example of some anti-racist workshops she once co-led with her partner Carolyn Gammon. She said it was a very interesting exercise because she is Black German, and her partner is a White Canadian. This is the inverse of the way that most Germans conceptualize race, so some of the workshop participants are a little bit taken aback at first. I asked Katharina if there was ever any tension between the desire to be treated like a German citizen and to escape the othering, while simultaneously acknowledging that the white Germans had waged imperialist and colonialist efforts against several countries in Africa, including Ghana, Togo, Camaroon, Rawanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Namibia. She responded that while there is a very specific and negative connotation to being “proud” to be German, she is happy to be German. She is glad to be able to claim the rights of a German citizen and to a certain extent not have to deal with the xenophobia that foreigners must.
Her experiences make a lot of sense, especially within the context of the racism of colonial Germany. As written in Showing Our Colors, “In the consciousness of the colonial avengers Blacks remained subhuman creatures to be civilized and disciplined. It is no wonder, then, that the occupation by Black soldiers was felt by much of the German population to be especially humiliating” (43). From the introduction to the book, we learned that for some Afro-Germans, “The nicest thing they [were] ever called […] was ‘war-baby’” (vii). With these quotes in mind, we can really begin to understand that the racism against Afro-Germans was exacerbated by the colonial history in which Black people were seen as less than human. It also makes sense that Katharina could desire being treated like the German she is, while also critiquing the Germany of the past, especially considering colonial Germany’s role in enhancing racism towards Afro-Germans.
After having this discussion, we took a short but beautiful walk through part of the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin to the other Joliba building, where met several more of the interns—none of whom are Germans. One thing about Joliba is that it truly is an intercultural experience. Another really important aspect of the work at Joliba that we learned about is the importance of appreciating culture and having joy. Katharina introduced us to cultural projects, such as children’s books and the kora. She emphasized that this type of cultural exchange and “fun” activity are so important to this movement, because the pain and difficulty of fighting injustice every day takes a physical and emotional toll on a person. Along these lines, in Jasmin Eding’s profile of ADEFRA (an organization we will be visiting with later in the week!), she writes, “We are working on our vision to make ADEFRA a place for empowerment for women and their children, a place of comfort, a place to learn and to grow, a place to heal” (131). I trust what Katharina has to say about self-care, not only because other scholars like Eding (and Heidi!) seem to agree but also because she said it with the authority of seeing a movement grow from the beginning to the present, with all the ups and downs and failures and successes.
I really appreciated this experience of being able to see a successful organization that actually helps people that is also founded on progressive principles. It is very difficult to understand for the first time the source of your oppression. It’s complicated and painful even though it might be rewarding and helpful. However, it is even more difficult to take that knowledge and create something to change the problem. What was so interesting about this visit is that we had read Showing Our Colors, and now we were seeing Joliba after 20 years of operation. As Katharina said to us, the movement started with Showing Our Colors so in the span of a week, we have seen both ends of 20 years of activism. This visit also elucidated some of the readings from this week by giving us a palpable context, i.e. meeting Katharina. There is such a large difference between reading someone’s work and then getting to speak to them about it face to face. After reading her essays, then seeing her (briefly) in the documentary, a chance to ask questions was great!
I have purchased some eggs and toast for tomorrow. Hopefully the day will start well and end well with the exciting sessions we have in store!
Grace Montesano is a rising senior majoring in Feminist and Gender Studies as well as Political Science at Colorado College. They love discussing politics, and are known for making obscure references to various media that no one else has heard of. Grace is skeptical of the 9/11 story we have all been told, and believes the jury is definitely still out about the existence of mermaids.