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Photo by Tania Castellví
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Photo by Tania Castellví
Stephanie Lahya Aukongo
Whether black with a German ID or white with an African passport, “200 percent” African or “not that African at all”, these 10 Berliners are challenging cultural perceptions and changing the face of the city. Here, they talk about experiencing biculturalism from within... as well as all the prejudices and privileges that come with the colour of one’s skin.
The Voice of Germany
Nineteen year-old Ivy Quainoo, a born-and-raised Neuköllner with Ghanaian parents, sang her way to victory on the first edition of the reality talent show The Voice of Germany. Just one month later, she came out with her first album, Ivy; lead single “Do You Like What You See” hit number two on the German charts.
I am German as well as Ghanaian. Of course I could say that I identify myself more with German teenagers because I went to school in Charlottenburg, hung out with my friends (both deutsche and afrodeutsche) in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain and partied just the same way young Berliners do… maybe except for the fact that I’m not so much into clubs. But I’m absolutely aware of my Ghanaian roots. I was raised by my mother, which means we might eat jolof at home. And Ghanaian mothers can be strict. Part of my family still lives in Ghana and I keep in touch with them. We talk on the phone and we speak English with each other. They were all very excited about my performances in The Voice of Germany and they kept their fingers crossed, although unfortunately they couldn’t watch it.
There is quite a big Ghanaian community in Berlin. People meet at weddings, funerals and in different small clubs and organisations, but these are places where our parents and grandparents go and spend time together, talking and eating Ghanaian cuisine. I’m too young for that. What I respect the most in the Ghanaian world is that you don’t get things for nothing. You have to work hard.
The World Music Maestro
William Ramsey left his native South Africa in 1984 to avoid conscription and the war. Three years later, the young saxophonist experienced the heyday of the West Berlin scene in the company of African and Afro-Cuban musicians. After a stint in L.A. in the mid-1990s, he returned to the unified capital to develop a World Music program at the Hanns Eisler Schule. In 2011, Ramsey founded the Global Music Academy on Bergmanstraße, a school devoted to the study and practice of non-Western music and instruments.
I have lived for such a long time out of Africa that it is hard to talk about being an African. When I go home, people do not see me as African. Even my accent has changed. I still identify strongly with Africa and I stay closely in touch with developments there. I read a lot of African history and I study and play a lot of African music, but I also play a lot of other kinds of music as well. I suppose I do have more African friends here than other people, but I think what makes Berlin interesting is that apart from the Turkish community, the city has many different people living here but no real communities. So it is very easy to make friends with people from all over the world.
I never suffered racism in Berlin; that’s unfortunately reserved for people who look different. I think a lot of people living here just don’t realise what kind of problems people face who do not look European. I have many friends who have trouble renting an apartment, who suffer insulting comments, who have been attacked or beaten up and even hospitalised. I don’t believe these are particularly isolated incidents either. I think we are a long way from being a tolerant and open society in this regard, and outside of Berlin it is even worse.
The Writer Without Borders
Stefanie-Lahya Aukongo, 33, was born to Namibian parents in East Berlin and raised by a foster family. In 2009 she published her autobiography Kalungas Kind. Wie die DDR mein Leben rettete, a bestseller now in its third edition.
My father met my mother when he was a soldier in the Namibian war for independence against South Africa. My mother became pregnant and fled to a refugee camp in Angola. That’s where she went through the Cassinga Massacre. She came heavily wounded to East Berlin, where I was born. One and a half years later, like all Namibians, my still-wounded mother had to go back to South Africa. A German family from Prenzlauer Berg offered to take care of me. This family knew Margot Honecker (wife of GDR leader Eric Honecker) and adopted me when I was two and a half years old. I was the only child who was allowed to live in the GDR without a passport.
I had a normal childhood and went to the Jungpioniere, et cetera, but people always stared and wanted to touch me because I was different, which scared me. In the GDR there were other small foreign communities, but they lived isolated from society. Everybody knew each other in Prenzlauer Berg and everyone took care of me, also because I was the smallest. Sometimes it happened, though, that someone got angry at my German mother because they thought that she had slept with a ‘nigger’.
I have experienced a lot of racism in public and daily life, and also in the media. Getting a house was very hard, because landlords were afraid that I would cook smelly food or that in half a year 10 people would sleep there. Also, when I drive my car and people stare at me, because there is a black woman driving a car.
The first time I went to Namibia was in 1994, and now I go yearly. There, I really miss my friends and Volkornbrot. When I am in Germany, I miss the easy life and that feeling that you don’t need a lot to be happy.
The Showbiz Vet
Pierre Sanoussi-Bliss acts, directs and has written a children’s book. Born to a Guinean father and raised by his German mother in East Berlin, the multi-talented 50-year-old now lives with his partner in a swanky Mitte flat overlooking the city.
Are Germans racist? Well, the German film industry certainly is. Directors won’t hire you unless it’s written ‘black’ near the protagonist’s name in the script. And then they’ll expect you to speak broken German. For most German film producers it’s impossible to have a black guy playing a normal middle-class citizen. It’s a little bit ironic because it felt much easier being a non-white actor before the Wende. Back in the GDR I played in theatres, but after the Wall came down it was as if I were suddenly put into a box with a label: ‘black’.
Sometimes it happens that people ask where I am from. I answer “Berlin,” and they look in disbelief and continue asking: “Yeah, but where are you originally from?” Then I’m a little bit pissed. But when some drunken idiot says to me in the supermarket, “You’ve laid in the sun too long!” I just think, a little bit arrogantly, “Where I’ve laid in the sun, you’ll never have an opportunity to go.”
I was raised by a single mother as my dad went back to Guinea. I’ve never been to his country and I don’t feel like looking into my roots. I met my father only once, when I was 27 and he came to Berlin for a few days. A waiter asked me if I wanted a whisky and my father responded for me: “My son doesn’t drink alcohol.” We couldn’t get along.
I don’t like people who use their skin colour as an excuse for most of the bad things that happen to them. Once when an African I know complained to me that people didn’t help his wife bring her pram upstairs because she’s black, I told him that it was probably more a case of people being rude than racist. But then he accused me of “thinking too white” and would never talk to me again.