The Effects of Afrophobia and Racism on Germany`s African Community: a view from Hamburg


To be an immigrant of any race in any part of the world is hard. To be an immigrant of a darker race in any part of the world is very hard. But to be an immigrant particularly from sub-Saharan Africa in any part of the world is the very bottom of hardships. This is as true in New York City as it is true in the city with big ships; Hamburg.

The African migrant's story is one of ambition born out of human-caused poverty and lack of opportunity. The connection between slavery and colonialism and the present factors that push large numbers of Africans out of their homes to Europe and the Americas is one that is often not clearly made. In England and later the United States, the slave trade was abolished in the early 19th century.The abolishment of slavery as a system in Britain and later in the United States under the 13th amendment in 1865 made both moral and economic sense. By the mid-20th century, imperialism had become too burdensome politically and economically for the war distracted colonial powers of Europe. The haste with which some of the European colonizers left Africa and the ill-prepared and ill-suited local leaders and governments that followed the departure set the continent on a rocky path from which it has not significantly recovered. Even under the best and brightest leadership, the task of undoing hundreds of years of damage to human and natural resources done by slavery and colonialism in about half a century would have been an extremely difficult if not impossible one.

And so Africa since independence has been playing catch-up and for nearly 60 years the much-anticipated convergence with the developed world has eluded the continent and its people. But that is not the worst thing- for practical and psychological reasons, many Africans have given up the hope of making it at home; poverty is a door that can only be broken down by a pilgrimage to Europe and the America`s. And it is in pursuit of opportunity, a chance to free themselves from the grips of poverty and to see just how far they can go when their talents and wills are given a fertile ground to germinate that many Africans set their foot on the shores of Europe and the Americas - by flight they came as students, workers, guest workers, and professionals; by boat they came across the Mediterranean Sea as political refugees or economic refugees disguised as such.  

By design and by accident, many have found themselves in this great country, Germany. More than22% (18.6 million) of the total population of Germany last year had a migrant background. In Hamburg, the foreign population was estimated at the end of 2015 at 14.7% (262,000) of the city's total population of roughly 1.8 million. It is home to migrants from Asia, North and South America, Australia, other parts of Europe and Africa.

Germans of African descent represent  4% (800,000)  of the total German population with a migrant background. In Hamburg, a significant portion of the migrant population is of African origin. Unofficial statistics indicate that the Afro-German community in Hamburg is roughly 50,000 members strong. The African community is as diverse as any other in terms of places of origin, religion, language, political ideology and occupational status. However, this diversity is hardly recognized by the outside world, - a world that sees the so-called African through a veil that is made up of symbols and stereotypes. Arguably, the biggest frustration of the African migrant is having to see himself through the lens of the other, to embrace an imposed identity which hitherto was foreign to him.

To be an African is to live outside Africa. It is not until one finds him or herself abroad that one truly becomes an African. The Ghanaian or the Eritrean living in Hamburg is often denied the luxury of defining herself as she sees fit, - her identiy precedes her; neatly sewn into a one-size fit all uniform called African which she must wear. And how could she dare not wear it? - would that not be a sign that she is ashamed of who she is?

The tragedy of the so-called African identity is not that it puts into a small box a people from fifty plus countries, belonging to different families, ethnic groups, religions, and social and economic class. Neither is it because such generalization is unique to Africans, - there are plenty of equally troubling generalizations about Europeans, Americans, and Asians. The distinction lies in just how effortless it is made and how very basic Africans are perceived. No serious publisher will agree to publish a book titled How Europeans Live based on an anthropologist`experience in a Belarusian Village of less than one hundred people. But how often does one sees publications of various kinds with the title African culture or African this or that based on a do-gooder`s or a photographer's experience on a hunting expedition in a Kenyan village of fewer than 100 households that is unbeknown to most citizens in the same country?

The discrimination that an African experience in Hamburg is generally based on two not unrelated things: race and place of origin. Thus, while the African may be discriminated against based on his appearance, the more removed he or she is from Africa ``the heart of darkness,`` the more he is embraced and considered modern. A person of African origin who was born in Germany and speaks German flawlessly or a black person from the United States who dolls out his English in slangs is more likely to get a seat at the table, be considered cool and modern than his fellow of similar characteristics with an African accent. It reminds me of an advice I once received from a mate well-nigh 3 years ago, - ``tell them you are from the United States, they prefer that`` he said, in his distinctively Nigerian sound.

The discrimination against the African has produced in some anger against and distrust of many things white, but in others, it has resulted in self-dislike and self-criticism. Few things are as cringe-worthy as the sight of a Ghanaian with a face partly black and partly white and of young lighter skin boys poking fun at their darker-skin classmates. Thus, the closer one is to Africa, the less beautiful, more backward and unsophisticated he or she is perceived even by his own kind. But perhaps the most disturbing of all is the numerous accounts of African mothers advising their daughters not to choose African men, - but how could they not?

Two things are true about the African mother; she has the greatest story as well as the saddest. Her ability to not only survive but thrive in style from racism, repressive traditional customs and sexism, particularly in the hands of African men, speaks to her genius and unbreakable spirit.

Sexism against women is of course not exclusive to any particular community. But it is much more difficult for a man to take advantage of or abuse a woman who is living in her own country, is more educated and is financially more secure. The lack of education, money, and sometimes legal documents limits the amount of resources and recourses available to many African women living abroad; which makes them far more vulnerable than their native German counterpart. The African community in Hamburg has a deluge of extremely hardworking and responsible family men. But it also has its fair share of abusive jerks and crooks who have successfully turned their wives and daughters into strong critics and distrusting souls of the so-called African man. In this context, one could at least understand why some mothers in the African community cringe at the thought of their daughters with yet another so-called African man. However, it is much easier for a mother to encourage her daughter not to associate with the stereotypical African man when she sees her very self through the lens of the dominant community that she strives to be associated with.

Not long after one begins to pay close attention to self-dislike in the African community and the different manifestations of it does one realizes that more than anything, it is a desperate attempt to be accepted by a world that is at the very minimum suspicious and at the extreme thinks as much of the African as it thinks of a monkey.

When it dawns on the African in Hamburg and elsewhere in Germany that he can't be trusted to walk into the supermarket with his own debit card, sit next to a bag on the train without touching it, get into any major club without a white posse, be treated equally by the police  or that his chances of getting a loan, an apartment or a job is higher the more white recommenders she or he has, of being liked the more relaxed and straight her hair is, and of being taking seriously as intelligent by his or her teachers and colleagues the less he or she speaks with an African accent, - when that happens, an all too common reaction by many Africans is to assimilate instead of integrating and hang with fewer so-called  ``too`` African people. In other words, their reaction is to embrace whatever the dominant culture holds as the symbol of modernity.

Following its visit in February this year to a number of German states including Hamburg to assess the human rights situations of people of African descent living in Germany, the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent discovered, inter alia, that minority groups including people of African roots are the usual victims of stop and search by the police and housing discrimination by property owners. But perhaps the most disturbing finding was in the area of education where children with migrant backgrounds were twice as likely to drop out of school than their non-migrant background counterparts, and children of African background in particular  ``were increasingly recommended by teachers to take up school paths that reduced their opportunities for higher education (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2017).`` The Working Group concludes:

People of African descent are at the lowest rungs of German society. They end up with the jobs which nobody else wants. These are demonstrated by toilet cleaning jobs into which they are forced. They drive people of African descent into poverty, forcing them into depression, and raising serious risks of mental health issues (UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2017)

The invitation of the Working Group by the German Government was a pretty good indication that the country's leadership is taking this issue seriously. As the Working Group points out, Article 1 and 3 of the Basic Law and the General Act on Equal Treatment of 2006 protect human rights and outlaw discrimination based on race. The launch of the International Decade for People of African descent in Germany and the State coalition agreements which ``recognize the people of African descent as a particular victim group are important steps in the path to recognition``(UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 2017). What is seriously lacking, however, is the enforcement of existing laws and the inclusion of crimes committed by state agencies like the police within the scope of the Equal Treatment Act.

The conversation about equal treatment and the provision of justice to minorities are often dressed in the garments of moral righteousness and the need to follow the law. But perhaps it is equally important to highlight just how regressive it is for any society to treat some of its members unequally, - does not the elementary school teacher who is more eager to recommend an African child to take up a path that reduces his or her chances for higher education realize that the country and the government that pays her loses when that child`s talents are misdirected? What good is there for the country if an Einstein, a Neil Degrasse Tyson, a Barack Obama or a Merkel in the African community is advised to take up football or stand in the factory line? All of the nation`s problems or the problems inherent in the African community will not be solved by the complete eradication of discrimination,- but with each step toward a more just and equal society, the country and its African folk just might discover how far they can go.

By: Mohammed Adawulai