To forget, to conceal, to glorify, to be nostalgic, to remember heroes or to be traumatized. The different memories and memory strategies of German colonial history and the way this legacy is dealt with are ambivalent and contradictory. With his book “Memories of German Colonialism in Tanzania” Reginald Elias Kirey sheds light on memory policies in today’s Tanzania, former part of the German Colonial Empire. By looking at the past in the present, the historian (University of Dar es Salaam and University of Hamburg) reconstructs memory cultures and the constitution of collective memory, as well as changes and continuities in dealing with the colonial legacy. He shows how the colonial past influences politics, society and economy until now. Tanzanian memory narratives oscillate between transgenerational nostalgia and trauma, and manifest themselves in monuments, churches, street and personal names or museums, Kirey states. They are thus part of the national cultural heritage and Tanzanian collective memory, although there is not one national collective memory. The memory cultures vary in terms of place of residence, religion or ethnicity.
In his monography Reginald Kirey presents a variety of objectified colonial sites of remembrance, such as the Maji Maji Museum in Songea, where the graves of resistance fighters can be found and a commemoration festival is celebrated annually. The Maji Maji War is remembered in different ways: On the one hand, according to the author, the unity of many different groups in resistance against the colonial power serves as a symbol of independence and unity of the Tanzanian people until today. On the other hand, the memories are traumatic, as many people died and the German Scorched Earth-policy caused hunger, disease and homelessness. Other memories of violence and punishment are also widespread in Tanzania. Some sites of executions, such as the Hanging Tree of resistance fighter Mangi Meli in Old Moshi, serve as places of remembrance and as historical learning sites.
But nostalgia also plays an important role in Tanzanian memories. Using the example of the Chagga group in northern Tanzania, Kirey describes positive and grateful memories of German missionaries who taught reading and writing and brought the Christian faith. Numerous stone church buildings throughout the country bear witness to the German colonial era and – alongside government buildings, railroad stations, cemeteries or market halls – are part of the architectural heritage. Few buildings have been destroyed or are crumbling. Most are still in use and “valued for their historic, architectural, functional, and symbolic significance” (p. 209). Names for schools, soccer clubs or streets as well as a large number of monuments that honor resistance fighters also reflect colonial memories.
Furthermore the historian analyzes the memories of the Germans during the British colonial period. The memory cultures of that time were characterized by imperial rivalries between the German and the British. For example, the later colonial power erased all forms of German heroic memory such as the Wissmann statue, but erected the Askari statue in Dar es Salaam, which until now is the subject of debate as to whether it is a national symbol (as it commemorates African Soldiers) or a colonial one (as Askari were part of the colonial structure and not resistance fighters).1
By analyzing some specific case studies he – pars pro toto – sheds light to multidimensional Tanzanian memory culture(s) regarding German colonialism in general. His findings can be summarized insofar that “apart from being communicative, collective memories of the Germans in Tanzania are functional, in the sense that they involve rituals, commemorations and ceremonies, and are topographical, meaning that they are represented by buildings, gardens, urban spaces, monuments, statues, cemeteries, archives and museums.” (p. 211) The results are put in the theory of collective memory by Maurice Halbwachs, who primarily focuses on the social constructivity and continuous reproduction of memory2, as well as Michael Rothberg's concept of multidirectional memory, which states that memory policies are open to different possibilities, are conflictual and ambivalent.3
In dealing with Tanzanian memory cultures on German colonialism this book doubly enriches the interdisciplinary Memory Studies, which otherwise often focus the period of National Socialism and Shoa, or, when colonialism is topic, then predominantly deal with the case of Namibia. In means of a postcolonial critique of Eurocentric/White academic structures, it must be emphasized that the author himself is Tanzanian. Thus he had – under the premise of structural and place-bound research positions – specific perspectives regarding his biographical contact with the topic as well as specific field accesses such as the (easier) possibility of interviewing local authorities or elders in order to analyze their oral knowledge.
For the empirical research different methodological approaches were combined. The historian conducted interviews with descendants, activists, academics, museum staff and politicians. Also, he analyzed diverse texts such as archival material, newspaper articles, diaries or museum brochures and additionally made field observations. But the only vaguely described methodological approach is to be criticized. The sub-chapter of less than four pages does neither contain any methodological reflection or detailed description of the research process, nor critical discussion of methods or notes on corpus creation. As a sociologist, I would have liked to see more integration into different theories of memory and remembering, as well as a more extensive and critical discussion of the used methods.
Putting this critic aside, however, this book provides a solid overview and begins to fill a previous "epistemological void", to use Oswald Masebo's words.4 Kirey states that, in context of a commemoration boom in recent years as well as similar activities in other African countries, some of the collective memories of the colonial past are now used to legitimate the claims for reparation and restitution. It is no longer just individual descendants, but also politicians and academics who call for action. Reginald Kirey's “Memories of German Colonialism in Tanzania” is not only a detailed and interesting book, but – with the German Federal President's visit to Tanzania in November 2023 and his request for forgiveness5 – has also been published at the right time.
1 See also: Reginald Kirey, Decolonizing German Colonial Sites in Dar es Salaam. The Case of Hermann von Wissmann and the Askari Monument, 2021, in: Zeitgeschichte-Online: https://zeitgeschichte-online.de/geschichtskultur/decolonizing-german-colonial-sites-dar-es-salaam (18.12.2023).
2 Maurice Halbwachs, The Collective Memory, New York 1980.
3 Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory, Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization, Stanford 2009.
4 Oswald Masebo, Epistemologische Leerstellen in den verflochtenen Geschichten Tansanias und Deutschlands. Eine Sicht aus Hamburgs Partnerstadt Dar es Salaam, in: Jürgen Zimmerer / Kim S. Todzi (eds.), Hamburg. Tor zur kolonialen Welt: Erinnerungsorte der (post-)kolonialen Globalisierung. Göttingen 2021, pp. 549–565.
5 Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the occasion of the visit to the Maji Maji Memorial Museum and talks with descendants of Chief Songea Mbano, Songea 2023, URL: https://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/DE/Frank-Walter-Steinmeier/Reden/2023/11/231101-Songea-Maji-Maji-Museum.html (18.12.2023).