Ghosts of the Colonial Past: ‘Das leere Grab’ and the Scars of German Colonization in Tanzania

Ghosts of the Colonial Past: ‘Das leere Grab’ and the Scars of German Colonization in Tanzania

Mannheim, May 17th, The Black Academy team was honoured to co-host a significant screening of the documentary film ‘Das leere Grab’ (The Empty Grave) in collaboration with Cinema Quadrat e.V., Eine-Welt-Forum Mannheim e.V., and AK Kolonialgeschichte Mannheim. This poignant documentary, directed by the German-Tanzanian duo Agnes Lisa Wegner and Cece Mlay, unearths the deep wounds inflicted by the German colonial era in Tanzania. Through the narratives of two Tanzanian families, the film highlights the enduring traces and traumas of colonization, while showcasing the resilience and determination of those striving for justice and recognition.

A Painful Legacy

To this day, tens of thousands of human bones from former colonies are preserved in German museums. Identifying and repatriating these remains remains a major challenge. ‘Das leere Grab’ chronicles the arduous journeys of two Tanzanian families in their quest to recover the remains of their ancestors.

In Southern Tanzania, John Mbano, a young lawyer, and his wife Cesilia retrace the steps of John’s great-grandfather, executed by the German colonial army a century past. This ancestor’s skull was taken to Germany shortly after his execution in 1906, for racist ‘research’, etching a deep pain into the family’s history that persists to this day. Similarly, in Northern Tanzania, Felix and Ernest Kaaya are fighting for the repatriation of their ancestors’ bones, a battle that has led them all the way to the metropolis of Dar es Salaam. Their struggle against German and Tanzanian bureaucracy is supported by activists like Mnyaka Sururu Mboro and Konradin Kunze, who are putting effort to raising awareness of this cause among the German public.

A Fight for Recognition

Thanks to the tireless efforts of these families and their allies, the Mbano family finally secured an audience at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Berlin. This landmark event culminated in a visit by the German Federal President, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to their hometown, where he issued an official apology for the suffering inflicted. However, the grave remains empty, a poignant symbol of justice yet to be achieved.

Reassessing Colonial Crimes

‘Das leere Grab’ sheds light on a dark and long-neglected chapter of German history. By narrating these personal stories of loss and the quest for justice, the documentary makes a significant contribution to the reappraisal of German colonial crimes. It unearths not only the suffering inflicted by colonial domination but also demonstrates the strength and empowerment of the descendants of these victims, determined to gain recognition and reparation.

This film is an indispensable work for understanding the lasting implications of colonization and the need to confront this past honestly and openly in a bid to build a fairer future. Directors, Agnes Lisa Wegner and Cece Mlay, provide a powerful platform for voices that are often ignored, highlighting the importance of a culture of memory and justice in the healing process of nations and individuals.

It was a profound experience for The Black Academy team attending the projection. The Team was deeply moved by the stories presented in ‘Das leere Grab’ alongside the perseverance of the families in their quest for the truth. The film serves as a crucial reminder of the significance of acknowledging and redressing the injustices of the past, and of continuing to fight against the vestiges of colonialism that still persist today.

‘Das leere Grab’ sends an open invitation for dialogue and reflection on our shared history, shedding light not only on the wounds of the past but also on the paths that lie ahead reconciliation and justice.

By: Abdoul Boukari