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The Institute

Cultural institutes are considered effective instruments in foreign policy for any nation-state that can afford them. Moses März exposes the workings behind the walls of a branch of Germany’s Goethe-Institut and the pitfalls involved in the business of exporting national culture.

At about 7.30am the director is already in her office. Soon, a queue of people will appear from the reception area, predominantly “creatives”, waiting for an opportunity to present their project proposals to her.

People here respectfully refer to her as Madame la directice. Since the institutional scene has all but collapsed in the decade of political crisis, the double-storey building – hidden behind high white walls and a steel gate in the once leafy expat suburb of Cocody in Abidjan – has become one of the few remaining doors to “international recognition”, a way out of this dead end.

It is 8.36am. The director dials a code on the intercom and summons the director of the cultural programme to a meeting. A minute later, two offices down the corridor jokingly called the West Wing, he leaves his office and gestures to the receptionist behind the bulletproof glass to buzz him through the security door that protects the section where the director and the bookkeeper have their offices.

The meeting is to discuss the Institute’s annual main event. “As you know,” says the director, “the people from the north have been discriminated against and stigmatised as foreigners, and as the Institute we were thinking we should be taking a stance against that. What do you say?”

The director of the cultural programme is from the north, a term roughly referring to anyone from the rebel-controlled areas of the country, but reaching all the way up to Mali and Burkina Faso. He has been working here for almost two decades – much longer than the director, who arrived as a local contract hire to teach German as a foreign language. In the beginning she taught A1 levels upstairs, predominantly to prospective spouses of German men who needed to get their language certificate to fulfil visa requirements. At that time the director of the cultural programme was in the same position as he is today. His degrees in German and Anthropology from the University of Bayreuth will never push him up the ranks. The rules don’t allow a local to become the director of a branch of the German cultural institute. To read this article in full online, subscribe.

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Over the years, the director of the cultural programme has grown to accept his fate. The comfortable salary and the stability of the job in a now defunct economy do not leave much room for complaint. He could tell his boss a thing or two about the political crisis she is now explaining to him, perhaps offer a different interpretation of the events that the media were quick to label “ethnic violence” and xenophobia. But she has not called him here to have a discussion. She is merely asking for implementation.

“We were thinking of organising a festival dedicated to the culture of the people of the north, concerts, theatre plays, movie screenings and panel discussions – the whole package. It would be a statement against exclusion and xenophobia, something around reconciliation – without calling it that of course,” says the director, and pushes the draft of a festival programme across the table to him.

Taking a quick look at the pamphlet, the director of the cultural programme sees that everything has already been decided. The artists have been selected, the venue chosen. The festival is supposed to take place in the biggest venue in the city, the Palais de la Culture d’Abidjan, a Chinese-sponsored mega-multipurpose venue built right next to the lagoon – a tribute to the French taste for grand architecture. Yes, he is here to receive instructions on whom to contact and whose plane ticket to book.

The director’s personal life has long been the source of gossip among the Institute’s staff members. After taking up her position, she used institutional funds to assist her husband – then a local DJ, previously with the state broadcaster, and a record label owner – to set up a communications agency to service the Goethe-Institut. It is an open secret that is well documented in the Institute’s books, but it has become more contentious because of the communications start-up’s failure to attract new clients. Up until today, the Institute is its sole client.

At the last meeting of Goethe-Institut directors from sub-Saharan Africa, the regional coordinator expressed concern about the colourful “African” style of haphazard font sizes on the Abidjan Institute’s official pamphlets. “Should the corporate design of the Institute not be standardised despite African tastes?” he asked. The question sparked a discussion about the adaptability of the Goethe-Institut’s visual aesthetics, but the innuendo of the regional coordinator’s sniping comment was lost on no one.

To the director’s credit, since she assumed her position the Institute has earned a reputation for being particularly embedded in the local culture. The communications agency’s local aesthetics and access to local networks have helped to legitimise the Institute’s activities. In addition, the head of the communications agency, the director’s husband, regularly assumes the role of an unofficial director of communications for the Institute, using his charisma to publicise its activities.

Watching him on the breakfast show on RTI, the national broadcaster, pronouncing a German word to a laughing studio audience, and thinking of the many pictures of him in the annual reports – wearing his traditional gear on stage, microphone in hand, a band in the background – it is not hard to understand why head office in Munich is more than pleased with the director’s performance.

On stage, in his role as MC for all occasions, the “director of communications” likes to emphasise that the Institute is “the only institute that keeps its doors open before and after the crisis!”. When he says this there are always proud smiles in the audience. The perseverance implied in this favourite marketing slogan of his alludes, of course, to the destruction of the Centre Culturel Français during the riots that the disgruntled youth called a battle for a second decolonisation. Now the French have packed up and left. They will return.

The situation in the country is still somewhat precarious. Not more than a year has passed since the Ouagadougou Peace Agreement was signed by Laurent Gbagbo’s government and Guillaume Soro’s rebel group, Forces Nouvelles, and brought an official end to the conflict that has split the country into two. The south is controlled by the Laurent Gbagbo government, the north by the Forces Nouvelles that have been very efficient at transforming their territory into a de facto state. The coming elections promise to solve this problem. Just when they will take place is not entirely clear. Some say it will happen next month. Others prophesy that the stalemate will continue for as long as all parties derive big enough profits from it.

In the meantime the American Cultural Centre has moved into the bulky high-security complex of the US embassy. The British never seemed to have any interest in getting involved in what has traditionally been earmarked as a French sphere of influence. No one knows what the Spanish Institute is doing here. And then there are the Chinese. They have started to take soft power more seriously and are busy setting up institutes and classrooms all over the continent. Soon they might become a serious threat to France’s privileged role in the country. The government has already expressed its preference for dealing with the Chinese and eventually turning its back on Europe.

Thus far, the Goethe-Institut’s relatively secure position – on the one hand attributable to the neutrality with which Germans are regarded relative to the French, and on the other hand because of the irrelevance of the country in an overall geopolitical setting – has opened up a space in which the director can conceive of the possibility of influencing the political atmosphere of the city under cover of cultural cooperation. The concept of the festival for “the people from the north” is an example of this.

In an atmosphere where only government-aligned public cultural events receive state support, and things are quickly branded as either pro-government or pro-rebels, this would be the first event effectively implementing the peace treaty between north and south on a bigger cultural scale – hence the symbolic choice of venue – in turn bestowing the title of peacemaker on the Goethe-Institut. Whether this assessment of the Institute’s power to influence public opinion beyond the mere symbolic value of the event is a valid one, or an overestimation of its power attributable to the secluded life in expatriate circles, is not entirely clear.

The Institute is certainly well positioned to execute such an event. Its direct links to local culture would make implementation easy. The director’s husband has all the contacts. And because it is branded as a cultural event organised by the Germans, the local government would not dare to intervene. Furthermore, the German Foreign Ministry – on whose behalf the Institute is advancing German interests abroad – would not take issue with the idea of implicitly taking sides with the opposition, because in recent years the Gbagbo government has managed to isolate itself completely from the “international community” with its anti-France rhetoric.

The staff members have assembled in the library of the Institute for the monthly Thursday meeting – the last one of the year. It is a little after 2pm.

Seated around the library tables that have been pushed together to form a rectangle are the 14 employees of the Institute, four German expatriates and 10 local staff members working under local contracts. The director and the trainee who is designated to eventually occupy one of the directorships in the Institute, the librarian and the language advisor are the four Entsandte from Germany. The bookkeeper, the library assistant, the language course officer, the director of the cultural programme and his assistant, the IT consultant, the administrative assistant, the receptionist, the driver and the housekeeper are all locals.

“Is everyone present?” the director asks. “I am sure we can speak in German?” She knows that not all of the local staff will be able to follow the discussion.

The tables are laid with pretzels, croissants and German Christmas biscuits, but the purpose of the meeting is not to celebrate the holiday. As the last meeting of the year, it is an opportunity for the Institute to review its performance.

The director opens the meeting by commenting on the numerous events the Institute has hosted throughout the year, and its growing local profile, which she attributes “in part also thanks to the outstanding work of the director of communications”.

The Institute hosted an exhibition by a German anthropologist who displayed her private collection of African fabrics from over four decades. Everyone with a name in the fashion industry was there for the occasion, the director remarks with a sense of surprise. “And, as always,” she says proudly, “we got coverage in all local newspapers.”

She also wants to take this opportunity to mention the very successful journalism exchange that took place at the beginning of the month. A journalist from the opposition newspaper Le Patriote had the privilege of spending two weeks at the offices of Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany’s most trusted dailies. “Has anyone read about his experience at the Oktoberfest and the interesting comparison between riding a bicycle in Germany and here?” she asks around. No, unfortunately nobody has had the time so far.

The language course officer sums up the activities of the ongoing language courses. Nothing much has changed in the past couple of years. The courses are still predominantly filled as a direct consequence of the strict visa regulations in place. But, by now, there is also a small group of committed university students taking some of the higher courses, attracted by the prospect of studying in Germany on a DAAD scholarship. “The courses have been going as usual,” he begins after a pause. “The A1 levels have rather high student numbers; the A2s are empty as usual. Apart from two absentees all other students have passed their last exams,” he reports. The director says that she has, of course, been informed about this and nods to the German language advisor to continue.

“Maybe I can add one thing to that,” the young receptionist interrupts. “The other day we received another phone call from a German man who is angry that his spouse said she didn’t pass the exam and won’t be able to fly to him over Christmas now. He asked me why she keeps failing and whether she is actually serious about her studies!”

There is a round of awkward laughter.

The German language advisor, whose responsibility it is to foster the collaboration with the three elite schools in the country that offer German classes, continues. “Well, with regard to the problem of low student numbers above the basic A1 level, we just recently organised a tour by a German hip-hop group to the three partner schools,” she explains. “The idea was to expose the pupils to the kind of more sexy German youth culture they might not have known about before, the more underground, street-culture you know? And to also introduce them to a fun way of learning the German language, of course. I am sure with initiatives like these we will eventually raise a new generation of German learners.”

Would the language course officer like to add anything to that? No.

The librarian then goes on to proudly present the very first issue of Der Adler, a magazine created by a group of particularly committed students in one of the library projects she has been organising. She highlights that these are the same students who have set up the NGO “For the Advancement of the German Language”. The magazine is passed around. The others take approving glances at it. With a chuckle the intern hints at the headline of one of the articles. The title reads enthusiastically, “Deutschland über alles”. The German language advisor raises an eyebrow and then shrugs, a little embarrassed.

The meeting ends without any of the local staff members having said a word.

The Institute is screening the film White Ghosts – The Colonial War against the Herero in the Multifunktionsraum-turned-cinema upstairs. The screening is well attended. About 25 people sit scattered on the red conference chairs. Black-and-white portraits of former German politicians and celebrities, pictures from the ongoing exhibition by a German post-war photographer, oddly placed on the walls and between windows, barely hanging straight, are still visible in the dimmed light.

The film is going to be projected against one of the empty walls using a basic PowerPoint projector hanging from the ceiling. Although, technically speaking, this is not actually a cinema, the shows have become quite popular among local cinephiles. Other than the commercial movie house in the shopping mall, which screens outdated US films, this is the only running cinema where current movies are shown – albeit German ones with French subtitles.

Students from the neighbouring residence, la cité, have also found their way into the Institute. Once a well-oiled machine for the production of the country’s administrative elite, the university system has collapsed in the course of the political crisis. La cité has turned into an overcrowded and prison-like structure where six people, sometimes entire families, occupy rooms that were initially meant to house two. According to reports by Human Rights Watch, the militarisation of the cités carried out by the student federation, FESCI, has been so efficient in recent years that death squads could stream out of these buildings whenever it suited the regime in place.

The three students attending the screening are sitting in the last row, dressed in plastic sandals, jeans and T-shirts. They are notorious for their lack of manners, with an international reputation for being a highly politicised bunch; the Institute’s unofficial policy until now has been to try to exclude them from their events.

The director introduces the film with a short quote from its distributor’s website: “On the occasion of the centenary of the colonial war in the former South West Africa, the country that is Namibia today, this film wants to shed light on a dark chapter of German colonial history in Africa. It explores questions of Afro-German identities and tries to look for adequate ways in which we can deal with the past.” She then highlights its relevance in the local context: “Because questions around reconciliation and forgiveness are also very current issues in this country I hope you can relate to the movie and perhaps draw some lessons from the ways in which Germany has chosen to memorialise its own past for the sake of greater tolerance and a well-functioning democracy.”

On the screen, Israel Kaunatjike is travelling through Namibia looking for traces of the first genocide of the 20th century. There are pictures of the concentration camps, a copy of General Throta’s notorious letter before the Battle of Waterberg, and maps that show how the extermination in the Omaheke Desert was meticulously planned. Kaunatjike wants to understand, and he fights for reparations. The documentary ends with his return to Berlin, where the rejection of the latest Namibian delegation by the German political, business and legal fraternity is captured.

The message of the film is clear and strong. There is a moment of silence after the credits end. An older man is the first to take the microphone in the discussion. He stands up and says that he would like to start by applauding the Institute and by extension the German nation in general, for this presentation.

“Before I came here tonight I had never even heard of German colonialism, let alone of the brutal violence with which it pursued its goals,” he says with conviction. “The history shown to us tonight, as well as the level of self-reflectivity demonstrated by the Institute, was truly enlightening.”

“France,” he emphasises with anger now rising in his voice, “this nation of hypocrites, would never even dare to portray itself in such a negative light.” Others in the audience nod; some smile in agreement. Then the audience falls silent. It is evident that there won’t be a discussion today. Some people seem eager to leave already. Based on the title, White Ghosts, they were perhaps expecting a more entertaining movie.

“Well,” the director speaks into the microphone before the pause becomes too long, “this was certainly a lot to digest. If there are no further comments I would like to announce that the buffet is waiting for you, just in front of the entrance downstairs.”

The film screening encapsulates some of the contradictions of the Goethe-Institut’s presence in the country. In real terms the always implicit legitimisation of the Institute’s existence – a demand for German culture – is quite simply non-existent in this place. It would first need to be created. But for what purpose?

The matter is complicated by the absence of other foreign institutes and a functioning institutional structure to support local cultural production. In the vacuum in which it operates, the influence of the German cultural institute could quickly become an embarrassment if its singular status as funder of cultural events became too apparent.

This has forced a self-imposed self-restraint, which has in turn led to the Institute suffering from a chronic Mittelabflussproblem, in internal discussions abbreviated as MAP – the inability to spend as much of this year’s budget as possible in order to have more money next year.

In a bid to attain a sense of relevance, and in a context where each event can easily be interpreted as political, the Institute has chosen to cast itself as a teacher of democratic values, reconciliation and nation-building – as now, with the “festival for the north”. At the same time, the scale of this once-off event will allow for a large chunk of the budget to be spent in one go, thus limiting the need for ongoing activities with a handful of artists that are politically neutral and that meet the Institute’s own standards.

And if something were to go wrong? What if they provoked the anger of the mob of students who burned down the Institut Français? Despite its aura of untaintedness, the proximity of the cité is a constant reminder of that possibility.

On the opening night of the great festival the seats of the Palais de la Culture remain empty. As with all other events, the director of communications was paid to advertise the event on the breakfast show on national television. He travelled from radio station to radio station to speak about the generous gesture being made by the Institute. But, evidently, his efforts were in vain. There are only a handful of people in a concert hall that could seat up to 4000. Despite the embarrassment of playing in front of virtually no one, the musicians play along and offer an abridged version of their show. The turnout at the accompanying theatre performances is similarly wanting, though less embarrassing because they take place on one of the smaller stages of the Palais.

The next day at the Institute, the director does not, however, want to call the opening night a disappointment. The event received friendly coverage in all major local newspapers. There is evidence that it took place.

On 31 October 2010 the first round of elections finally takes place. The poll has been rescheduled seven times. After the second round is held on 28 November, with Laurent Gbagbo opposing Alassana Ouattara, it becomes clear that the incumbent president has no intention of stepping down, no matter how the votes are counted or who does the counting. Ouattara, backed by the Forces Nouvelles and the preferred choice of France and the international community, announces with an uncharacteristic assertiveness that he is prepared to take the presidency by force.

When violence erupts in the quartiers it feels like a thunderstorm that everyone has been awaiting for several years. The usual suspects appear on the streets. The students, the police and the gendarmerie each mobilise their forces one more time to protect the micro-state that they have created in the parts of the city over which they have military control.

The day before the rebels begin their great descent from the north, diplomatic circles are informed about the military strategy and the intended air strike that is scheduled to crush the last bit of resistance. The German Foreign Ministry orders all expatriate staff to assemble at the airport. They will take the first flight back to Frankfurt.

This time around the Institute is forced to close. [/ppw]

 

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This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?

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