If you’re asked to think about genocide in Africa in the 21st Century, you’d probably think of Rwanda, but there was another systematic, attempt to exterminate a whole group of people in Africa, in the 20th century. Award-wining writer and director, Gbolahan Obisesan wants you to know about it.
The genocide of the Herero is not as well-known in Britain, or as talked about as the other sins of colonialism committed in Africa by European colonial powers; in this case, Germany. Germany’s colonial adventure itself is often forgotten.
Germany’s presence as a colonial power in Africa lasted barely 50 years, but short-lived though it was – it left a brutal reminder in the decimation of the Herero and Nama nations of modern-day Namibia.
German South-West Africa was the only colony the German empire considered fit for settlement and agriculture, and a policy of land settlement and expropriation begun, with increasing encroachment and attacks on Herero land and liberty.
In 1904, facing increasing pressure from disease threat to their cattle, the Herero began a resistance to continued German encroachment on their land.
The subsequent response of the German state was brutal.
Between 25, 000 – and 100, 000 thousand Herero women and children were pushed to flee into the desert; water wells were poisoned, and those captured were forced into labour camps, with women forced to act as ‘comfort women’ to German soldiers and settlers.
Many of the actions that occurred during the holocaust had similar echoes in the treatment of the Herero; body parts of deceased Herero were sent to scientific institutions in Germany, the Herero were systematically dehumanised with language such as ‘lice’, ‘cockroaches’ ‘baboons’, as well as discriminatory laws banning intermarriage, and incarceration in concentration camps.
By 1907, over 70% of the Herero community had perished.
This grim history is the material for ‘We Are Proud to Present A Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa from the German SudwestAfrika, Between the years 1884-1915”, by African-American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, which receives its European premiere at the Bush Theatre in London this week, directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, the award-winning writer and director widely praised for his short play ‘Mad About the Boy’. With its harrowing subject, long title, and the suggestion that audiences will find the play funny, ‘We are proud to present…’ is definitely a challenge of a different order from Obisesan’s recent work. We sat down to ask him about the play, and if humour is anyway to tackle so harrowing a subject.
Pictures: L to R: Herero survivors after a trek across the kalahari desert; a concentration camp built to hold capture Herero, and (on the far right) Samuel Maherero, leader of the Herero Uprising
Sources: Wikipedia and Bundes Archiv Deutschland
Interview: Gbolahan Obisesan
Dele Meiji: There’s always a lot of anxiety, particularly from Africans about African-Americans or even diaspora Africans representation of African history or experience that usually it’s very romantic, or sometimes that there’s a lack of respect, or maybe a lack of context in the way the stuff is approached. Does that come into this play? If not, why not?
Gbolahan Obisesan: It does actually. In terms of the romantic element, the idyllic understanding – the sort of representation of ancient Africa – and sort of natural Africa, the sort of unpolluted Africa.
There’s one character in particular in this play who almost enacts what we have termed, within our dissection of the scene as ‘going native’ – which is him enacting the sort of San tribesmen travelling through the Serengeti, searching for the antelope, and killing the antelope and taking it back to the rest of the tribal family, and that’s his sort of exposure, and understanding of the African continent, which feels very reductive and very sort of clichéd – and Jackie questions it, and another character in the play also questions that approach – that there’s other realities beyond that sort of stereotypical representation of Africa through films and documentaries, and whatever.
I think what’s great about the play is that Jackie hasn’t made any assumptions about any of that; obviously it tries to present the genocide, and the escalation of the encounters between the Germans and the Herero in incredibly complex and really difficult because there are so many perspectives available, but also there’s a very clear and distinct historical account of what happened then.
BUT in a way trying to write that into a play taking place between 1984 and 1915, you just wouldn’t be able to encapsulate all the various characters that were very significant to that narrative, to that particular history. And Jackie hasn’t tried to do that, she’s just come at it from a very contemporary perspective, whereby there’s loads of contemporary references; and within that it’s saying actually, you know, here I am just making an attempt to reveal and to expose the fact that this happened, and it was wrong and it was bad, but then there’s still cultural and racial misunderstandings between us that somehow prevents us from having a very open dialogue, and open examination about how that history has affected us.
How the sort of superiority and inferiority complexes affected us, and infected us to a point whereby, conditionally it’s just there, it’s latent, and every now and again, it bubbles up to the surface.
Dele Meiji: How has that been for your actors? Because it’s a mixed cast – and how – because in many cases in the UK, the racial dimension of things aren’t really deeply explored – when you’re rehearsing a play like this, what are the kind of things that come up and how have you guys navigated the experience?
Gbolahan Obisesan: I’ve invited into the room brilliant young actors, who get the play, who understand it – who are intrigued by it, and respect it and also are brave enough to openly have that conversation and draw on various encounters they’ve had in their lives whether as an actor or as an individual in the world, being informed by history – or not. The rehearsal and the discussions have been so open that there hasn’t been any judgement based on how much we know or how much we don’t know, and how much assuptions we can make about the characters understanding of each other, their familiarity, as well as what context has kind of thrown them together to create this work, because a lot of the arguments that they have within the play suggest that they haven’t been best friends since…they were children. They are effectively strangers who have been thrown together to create a piece of work prompted by the black woman character. To say this is an important story that we have to tell, and we all have a heightened investment in this, because they are [the characters] all have a masters from Goldsmiths, which is the backstory we’ve given our characters, so there is a lot at stake for them, in pursuing the work, pursuing the conversation and making sure the story is told.
The cast of ‘ We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia….in rehearsals
Dele Meiji: I read the script, and it seems to me there’s quite – I’d say humor. It’s not necessarily funny – but it’s humorous. You know there is this big debate around whether you can have humour with things that involve genocide? What’s your take on how far you can push the topic – is it in way because it’s removed in time, or is there a certain way in which you can inject humour into these things?
Gbolahan Obisesan: I think the situation that Jackie has written would suggest that – you know, it’s there – it is part of their misunderstanding; it’s part of their interactions with each other; and so you can’t shy away from that. To try and make something that’s overly worthy out of something that’s essentially still there to inform and occasionally entertain as well as occasionally confront the audience and really do what we say we would like all theatre to do, which is to hold a mirror up to humanity, are an important aspect of what Jackie’s written; and I think it’s very clever, because it’s a way of inviting the audience, without them presumptuously sort of censoring themselves from being affected – making them apathetic. Whereas if people are in the theatre enjoying these characters muddling their way through it, and then things get said that are a little bit inappropriate and catch people off guard – that makes them listen, that makes them key in to what the argument is, what the discussion is…
Dele Meiji: So humour is a way of seducing people into deeper and dark territory?
Gbolahan Obisesan: Well, I guess it’s just to play the truth of the situation and honour that, and not be scared of that, but also make sure it is realistic rather than just for the sake of honouring the laugh, or honouring the tragedy; it needs to be truthful, or it needs to resonate with our perception of the truth and reality, before it resonates with us [sic] the audience. As long as we are honing what that is, we can occasionally, potentially deviate slightly from that, but ultimately it’s always close, and very rooted in a truth that feels very familiar, and tragic, and has all those cathartic sort of provocations within us.
Dele Meiji: The play seems very ‘Meta’ – like a 19th century book….do you think that will be challenging for the audience?
Gbolahan Obisesan: Yeah, it is in a way – but I think people will be pleasantly surprised by how accessible it is, and I think again that is a testament to the writer and the work that she’s done; there’s a…I want to say…it feels wrong to say there’s a cuteness to the title that suggests a kind of warmth, and a kind of unpretentiousness, even though the title would go against that. That’s the way I read it anyway; when I read it, and thought ‘I think I know what this is trying to do.
On Reading & Memory
Dele Meiji: Did you have to do a lot of reading for the play?
Gbolahan Obisesan: Oh my God! How much reading did I have to do – I can never remember the names of books and titles – I can send you stuff.
Dele Meiji: Like which titles?
Gbolahan Obisesan: I’m not good at remembering titles off the top of my head…I can send you stuff.
Dele Meiji: OK, OK, We won’t put you on the spot… What struck you about your reading?
Gbolahan Obisesan: Just the fact, that there’s actually books, and real detailed research into it – and it’s heart-breaking, what went on; when you read about some of the stuff that was done to the Hereros and the Namas, and the way the Germans went about it as well; it was more heartbreaking more than anything, and it feels even more tragic that it’s so unknown, it’s not on most university reading lists, or taught in secondary schools – and it should be taught alongside the European holocaust. I think that was the thing that makes you, quite…a little bit angry. But also, just, makes you feel bereft at the fact that it feels that history is, as the saying goes, told by the victors, and obviously with regards to African history predominantly being passed down through oral traditions …rather than actually scientifically and academically detailed; just because structurally, we work differently…
Dele Meiji: You think that though?
GO: Well, no I think at the time…I don’t keep a diary and a lot of stuff has happened in my life, and if I kept a diary then I would potentially be able to draw strength from the fact that I have come through certain things; and it’s that thing of ‘my father passed away’ – and he hasn’t kept a diary – and that feels like a lot of history, a lot of occasions now he’s gone; I really want to write down my experiences because some of those were quite unbelievable stories and events and encounters, and that is now gone with him, and you know I could ask my uncles, but they wouldn’t know his personal stories because that’s gone with him. And he might have only told them so much or not give them the full picture – and that’s me just trying to give you a way of…quantifying the value of documented history.
Dele Meiji: So there’s a necessity for documented history? Which is in a way what this play is about?
Gbolahan Obisesan: The play argues that…you know the characters in the play put across that argument that the genocide that happened to the Herero doesn’t quite equate to the genocide that happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany – because the evidence is presented differently, or is available to different quantities.
Dele Meiji: Isn’t that blaming the victim? You didn’t record your history, so therefore you haven’t lost as much?
Gbolahan Obisesan: That’s not my view. The whole point of saying that – was the comment on culturally, the difference between how we communicate; I guess…
Dele Meiji: Is that a cultural difference or just a result of historical circumstance? Are you saying orality is specifically African…?
Gbolahan Obisesan: You know what I think what it is, I think sometimes we don’t understand or put a weight on certain events – because we’re so ‘in it’ at the time that we’re still processing and trying to work ourselves out of it, that we’re just trying to find a solution to it, rather than going: ‘the solution is to record it, and be aware of it, and be able to return it.
Because for what reason do I need to do that but to solve it now. But to move on beyond it, and maybe to go back to it might be something that isn’t particularly helpful for me – I think that might be the parallel of what it means to document things, as they happen, even if it’s really mundane. But you know there is evidence of the Nama chief writing to the Kaiser in Germany about what the German officials were doing -and then other tribes being seduced by the promises of the German soldiers – so you know it’s varied and I guess it depends on what your perspective, and how much do the perspectives marry up with what actually happened; what was the most accurate account of what went on. Loads of families have different sort of troubled family disputes, and different members are going to see it from their vantage points rather than giving it a very accurate depiction of what the dispute is about – but if it was written down, or it’s been dictated, or it was dictated as soon as it happened, you’d be able to go…here’s a reference, let me go through it – this was what happened. This was who was in the wrong – and who was in the right
Gbolahan Obisesan: But obviously with genocide – we know who’s in the wrong.
Dele Meiji: Are there any German accents in the play? [Which the playwright explicitly suggests not doing]
Gbolahan Obisesan: Yeah, yeah, yeah – we are doing a lot of the stuff that the play suggests we shouldn’t do; in a way it is completely different to what Jackie suggests – there’s stuff in there that we’ve enriched in our own unique way; in a British context we need to sort of open up a lot of arguments and a lot of the situations that could just be feel like brilliant moments of acting, or brilliant moments of improvisation; but there are contemporary parallels with certain representations of conflict, and oppression and things that we’re familiar with. But also within the form there’s an openness, to definitely feel that there is that aspect of a presentation happening all the way through it – and occasionally blurring the lines a little bit.
Dele Meiji: The reception of the play in America was very good. Do you think that British audiences and American audiences are going to read it differently? Because of maybe the experience in Europe for Africans in Europe…and everyone in Europe, it’s much closer to home and we already have these pre-conceptions in the UK about Germans anyway….
Gbolahan Obisesan: There’s that aspect of it, in terms of the European/British perception of Germans, but then underneath that is our sort of recent history, and parallels with stuff that feels closer to home, and I feel ultimately besides bring the play back to the title that Jackie is suggesting, we’re trying to say, it’s not just about what the Germans did to the Herero, there’s other stuff, where we’ve seen, we’re all familiar with…some of it might be really subtle…
Dele Meiji: What are some of the references that you’re making, not necessarily in the play, but in your kind of reading of the play?
Gbolahan Obisesan: I think, it’s a lot about, just, some element of the tribalism, separation that’s based on cultural, religious, ethnic lines, that makes us question why are human beings like that? – Then there’s all sorts of cultural references to do with the jokes and music and things like that; representations of other cultures on TV. Or even a surveillance video of a particularly terrifying incident that feels only half-resolved in our recent understanding of that particular event. I don’t want to give too much away…
We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as Southwest Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884 – 1915 is at the Bush Theatre from 28th February – Sat 12th April 2014.