Writer, journalist, and art critic Enos Nyamor from Nairobi writes about the personal experiences he gained during his two stays in Germany. With the gaze of an outsider, he observed his new surroundings: »In the bus, at the train station, and in parks, I cannot fail to note a form of restraint. It is almost unnatural, in my perspective, « he writes. The boundaries between hospitality and hostility begun to blur. Taking this experience as a starting point, he shares his reflections on fear, human encounters, and the desire to feel the sorrow of the world that he encountered in German culture. A blatant commentary on German trauma culture.
Until two years ago, I had never crossed any port. Then, a call came, and of all places I landed in Germany. And it is through this act of physical movement, through the isolation from a bustling city that I had known for a quarter a century, that I first traveled abroad. The East African city of Nairobi, where I was born and raised, was now the peg upon which I leashed myself, and from which I can trace patterns of my footprints.
What happened but once, it goes, never happened at all. My first visit to the glorious city of Braunschweig was brief, and somehow I felt trapped in a bubble. I fell in love with the paved roads and the crispy cars and with the idea of feeling lost. I could not distinguish North from South. Everything in the different parts of Germany I visited, ostensibly, was perfect. And then, a couple of months ago, I was invited to Stuttgart, and what should I discover but the small town of Gerlingen.
Gerlingen, I later learned, was the birthplace of Johannes Rebmann, a German missionary and explorer. For those of us from Kenya who began schooling in the early 2000s, many years after the end of the colonial era, our history was told to us through European lenses. In return, we pumped exotic names in our minds. We meticulously rolled our tongues to utter these names, and those who forgot were reminded with a few lashes on their backs. And so the name Johannes Rebmann, to me, as well as many of my age group, is as familiar as our own hands. Rebmann, we were told, discovered Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa.
»I fell in love with the paved roads and the crispy cars and with the idea of feeling lost. I could not distinguish North from South. Everything in the different parts of Germany I visited, ostensibly, was perfect.«
Never had I imagined that I will, in reverse, discover Gerlingen, and even repress the impulse to rename it after one of my ancestors. But instead, with irrationality that distance can supply, this time I have discovered another thing about Germany, and it has trauma in it, and such a morbid word is never interesting.
As a person engaged in interpreting cultural artifacts, as well as provoking conversations on essence of preexisting social values, it is almost natural for me to compare cultures, and sometime to a fault. But after my honeymoon period had vanished, and was slowly and steadily becoming aware of innate nature of every gesture, I even questioned if Germany has a culture at all. And this can be so for the sole purpose that I was searching for those cultural practices that preceded Christianity, those that are atavistic, as well as methods of recreation and reinvention that exist informally and as acts of self-organization.
»In the bus, at the train station, and in parks, I cannot fail to note a form of restraint. It is almost, in my perspective, unnatural. And it is also attached to an idea of fear.«
If I were to claim that, with my short stay, I can fully comprehend the European attitude, let alone the South-West German values, I would be grossly insincere. But I can only comment from my outsider view – through the isolation from a bustling city – and which can, to an extent, only be superficial. During my stay at Akademie Schloss Solitude, beyond material values and new technologies, I have been engrossed with human relations, especially in public spaces. The palpable detachment I experienced in these common sites in Stuttgart, in particular, blurs the line between hospitality and hostility. So, it is in these public spaces that I sniff the trauma, to which I have associated, in general, with the German culture.
In the bus, at the train station, and in parks, I cannot fail to note a form of restraint. It is almost, in my perspective, unnatural. And it is also attached to an idea of fear. Fear of foreigners, fear of old age, and fear of system failure. But I also see this as universal European value, as part of the soft power of discretion. Discretion can also be an element of trauma, because it is product of experience. Discretion can be form of self-censorship, which can perhaps become traumatic.
To use trauma, here referring to a disturbing collective experience, in exploring the small segment of German culture that I have encountered can be an exaggeration. Moreover, migrants compose about forty percent of the population in Stuttgart. However, it is not the number but the relations among the people that is of interest. Stories emerge in collective public spaces, and when there is the effort to constantly open new frontiers of contact, this becomes an avenue of idea exchange, an avenue to commonly overcome the trauma.
Besides, the historical legacies of violence in Germany can reflect the ideas of trauma, and this is something I link to memories of the one of the most ignoble slice of history shared and concealed across generations. But trauma can also be an element of the desire to feel the sorrow of the world – by being aware of the instability of all realities. This desire to commiserate with the unfortunate, and to ward off disasters, I observe is part of the German cultures. This is admirable.
But this sympathy is also a cog in a network of gears that fine-tune worries. Through this metaphor, I can trace classical readings on Odysseus, and how fear and discretion were the most admired qualities. In this classical Greek text, the sailors are constantly in danger of falling overboard to their death, on the account of the beautiful voice of the Sirens. But it is only a daring warrior, Butes, who could not resist these siren calls and perhaps it is time that the German culture plunge toward the beautiful voices of cultural reinvention by losing the threat of falling abroad or failing.