»When I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver,« wrote the Nazi playwright Hanns Johst. Though often taken out of its context, this quote does illustrate the subversive character of culture for a dictatorship, this cancer in the tropics of Africa.
As a proof: in 2005, suspecting Germany of supporting the Togolese opposition, the brother of the current Head of State set the Goethe Institute in Lomé on fire, one of the few places where one can become enlightened in a culturally desert city. When the Nazis set fire to books, they ended up burning men. In Togo in 2005 there were over 400 to 500 deaths in the ranks of the opposition.
In this case, coming from a country that has been dominated by the bloody rule of the same family for fifty years, my experience as a cultural journalist becomes, without context of activism, a daily struggle to drive away the cultural wasteland maintained by those in power. But it was first of all an editorial fight against colleagues at the newspaper Le Temps, now disappeared from the Togolese media landscape, with whom I piercingly crossed swords to snatch and devote a page to culture. My articles were basically reading publication notes of Togolese authors, their current events, reports of theater shows, concerts, and critical notes on some rare exhibitions of visual arts. This earned me collaborations at some foreign magazines.
However this mediation role has its risks. While I made friendships among Togolese writers from abroad, some of my somewhat critical contributions have brought me much enmity in the Togolese cultural landscape. Following the disappearance of Le Temps we launched the site www.togocultures.com in 2007, supposed to function both as a portal and an online newspaper on the cultural current events of Togo. The site worked very well in its early stages, but is in bad shape in recent years.
Nevertheless it is as cultural activist that I actually saw my journalistic work by working within the team Filbleues Association, organizer of the first Filbleu Festival of Literature in the French-speaking regions of sub-Saharan Africa. Next year will be the tenth edition.
The socio-political situation influences my freelance journalist orientation. Faure Gnassingbé, who succeeded his father after 38 years in power, has been able to rule over the country for eleven years without power sharing through sham elections. Throughout this time impoverishment gains ground but the same miserable populations vote for the despot. A mass case of Stockholm syndrome? Perhaps. With some friends, we try to take up a socio-cultural challenge from the field: to move the urban masses to confront their poverty problem. Being inspired by works of the sociologist Robert Park and Pierre Bourdieu, we set up the blog www.afrocites.wordpress.com, which will focus on the advancement of women, grassroots education, and culture. The blog will cover certain neighborhoods in Lomé where the people are so desperately poor that they prostitute themselves and people often have only a single meal daily; where hardly four out of ten children, after six years of schooling, can read and count and make triple digit operations. Developing training manuals, bringing together associations of teachers and parents, and lobbying to impose a uniform method of teaching, are also part of our editorial project.
In my view, doing cultural journalism is tantamount to making big politics.
English translation by Pierre Adikatcho
Drawings by Matthias Reinhold
Published first in German in Stuttgarter Zeitung