In a recent conference in Humboldt Forum in Germany, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie insisted on the importance of speaking the truth and telling all the sides of one story. The famous writer, so gladly invited to give speeches, invites European countries to question their values and admit to themselves how honest they really are.
The confusing division between the East and the West
I have to admit that, when my parents used to speak badly about the Western countries, USA included, I did not understand. As people that spent most of their life in Yugoslavia, a socialist country, they would question the colonial heritage of the Western countries and blame them for many of the poor countries’ troubles and miseries. I was confused. Because, how can you speak atrocities about certain countries, but then, secretly, want to imitate them, live like them or in them? There was always that double standard that I could not completely grasp and comprehend. Do we hate them or do we want to be like them? My teenage brain was confused.
Traveling allowed me to see the world in all its colors. Living in Colombia, specifically, made me realize how great the consequences of the colonization are even today, in the 21st century. Consequences I did not quite understand up until that moment. For this, I needed to have an exterior point of view.
This Adichie’s speech sums in an amazing way all the realizations I have come to over the years. The ones, I am sure many politicians have, but are not willing to admit publically.
Let’s dive into the speech and the context of the recent forum in Germany.
The Humboldt Forum is a museum of non-European art on the Museum Island in the historic center of Berlin, Wikipedia says. It incorporates two former museums, the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and the Museum of Asian Art.
Humboldt Forum is actually a space created for a free exchange of ideas. Now, can a space like this one really speak objectively about art from all around the world, being located in one of the most powerful countries in the world? Can a former colonizer, someone who owns other people’s art, obtained by force, be relevant for giving its opinion? Is it possible to have a dialogue with someone that is in an inferior position that you created for them, but still have a conversation as if you were equals?
Don’t worry, this will not be one of those articles that speaks poorly about the colonization, it will be an article about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech, that I believe one of the most important ones so far. And her fans know well that she has had some pretty amazing ones.
Chimamanda Ngzosi Adici’s speech
This was the first time I heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie start her speech with a slight tremble in her voice. I thought it must be serious and that it will most certainly be worth listening. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie invites Europeans on this Forum to be accountable for the mistakes their ancestors made, accept that the past has been written in certain ways and that it most certainly has echoes in the present. The best definition of this speech would be: Chimamanda Ngozi Adici invites Europe to look itself in the mirror.
Does Europe take itself accountable?
As usually, Ngozi Adichi starts her famous speeches by telling a story. After all, she is a storyteller. Maybe that is why she understands very well the European inventors of stories and narratives, but those ones that found their ways to manipulate and tell only certain parts of certain stories.
In a way, with this speech, Chimamanda wants to undo the knot around the tangled truth that European countries tell themselves and to the world about themselves. Simply explain the way the colonization stories have worked for centuries now and invite all the involved ones in that storytelling to speak the truth.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, said in Senegal:
I have not come to deny mistakes or crimes. Mistakes were made and crimes committed, but no one can ask of the generation of today to expiate the crimes perpetrated by the past generations.
This was Nicola Sarkozy’s speech, but it could have been of many other European leaders. Europeans tell their colonial story in a way that they use BUT, notices Ngozi Adici. Then ‘’whatever goes after that BUT becomes a focus of the story.’’
That ‘’BUT’’ frees Europe of all the responsibility.
The capacity to show itself differently
The European narrative about themselves has been something told in schools, political important events, and it has been taken as the truth. Here, we finally have an ‘’outsider’’, someone of non-European origin tell the story about Europeans to the Europeans. Refreshing, also because it is sincere, crude, unmasked, very much open, unapologetic.
Because, Europe does not deny its colonial history, it does not say that colonization never happened, that would be too banal. It is rather about the way Europe tells that story that ‘’ultimately seeks to erase that history’’ and therefore erase all the responsibilities.
Europe tends to define itself by what happened few decades ago, it adores its history and relies on it. But when it comes to speaking what happened in Africa, Asia or South and Central America in many different moments throughout history, it is not ready to take on the accountability for the actions. History matters to the countries of the Western Europe and especially the ones that have had colonies somewhere only when that suits them.
Building a city equals building a story
We are so thrilled to see beautiful cities of Europe because of its past and wealth. But that wealth has a story and it tells it openly to those that want to listen. This does not mean that we should not admire the magnificent architecture and certain works of art, no. It should simply mean that we should have the whole picture. Isn’t viewing only one side of the history a denial and in a certain way manipulation of the past?
There is something very symbolic in the act of reconstruction of old European buildings. Architecture also tells a story and prints into minds of people certain meanings. The way we build, construct, reconstruct, restore and organize our cities has a lot to do with the way we think not only the space, but also our history.
Every country has its story
I was very much surprised on a recent trip to Lecce, south of Italy, when a guide told a story of how many different civilizations lived in the same place. As he explained, the city is like a cake with a lot of layers. The most important one, the one worth digging and exposing is the one that can tell the best story that suits the present politicians’ ideologies. Building today’s Italy’s story on the Ancient Roman Empire has much more to do with what Italy wants to become and what image it wants to print into people’s minds in the future than with the history itself. Because there were also other rules, but the storytelling of those times is not convincing or glorious enough, the copy writing for it would not be manipulative enough.
That is how Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie sees in the reconstruction of The Humboldt Forum, as German nostalgia for the imperial times. The forum takes place in one of those palaces that tells a lot of stories, not always the coherent ones. The roots of it are in the Ancient Prussian Art Chamber. The Ancient Prussian Art Chamber was originally established by Joachim II Hector, Elector of Brandenburg in the mid 16th century, but was nearly destroyed during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). The art chamber was rebuilt as a magnificent collection by Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg, and was moved to the newly extended Berlin Palace by Frederick I of Prussia in the early 18th century.
Owning a story
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie asks Germany to look itself in the mirror and wonders out loud, in front of the most prominent today’s political leaders, if children in this country learn the real story in school. The true history.
It is important to tell the whole story, because telling only one part of it is lying. The story speaks the truth only if it’s complete.
The colonial forces truthfully have magnificent stories, great artists, writers, but there is also the other side of the story. Those colonial countries have also brutal and violent past that took place in the countries they colonized. Stories of people whose skulls lie somewhere in the Western Europe, instead of in their home country.
Own your story.
However, for owning your own story, you need courage, you need to look yourself in the mirror.
And, as Chimamanda says, courage can bring light.
Courage is an act of hope and there is nothing more essential.
And thinking about these powerful words, brought me to thinking that in today’s world we messed up some of the most important values.
It, actually, should not take courage to sit down and listen to the ones that do not have the same opinions as we do.
It should not take courage to admit that we are not perfect.
An act of courage should not be to say that every country has bad and good sides.
It should not take courage to say that Chimamanda’s speech took courage.
It is about art
Since the conference takes place in a museum, the very important part of it is about art. But speaking about African art is of course inseparable from the power.
Chimamanda wonders why African art is labeled as ethnological and European is not. And then, there is of course the question of possession, of ownership of the African art.
Europe is considered as a place of certain values: liberty, progress, tolerance, individual rights, the rule of law. Europeans show themselves as saviors, as the ones who have the capacity and the right to be charitable. And therefore, the other one becomes the assisted, the one that is poor, weak, the one who cannot take good care of its art, that needs help.
Someone that considers themselves deeply democratic, shouldn’t even be questioning whether the stolen goods should be brought back to the owners. They should simply return them. Because it is not up to the thief to say whether the owner will take good care of its possession.
Germans do want to give back certain works of art, they said they would send back an important amount, but Chimamanda is wondering how many and who will determine that? That is how she also invites the British museum to follow into the footsteps of Germany and does the same since the majority of Benin bronzes are situated in this country. They have the policy retain and explain.
‘’Live up to the ideals with which you define yourself.’’, Chimamanda says.
Why was this speech important?
So far, in this article, there has been a lot of power mentioning. However, what I would like to point out is the way Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes back that power. Not only as a non-European, but also as a woman. Someone to whom it has been traditionally said in so many unconscious, hidden and powerful ways that she is not enough because of her origins, because of her gender, because of her color skin.
How powerful it is to see Chimamanda owning her story, being courageous, coherent and willing to speak the truth. How many girls will this inspire? It is indeed the speech that should be shown in schools as an example of what a woman is entitled to do and therefore should never wonder if something is her place or not.
The power she is talking about is traditionally male, of a white, European, colonial men. And a woman dares to question colonial, historical and so much established power. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is once again an example of how no one should ever wait for power to be given to them, but how they should take them. She shows us how power can be taken by reading, by being educated, but questioning and through a dialogue. Not by force, but through arguments.
What greater example can women have?
Will anything actually change?
Ngozi Adichie received, of course, a standing ovation, a loud applause. But what will this really mean? It reminded me very much of Greta Thunberg’s many speeches, where the world leaders were impressed. But after which nothing really actually happened.
The endless talking can easily be only that, only a talk with no precise call to action.
We can all only hope that a forum like this one will live up to its name as a space for true intercultural ideas in mutual respect between the cultures and will give fruitful outcome after these powerful words.
I will leave you with these Adichie’s words:
We cannot change the past, but we can change our blindness to the past.
Special thanks to Playerss for sponsoring this article.
You can find their incredible feminist games on their website. Learn about women that changed the world through their numerous boardgames, posters and much more. Find your favorite game in few different languages!
You can also follow them on Instagram.