Cameroon in Berlin and German letters from Cameroon (1897)

At the Berlin Trade Exhibition of 1896 in particular the German Colonial Exhibition caught the attention of visitors. As well as ethnographic objects, natives from our protectorates, from New Guinea, German East and West Africa, were present.

After the exhibition was over, 20 participants of this black group expressed the wish to stay in Berlin and learn some sort of trade or job, which they could then practice in their Fatherland once their apprenticeship was up.

I know one of the apprentice tailors personally, Josef Garber (he gained his English name upon being baptised); he is a Cameroonian, a friendly, modest lively, and, as it appears to me, gifted young man. He can already make a waistcoat, as he proudly told me. He speaks German really well and can speak even better English.

My Cameroonian student Epassi is 16 years old. He is of medium height and of strong and athletic build, at the same time he is light on his feet. The short, tight curly hair, chimney black in colour, covers his head like a felt cap. The big brown eyes are beautifully formed and they have extraordinary friendly and kind-hearted expression, which has won him the affection of all the tenants that regularly see him, especially, because he is well brought up, with a disarming politeness and friendliness. … He has splendid teeth, regular and shiny, a beautiful subdued white colour, and of course they are not very small because they have such a large mouth to fit into. Yes, I was initially appalled by Epassi’s mouth and nose; they take up so much space on his face, with the only difference being that the mouth because of the thick lips stands out, while the nose, as though it has been bludgeoned by a club, appears to be too flat. You soon forget to take notice of either because their owner [Epassi] is always well-behaved, modest and grateful for even the smallest sign of friendliness. He politely asks without being subservient and he expresses his gratitude in the same manner. I find it very appealing to observe him and I cannot help the thought that many of our young people nowadays in the civilised world, whatever their social background, could learn much from him.

Epassi is possessed with a great thirst for knowledge and ambition and he is always concerned and sad when I tell him that the lesson is over. To begin with I only let him read and write. He has an attractive and clear handwriting style. He is also progressing well with reading; it is only with the pronunciation of the ‘sch’ sound that I fear will remain an insurmountable difficulty for him. It not for lack of trying, to try and get it right – I believe I could let him say the same thing a hundred times and he would not get tired. Nor is it down to a lack of patience to continually repeat after me – but his mouth! His mouth! It’s too big to purse. Now I have also begun with maths. Epassi can count forwards to ten. With some effort under the right circumstances he can also add by 1: So for example: 1 +1 = 2; 2 + 1 = 3, etc. Now he should be learning to count backwards from 10 – something that he seems to find very amusing, because he breaks into laughter every time.

On the street he is very quiet, and it is clearly embarrassing to him to stand out on account of his appearance. Sometimes I take him to the horse tramway station or I show him the street he has to take, if he is not going immediately home. The way home he knows very well. Once the cabmen and workers called after him: “Oh, he’s forgotten to wash! – He’s not got enough money to buy soap!” He became angry and turned around. In order to stop any animosity I said: “Come, Epassi, when you are out on the street, you don’t have to listen to what the people say, they don’t mean anything by it.” “Yes”, he said, “they’ve had too much to drink and now they’re drunk.” “No, no! They’re just having a laugh. Let them be. Berliner always joke around!” “In Africa, you don’t do that. The police come immediately!” At the same time he made a threatening gesture with his finger.

“I have a friend. Is in Berlin. Is my countryman, because also from Kribi Banga, Cameroon. Is Cameroon, Cameroon, Cameroon! “(and with that a big smile spread over his face). “Lives in Marktgrafenstrasse Number 584 .” (the number is very important for him). “Said to my friend: ‘Am now always at school’ – my friend said: ‘You are always at school and do you learn much?’ – I said: ‘I’m always with the lady, and the lady says I need to be very diligent, learn everything like a German…'”

Source: Paula Karsten, ‘Cameroon in Berlin and German letters from Cameroon’, Globus, 7 August 1897, pp.97-99

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