I met a "Madgerman" for the first time in 2007 in a small cell phone shop in the city center of Maputo. I don’t remember his name and I never saw him again after that first meeting. I only know that he lived in Dresden for many years. Despite the brevity of our exchange, he served as the inspiration for my interest in the history of Mozambican contract workers in the former German Democratic Republic (GDR).
The GDR began supporting the independence movement in Mozambique in the 1960s. After Mozambique gained independence in 1975, the two socialist sister states intensified their political ties; and on February 24, 1979, these ties became manifest in a “Contract for Friendship and Cooperation” between the two countries.
A total of 16,000 Mozambicans worked in various East German state-owned enterprises and had a significant impact on sustaining the GDR economy after 1979. Especially in Western Germany,this story is completely unknown . Even in Eastern Germany, where the histories of guest workers from various socialist countries like Vietnam, Mozambique, Angola, and Cuba are better recognized, hardly anyone knows that the Mozambican guest workers only received a portion of their promised salaries. During the GDR era, more than half of these salaries were withheld and transferred directly to the Mozambican state. But really, this was a paper exercise. While the contract workers were led to believe that their money was waiting for them back home, it was actually being used to pay off the national debt. To this day, they have not been paid. In total, the Mozambican government owes them over 100 Million US Dollars in back-pay and pensions. Every week, these so-called "Madgermanes" still take to the streets of Maputo to protest and fight for their money. The term "Madgermanes" came into use shortly after the contract workers’ return to Mozambique. "Madgermanes" means “Those who come from Germany” in Shangaan, a dialect of Bantu spoken across southern Mozambique.
I wanted to get to the bottom of this story. After thorough preparation and extensive research in German archives, I set off on my first extended trip to Mozambique in spring 2009, followed by another trip in Winter 2009/2010. The Madgermanes are very well organized. There are registered associations of former contract workers who meet regularly in every Mozambican province. On my trips, I visited such meetings in Maputo, Chimoio, Beira, Tete, Nampula, Pemba, and Quelimane. At some meetings, over 100 Madgermanes were in attendance. In total, I met over 400 former contract workers on my trips.
I brought a camera on a tripod and a microphone with me to these meetings and asked anyone who was interested to tell me their personal story. Almost everyone wanted to participate. Some walked hours to get to the meetings. Everyone complained of the unfair treatment they experienced from the Mozambican government and reported on their lives in Mozambique, where they now have few – if any – opportunities. Poverty is a large problem; hardly anyone has a job. In stark contrast, many of the former contract workers have fond memories of their time in the GDR. Many issued pleas into the camera, to Germans and to the world, and asked for help to relieve their desperate situation. In the days following these meetings, I visited several of the former contract workers in their homes to learn more about their circumstances and to photograph them.
I have tried to document the oral history of these witnesses in my book Unity, work, vigilance: the GDR in Mozambique (Einheit, Arbeit, Wachsamkeit – Die DDR in Mosambik) as a unique narrative. All of the photographs in the book were taken with a Pentax 67 analog medium-format camera. I consciously decided to take a maximum of three photographs of each subject, each of which I carefully prepared. Very few of the pictures were done spontaneously. Most of the interior and portrait shots were taken using a camera on a tripod. Because of the poor lighting conditions, I used a shutter speed of up to one second for many of the portraits. To obtain a focused image, the sitter had to remain still for relatively long periods of time. The result is a calm and intense visual imagery. Especially the individual portraits in private homes reveal a special intimacy. The viewer is close to the protagonist, allowing him or her to almost sense the hopelessness of the Madgermanes’ situation. Interior views, cityscapes, and landscapes further convey the precarious conditions in Mozambique. The introduction to the book, in contrast, contains older photos from the GDR times that I found in photo albums. These bear witness to a different world. For many Madgermanes, the GDR was a land of plenty and their time in Germany the best period of their lives. For me, this was a completely new perspective on the history of the GDR.
When I returned to Germany in February 2010, I embarked on a trip to the so-called new German states (former East Germany), to visit some of the places described by the Madgermanes.
Nelson Munhegute from Maputo told me that he came to Oschatz in Saxony in the winter of 1987. Although he had expected to work at the harbor in Rostock, upon his arrival at the Berlin Schönefeld Airport he was directed to Oschatz and told that he would receive training and be employed later at the state-owned glass factory there. A bus going to Saxony was waiting for the group of young Mozambicans when they arrived at Schönefeld. They were given jackets. It was biting cold and there was snow everywhere.
When I arrived in February 2010, the hilly hinterlands of the Döllnitz valley near Oschatz were also covered in snow. As I took a few photographs of the snowy landscape, I thought of Nelson, 20 years ago, experiencing a similar view out of the window of his bus. At first I wasn’t looking for anything specific. I let myself wander, visit, and get to know a few of the regions and cities that the Madgermanes had told me about. The whole time I tried to keep the perspective of the former contract workers in the back of my head. It soon became clear to me that I would need to do a follow-up project. The experiences and material I had gathered during my trips to Mozambique were so comprehensive and complex, that it was hard enough to gather them in to one narrative for now. I wanted to find a powerful way to bring together these different perspectives from then and now. I wanted to show how these contract workers were used as a pawn in global history and how their fate led them down a dead-end road. But before I could address the history of the Madgermanes in Germany, I first had to concentrate on a clear narrative and conclude part one of my project.
It was only some years later, in October 2014, when I went back to Oschatz to focus on a more concentrated search for the traces of this forgotten history of international relations. I began by following the stories of Nelson and some of his Mozambican colleagues at the Oschatz glass factory. On the city’s edge, I found the former dormitory where the Mozambicans lived. It sits directly across the street from what is today the P-D Glasseiden GmbH, a glass company. The company is one of the few that survived the transfer into the free market economy after the fall of the wall. The dormitory and training halls across the street did not fare so well, however. After the last Mozambicans left his room, the building served as a home for refugees for a few years. Today, the buildings stand in ruins. Swastikas and other xenophobic and racial slurs and symbols can be found among the graffiti covering the walls.
A few days after I re-embarked upon my research, the first demonstrations against supposed Islamification of Germany took place just 55 kilometers away in Dresden. These protesters, who claimed to be against the politics of asylum and immigration, soon crystalized into what we now know as the PEGIDA movement. This was just one more reason to further engage with the realities of life for the Mozambican contract workers who remained in Germany after 1990/91.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, I travelled through Thuringia, Dresden, Leipzig, Halle, Berlin, and Brandenburg and immersed myself in the Mozambican community in Germany. In addition to their stories, I also looked for further reference points and traced their experiences in private homes and in archives. I gathered official and private documents, films produced during the GDR times, post cards, and private photographs. These different materials retraced the story of the guest workers in many different ways. It was almost impossible for these Mozambican contract workers to stay in Germany after the fall of the wall. The success story trumpeted on TV by the GDR propaganda machine was swiftly silenced and the contract abruptly dissolved. Many of the workers lost their contracts over night and became illegals. In addition, there was the promise of the remaining portion of their salaries, which they were only to receive after returning to their home country. For those Mozambicans who wanted to stay in Germany, love delivered the only shimmer of hope. Those who had married a German woman were allowed to stay.
Initially, the East German government had not planned for any intensive contact between Mozambicans and Germans. Their dormitories were located very close to or even directly on the campus of their workplaces, in order to provide a buffer between the Mozambicans and the local German population. History shows, however, that connections between people are stronger than ideology. Witnesses to this truth are more than 2,000 children of German-Mozambican families: the next generation of international friendship. This new generation became increasingly the focus of my new work.
For the last few years, I have been developing close friendships with Sarah and Cilia from Berlin, with Manuel, Jeje, and Jamal from Halle/Saale, with Miguel from Dornburg/Saale, and with the twins Pedro and Epifanio from Dresden. I don’t do interviews any more, and I don’t just watch from the outside; rather, I have become a part of their lives. I joined Sarah and Miguel on their search for their identity in Mozambique; I connected Manuel with my contacts for his project helping lost children and fathers reconnect with one another entitled “Reencontro Familiar: Moçambique – Alemanha”; I’ve taken pictures for Pedro for his school paper about Jorge Gomandai, a former guest worker who was murdered by Neo-Nazis in Dresden in 1991. And now I stand before the task of turning this new story – not just one of collected narratives and archival research, but one of lived memories – into an artistic project and a pictorial language.
Malte Wandel, artist, photographer
(Translated from German by Bryn Veditz)