As with many African countries, most of the recorded Tanzanian history is Eurocentric, giving an impression that Tanzanians did not exist or even if they did, accomplished nothing, before the coming of the Europeans in the case of Tanzania, the Germans.
As much as the country’s history is taught in school, there is little information on Tanzanian communities before colonisation.
But for Isaria Anael Meli, 87, a grandson of chief Mangi Meli of Old Moshi, the status quo was unacceptable.
His grandfather, chief Mangi Meli, was one of the most powerful in the Chagga community of Old Moshi, Kilimanjaro region, in the late 1800s. He was chief for a little under a decade before his execution by the German colonialists on March 2, 1900, by hanging in a public square in Old Moshi.
He was then beheaded and his head sent to Germany. His crime: Resistance to encroachment on the slopes of Kilimanjaro by the Germans.
For the past 50 years, Isaria Meli has been campaigning through the Meli Foundation, appealing to the Tanzanian and German governments to seek the return of his grandfather’s skull.
His efforts have finally paid off. Chief Mangi Meli's story has been brought to the attention of the German government through a four-part exhibition titled The Dead, As Far-A-Sense [ ] Can Remember, held at the Animal Anatomy Theatre in Berlin last December. The exhibition will run till the end of this month.
At the centre of this exhibition is a video installation titled Mangi Meli Remains — an innovative short film animation in Kiswahili, German and English on the life, times and death of the chief, his links with other chiefs in the resistance to German colonial rule and the events leading to his death — will be permanently installed in Old Moshi in March.
Isaria Meli was invited to the exhibition in Berlin and while there he took a DNA test on the invitation of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The results of this test are expected to be in before end of June this year.
Currently, Germany holds over 5,000 skulls of its former colonial subjects, including 200 from Tanzania. Among the skulls, six were identified during Isaria’s visit as being from Moshi, dating back to the time of Mangi Meli’s death. Some of them have the inscription Dschagga/Wadschagga.
Tanzania's ambassador to Germany Dr Abdallah Possi, also attended the exhibition, which is the work of German national Konradin Kunze and the Tanzanian Sarita Mamseri.
Mamseri is a heritage educator with a Masters in History of Art & Archaeology, while Kunze, a German national, is a theatre producer with Flinn Works.
This exhibition is based on the story of chief Mangi Meli, with footage never before released to the Tanzanian public. It includes photographs of the Chagga people and chief Mangi Meli taken in the late 1800s to the early 1900s by colonial German army officers.
The exhibition Mangi Meli Remains will move to Dar es Salaam in February.
The idea for the exhibition started when Kunze started researching German colonial history in Tanzania. “When I first came to Tanzania eight years ago, I was shocked to learn about my country's colonial history. I didn’t learn it in school back in Germany, which would have been the proper way, I think. We maybe had just about one hour of it because 'Germany had some colonies but it was for a short period.'’’
In his eight years in the country, Kunze has worked on a number of projects on Tanzania's colonial history with Flinn Works, a theatre company, and did a theatre production called Maji Maji Flava.
Mangi Meli Remains took a little under a year to put together. The team included renowned Tanzanian illustrators Cloud Chatanda and Amani Abeid. They made several trips to the Kilimanjaro area for research, where they met Isaria Meli and other members of the Old Moshi community including Gabby Mzei, an experienced local guide from the Old Moshi cultural tourism centre.
Kunze’s research took him back to Germany where he tapped into the historical journals of colonial army generals operating on the ground in Moshi at the time of Mangi Meli’s chieftaincy.
“I found most of the pictures in the archive of the Ethnological Museum and others in online archives. It took me quite a while to find them, more or less accidentally sometimes...” Kunze says of the collection of photographs of the Chagga people from the late 19th century to the early 20th century.
Most had never been shown before in any Tanzanian museum.
The illustrators Abeid and Chatanda had learned chief Mangi Meli's history in school but had never seen a photograph of him until the project. They say it was humbling to see the photographs Kunze had dug up and the information he got in Germany.
“The objective of this project is definitely to educate the public. This story should not be forgotten and on the other hand, it is giving back to the community by permanently install something in Old Moshi, although it is not the chief’s skull, which we’re still trying to find. However, at least we can bring back the information that I have gathered back in Germany,” Kunze added.
Kunze thinks the photographs he found as well the archived material in Germany, should be readily available in Tanzania since it is a crucial part of the country’s history too.
After taking part in the project, Chatanda said, “It is clear that the Europeans saw us as savages and were trying to prove that we aren’t real human beings. Mangi Meli’s father, Mangi Rindi sent his best soldiers to meet the Kaiser in Berlin and gave his two best soldiers ivory, minerals and leather to present to the Kaiser and in return asked for a few weapons. The Kaiser sent the soldiers back with a music box and a sewing machine.”
Chatanda is not sure that such projects can provide “closure.”
Mamseri concurs, saying, “The atrocities, tragedies and theft, looting, and acquisition of personal items of significance and of human remains cannot be undone or indeed forgotten when still so much is to be acknowledged and then repatriated. It also continues to amaze me how much of Tanzania's history can be found in foreign collections, both private and state. It just reinforces my opinion that efforts to counter-balance the role of colonial archives and collections in Europeans' understanding of Africa must be readdressed through the collecting and presenting of Tanzanian oral histories.”
The exhibition will permanently move to Old Moshi on March 2. But this does not offer any closure either for Isaria Meli, his family and community at large but at least for Mamseri, the project managed to unearth visual and written history long forgotten.
“As a Tanzanian, just looking at the photographs Konradin uncovered was eerily humbling. I am eagerly awaiting the exhibition this February in Dar es Salaam,” Chatanda said.
Mangi Meli Remains is a collaborative project between Flinn Works (Germany), BSS Projects (Tanzania/UK), Old Moshi Cultural Tourism, ArtEver (Tanzania) supported by the Ethnological Museum Berlin and the Humboldt University Berlin.
It was funded by the Goethe-Institut Tanzania, the Berlin Senate Department of Culture and Between Bridges (non-profit exhibition space organised by Wolfgang Tillmans).
In summing up the satisfaction she got from the project, Mamseri said; “As a curator, I believe in cultural endeavours to raise awareness of the often forgotten stories of the active and fierce resistance to colonial rule. We can then examine how they shape our understanding of contemporary society and citizenship today. A philosophical way if you may, of asking ‘What do you stand for?’”