Brenda Akele Jorde: between Germany and Africa, a double round trip

Brenda Akele Jorde, director of the documentary "The Homes We Carry" at the International Women's Film Festival in Créteil. © Siegfried Forster / RFI

Text by: Siegfried Forster Follow

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With The Homes We Carry, young director Brenda Akele Jorde tells the story of a German-African in search of identity in a very personal way. But it is also the story of the father, one of the 17,000 contract workers in the GDR who, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the East German state, suddenly had to return to Mozambique. This documentary, presented at the Créteil International Women's Film Festival, touches us in two ways, because all questions relating to skin color, nationality and gender roles arise in at least two ways. Maintenance.


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RFI: The Homes We Carry tells at least two stories: on the one hand, the quest for identity of Sarah, a German-African. On the other hand, you show the fate of his father, Eulidio, one of the17,000 contract workers in the GDR, who came from Mozambique and was forced to return to his country. How did you come to these themes?

Brenda Akele Jorde: Actually, the story of contract workers in the GDR came to me, through David, the co-director and cameraman of the project. He is German and lived in Mozambique for a year. There, sooner or later, you meet former contract workers, especially in the capital Maputo. When they hear you speak German, they often call you out. There, every Wednesday, there is also a demonstration of former workers who are still demanding part of their wages. That's how David discovered history. He was also the one who had met Sarah in Mozambique during a language class. David and I met at film university. And since I'm also German-African, like Sarah, and I was looking for a story, we met.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, many victims of the injustices of the GDR were compensated. Why was this not the case for these contract workers from Mozambique, now also known as 'madgermanes'?

The "madgermanes" are a special case. The contract between Mozambique and the GDR provided that Mozambicans would receive their money in a savings account. But when they returned to Mozambique, they discovered that the very corrupt Mozambican government had paid them only a very small part. There are many different cases, but no one has received their full salary. Mozambique was a very poor country and this contract with the GDR was doomed from the start, because Mozambique had a lot of debts to the GDR. And the indentured workers, unknowingly, have somehow honored those debts. Mozambique probably never intended to actually pay this money.

In your film, we discover Sarah, the daughter of one of these contract workers. After the fall of the Wall, he returned to Mozambique and left his pregnant German girlfriend in Germany. Did he have to leave? Was it his pregnant girlfriend who didn't want to live with him? Or is it secondary to your film if the separation was caused by an arbitrary decision of the state or by the decision of Sarah or Eulidio?

You have to imagine that at the time, the chaos was total and that East Germany simply no longer existed. And contracts with the GDR no longer existed either. The contract workers were given a return ticket to Mozambique and were told that if you returned to Mozambique, your money was waiting for you there. In Germany, at that time, racism was very strong. The chaos was such that the workers did not know where to go. In addition, these workers had always lived in a very isolated way and had not learned to make decisions autonomously. Most of them therefore thought that they would go back to Mozambique, receive their money there and then return to Germany when the situation had calmed down a little, racism had subsided, reunification had stabilized somewhat.

Sarah, Eduardo and Luana in Mozambique, in "The Homes We Carry", by Brenda Akele Jorde. © Brenda Akele Jorde / FIFF 2023

There are many families separated, torn apart, many multiple identities. What makes this German-African family special?

Particularly exciting is the fact that Sarah and her daughter Luana find themselves in a similar situation to her mother, Irene. Luana's father is also far away. He is also African. He is also in Mozambique. Many questions have resurfaced, for example: are we repeating such stories? When are we going to break our parents' stories? Through this story, we can tell both a story in the past and in the present. In fact, it is even three generations: Eulidio, the contract worker, Sarah, and her baby. Even if at the beginning, we had planned things differently... [laughs].

Through Sarah, do you feel that you have portrayed a woman who has taken her destiny into her own hands? A woman who stepped out of her role as a victim to make the same decision, but in the other direction, that is, this time it was she who went to Mozambique, fell in love there and then made the decision to return to Germany, with "the best gift of [her] life" in her womb, but without the father.

This is something I only understood during filming. On her first long trip to Mozambique at the age of 25, Sarah first conquered her entire Mozambican "heritage". She was there for a year and a half and she fell in love. For me, it's a success story, because it was born out of the fact that she didn't feel fully accepted in Germany. She just wanted to know: "Do I belong in Mozambique?" "What can I take from Mozambique?" "How can I feel at home there?" For all this, Sarah is very strong for me. Many other German-Africans have never had this experience, perhaps because they were afraid to go to this country.

In that sense, it's a success story, even if the journey I'm showing is also painful and trying for Sarah. But, at the end, she says: "I know and I belong to both countries, to both cultures. I have taken root and can evolve in both cultures."

Your film also paints a double portrait of a part of German history that is little shown today. You document the fond memories of these indentured workers talking about a "happy" past in the GDR, resurrected through photos that Mozambicans proudly show in front of the camera.

Meeting this family was my first opportunity to research the GDR. The result is two very different narratives. On the one hand, for Mozambicans, it was a crazy experience to suddenly have all these material things, to live independently. In Mozambique, at the time, civil war reigned. Even if they could not choose the jobs they wanted in the GDR, they also had a very good time socially. Today, they have a lot of nostalgia.

The other break with the "usual" narrative about the GDR is when the film shows the moment of reunification. This event, always celebrated as a happy moment, meant for all these families the rout.

Eulidio, former GDR contract worker and father of Sarah, in Brenda Akele Jorde's "The Homes We Carry". © Brenda Akele Jorde / FIFF 2023

There is yet another kind of double portrait, when you talk about racism in Germany over three generations. It starts with the experience of Irene and Eulidio, and the whole generation of these indentured workers in the GDR. It continues with Sarah, a German-African and daughter of an East German, growing up in a reunified Germany. And it continues more than 30 years later with little Luana who utters the terrible sentence that she would rather have fair skin.

This last sentence of Luana, a two-year-old child, saying that she would like to be clearer, it shocks many. It's important to talk about it, because I don't know any person of color in Germany who, as a child, didn't say the same thing. I don't know anyone. And we should ask ourselves, why, from childhood, a child of color doesn't feel good about himself in a white-majority society.

You yourselves were born in 1993 in Germany. "What home do you carry? What kind of house do you carry on your back or inside yourself?

I grew up in Hamburg. "What home do I carry?" I grew up with my mother and father until I was three years old. Then he went back to Ghana. So I can relate very well to a lot of things Sarah has been through. But there are also things that differentiate us. I have never experienced racism as blatant as Sarah's. At the age of 25, I went to Ghana to experience all this, but I wasn't looking for a second home. I am at home in Germany and I also say clearly: I am German. Then I have that little something extra. In my opinion, it would be wrong to say that I am half and half. It would give the impression that we are really nothing of the two. Yes, I am German, but I also have Ghanaian roots that I only knew when I was really 25.

I was fortunate that my mother and father stayed in very good contact and that I returned to Ghana at three, five, seven, nine and so on. Of course, the black parent was not there. It also remains a lack for me, but I always knew I could go.

What were the reactions to this documentary in Germany?

What particularly struck and touched me were the screenings organized with the Initiative schwarzer Menschen in Deutschland (Initiative of Black People in Germany), in Cologne and Hanover. We had a lot of people who identified themselves and then shared a lot of their experience with us.

In recent years, in Germany, there have been more and more debates about the colonial and African past. Do you feel like things are moving or becoming more visible?

Yes, absolutely. I also see this for example with the community I spoke with after the screening of the film. Self-confidence is currently being greatly enhanced. People are coming together. And the media makes it possible to come together, to no longer feel alone. That's the first step, connecting. That's going on a lot right now. This can also be seen with the second-generation community of contract workers. They are all now in their thirties and there is currently a lot going on in terms of interconnection and memory work.

The "madgermanes", former Mozambican workers in the GDR, demonstrate every Wednesday in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, for their rights. © Brenda Akele Jorde / FIFF 2023

► Read also: Women's Film Festival: "My Girl Friend", by Egyptian Kawthar Younis

► Read also: At the film festival of Créteil: women cinema, matrimony and sacred figures

The Homes We Carry, documentary by Brenda Akele Jorde, presented at the Créteil International Women's Film Festival, from March 24 to April 2.

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