The book: This historical work focuses on Mozambicans and Angolans who migrated to East Germany through state-sponsored schemes in the last 1970s through the 1980s. Drawing on more than 260 interviews from these migrants, Marcia C. Schenck *17 documents their complex and contradictory experiences in Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany (Springer International Publishing). This open access book touches on a variety of coexisting themes including loss and gain, and the state vs. the individual to explore the journeys of African migrants.
The author: Marcia C. Schenck *17 is a professor of global history at the University of Potsdam in Germany. Her research interests include the history of migration and processes of refuge seeking, labor history, education history, oral and life history, African and global history, and the history of international organizations.. She earned her M.Sc. in African Studies from the University of Oxford and her Ph.D. in history from Princeton.
On a warm winter’s morning in August 2011, I ambled through the center of Mozambique’s capital city Maputo, known as the city of cement. On Avenida 24 de Julho, close to the labor ministry, I suddenly heard a voice. “Wie geht es Dir? Kommst du aus Deutschland?” (“How are you? Do you come from Germany?”) Surprised to hear my mother tongue, I turned around. The man who had just greeted me was a little shorter than me. He was perhaps in his mid-fifties and was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. He looked ordinary to me. What he was about to tell me, however, was anything but. For me, the ensuing conversation was the gateway to a new world, the world of the madjerman. The madjerman were workers who migrated from newly independent Mozambique to communist East Germany and their story can tell us an enormous amount about Mozambique, about East Germany, about memory, and about people’s endless capacity for adaptation and resilience.
The name of the man who hailed me in fluent German in the middle of a city in southern Africa was João. He saw me, registered my skin color, clothes, and gender, and decided that he would like to speak to a young woman from Germany to reminisce about the past and tell me about the madjerman’s struggle. An impulsive decision led to, for me at least, a life changing conversation. That morning, without knowing it, João had planted the seed for Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World: Socialist Mobilities between Angola, Mozambique, and East Germany.
For those readers not already familiar with the madjerman, the briefest and broadest possible summary of their story is as follows. About 21,000 young Mozambicans, and at most 2,500 Angolans, migrated to socialist East Germany for work and training between 1979 and 1990. The idea was that they would go to Germany to help alleviate the shortage of labor there. While in Europe, they would obtain practical capabilities and soft skills which would make them useful workers, not least for envisioned East German projects in Mozambique. They would also be inculcated with socialist ideals. They would become vanguard African socialist “New Men.”
The plan was that the worker-trainees would then go back to Africa and deploy these skills in the service of Mozambique’s and Angola’s nascent industrial revolutions. Sadly, it did not work out like that. The migrants did not receive the expected high-quality training and there were few industries in which to employ the skills they attained. The scheme then fell apart when communism ended in East Germany. Nearly all the Angolans and Mozambicans returned home, where they expected to receive the portion of their wages that they had been practically obliged to send back while they were working. Most of the migrants never saw the money they expected. Their homecoming was for many a traumatic process marked by poverty and dashed hopes. In Mozambique, where most of the migrants were from, they acquired the nickname madjerman as they campaigned to receive the money and other benefits that they believed they were owed.
I returned to Mozambique in January 2014, this time with a purpose. I systematically collected oral histories from former workers, students, and school children who had taken part in state-led migration schemes to East Germany. With João, and with the other Africans I spoke to, I found that my own German identity opened doors and provided a starting point for my conversations with people. Many were keen to share their stories about a time long gone, and somehow my Germanness stimulated them. I reminded them of a former German friend or colleague. Interviewees often assumed they knew how to read me: they felt that they had a special insight into the German mindset. The fact that I was born in West Germany and was too young to remember the two Germanys did not seem to matter much. The differences between the east and west of my home did not greatly resonate into Mozambique, and neither to Angola, where I also carried out interviews.
However, differences, which from Africa look small, matter enormously when seen from the German perspective. My Wessi-ness mattered greatly when interviewing former East German officials. Whereas most Africans assumed a shared horizon of experiences for all Germans, many East Germans anticipated that, coming from the Germany that “won” the Cold War, I intended to write a victor’s history. I imagine the book I have written confounds these expectations. I hope it does.
When I began this project, I wanted to learn to see like a socialist New Man in training. Rather than looking at large-scale, high-modernist schemes which aimed to use the power of the state to improve the human condition, as James Scott has done, my goal was to examine these schemes from the perspective of the humans who were to be improved. Intrinsic to the history of these grand schemes was their failure, so the study of their subjects would also encompass how they experienced these failures. How, I wondered, do labor migrants themselves remember their migration experience and how do they speak about its legacies in their lives? Scott is concerned with how the forms of knowledge underlying such plans shaped the manner of their failure. One of the key results of my way of doing things has been that my work focuses much less on the failures. This is because the schemes may have failed, but the people within them did not. They do not perceive themselves as having failed, and, even more fundamentally, there is no such thing as a failed life, because unlike schemes, lives do not have measurable criteria of success and failure against which they can be judged.
Instead of thinking about the schemes and their failures I pay attention to how Africans caught up in these schemes confronted the shortcomings they encountered, repurposing them to meet their goals. This is a story of individuals facing and (sometimes) overcoming institutional failures. The biggest example of this in my narrative is that although madjerman participation in working-training migration schemes may not have ended up with them in secure employment as industrial vanguard workers as it was supposed to, it did give them a framework to organize together when they returned, in order to fight for their collective and individual rights. This collective action simply could not have occurred without the failure of the labor migration schemes.
Central to this narrative are the personal stories of the people who traveled across continents. As always, personal stories transcend the simplistic schematism which so often ensues when we think about concepts such as the Cold War, or dualities such as the global South and North, or East and West, the Second and the Third Worlds. The narratives in this book show how African migrants were simultaneously recipients of and contributors to German life. They examine how their experiences — as producers, as consumers, and as intimate strangers — shaped their life trajectories as young migrants in the Socialist Bloc and, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as middle-aged citizens in post-socialist societies.
The tail end of the transnational workers’ trajectory, especially, nourishes a nostalgia for some aspects of their lives under socialism, for which I have coined the word eastalgia. Eastalgia is both a historical outcome and a moral-political critique of post-socialism. The word, and the state of mind it represents, is central to this book. Eastalgia is ostensibly about the past — a nostalgia for life in East Germany which no longer exists — but really it is at least as much about the present and the state of things in Mozambique and Angola. It is therefore a specific form of one of the special qualities of oral histories, that they exist in several time frames at the same time.
As a fragment of the past in the present, eastalgia has a restorative dimension through the identity and belonging it provides to the returned workers. Their shared past and (often idealized) memories give them an anchor as they struggle to navigate a social landscape in which many of them can find little stable mooring. The narratives in this book, and the composite one that I have forged by putting together all the individual narratives, are thus in many ways a critique of the present. What my interviewees told me has as much to say about the present in Mozambique as it does about the past in East Germany. What matters is why interview partners recalled certain things while forgetting others; why they chose to relay their lives in a certain way and not another. Oral histories are products of the present and its selective recall of the past, and the criticisms that workers make of their present living conditions are thus intricately interwoven in their retelling of the past. Former worker-trainees who are still engaged in activism, fighting for reparations, often emphasize the unresolved nature of their struggle; yet this is a topic also of interest to many returnees who are not involved in activist work but whose social conditions do not let them forget the importance of the money for which they once worked.
What emerges through this composite of life histories is not a clear-cut story that fits the memories of the former workers into one neat argument. To try to force them into a unified direction in this way would be to do a great disservice to the men and women whose experiences this book details. Instead, dualities and ambiguities are central to this book. The narratives within it are about the past but are rooted in the present. The migrations were ostensibly state driven but could also never have happened without a myriad of complex personal motives. The migrants to Germany lived there as both producers and consumers — a reminder that even within communism, where focus was so often on production, consumption remained a central part of life. They went to a country whose guiding principles were international socialist solidarity and anti-racism but ended up facing brutal racism that made many of them leave. And they trained as industrial workers but then returned to a country with limited employment opportunities in industry.
Therefore, I am offering to the reader a tapestry shedding light on different patterns, different perspectives of life in East Germany and in southern Africa from the unique perspectives of non-elite African socialist cosmopolitans. I am reminding the reader that nothing is more complicated, and indeed that nothing is more inspiring, than people’s infinite capability for adaptation and for navigating macro-circumstances for their personal goals. This is a message that no archive-based or institutional level study could hope to transmit.
Excerpted from Remembering African Labor Migration to the Second World by Marcia C. Schenck. Used by permission of the author. All rights reserved.
“Marcia Schenck, deploying an extraordinary array of oral and documentary resources, tells us what Mozambicans and Angolans who went as worker-trainees to East Germany were able to make of the experience: their hopes, their frustrations, the relationships they made, and the memories and cultural resources they brought back with them. Her book is a compelling reflection on socialism in Africa and Europe and on what it means to move between continents and ways of life.” — Frederick Cooper, author of Africa Since 1940: The Past of the Present
“The book’s compelling central message is a fundamentally human history of migration to socialist East Germany. Friendship and cooperation, education, professional training, and labor all played a role in shaping this cold war migration to a place that emerged as quite cosmopolitan.” — Dito Tembe, Mosambican artist and former contact laborer