Between sorrow, celebration, and tourist attraction

Núrel Bahí Reitz (PRIF) on the annual Majimaji Festival in Songea and the commemoration of anti-colonial fighters in Tanzania.

The annual Majimaji Festival in Songea commemorates those who died fighting the German forces during the largest early anti-colonial war in east-African history (1905-7). The spontaneous, unexpected situations that arise during such events may offer fruitful impulses for thinking about what it means to remember.

Das jährliche Majimaji-Festival in Songea erinnert an die während des größten frühen antikolonialen Krieges in der Geschichte Ostafrikas (1905–1907), im Kampf gegen die deutschen „Schutztruppen“ Verstorbenen. Spontane und unerwartete Situationen während dieses Festivals können fruchtbare Impulse zum Nachdenken über die Bedeutung von Erinnern geben.

The Majimaji War commemorations in Songea in south-west Tanzania take place at the end of February every year, on the grounds of the Majimaji War Memorial Museum. It is the only museum in the country dedicated specifically to the largest early anti-colonial war in East Africa (1905-7). Through their ruthlessness and the implementation of a scorched earth policy, orchestrating famines that continued long after the fighting had ended, the Germans colonial forces claimed the lives of up to 300,000 people during this war.

The commemorations stretched from the 23rd to the 27th of February this year. While it commenced and closed at the museum in Songea, the programme took us all the way to Nyassa District, as well as to Maposeni for the annual Ngoni Day celebrations. I was able to participate in the Majimaji War commemorations with the generous support of the Leibniz Research Alliance ‘Value of the Past’, and will share a few snippets from my observations and impressions in this blog post.

A significant visit

The commemorations – the Majimaji festival – mark the anniversary of large-scale executions that were perpetrated by the German colonial administration in 1906 during the Majimaji War. Sixty-six people were hanged by the German authorities and buried in a mass grave, located behind the museum building. Photos of some of the prisoners, taken shortly before their execution, can be found on display in the museum. One among them was sub-Chief Songea Mbano, who led the Ngoni forces against the Germans. He was the last to be killed, the sixty-seventh, and was buried a few meters apart from the mass grave. As the story goes, the Germans tried to hang him three times without success, before shooting him, severing his head, and sending his skull to Germany for “eugenics” research. There have been multiple calls to repatriate Songea Mbano’s skull over the years.

The photo of Chief Songea Mbano, who was executed and his body desecrated by German colonial forces in 1906. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Putting this into gruesome context, this was a common practice in the colonies at the time, so that to this day, skulls from former German colonies (and other places) can be found in the basements of multiple universities, hospitals, and museums in Germany. Recent years have seen increasing efforts to repatriate human remains from such collections. In fact, just a few days after the Majimaji festival, a German MP attended the commemoration for the massacre of nineteen Chiefs of the Chagga and Meru peoples near Kilimanjaro in 1900. Part of the discussions that followed the event were centred around the restitution of their remains from Germany (see here). While there was no official German representation at the Majimaji festival, President Steinmeier did visit the site in November, offering an apology for what our ancestors wrought (see here).

The visit of the Federal President of Germany Frank Walter Steinmeier is commemorated in Songea (left), right next to mass grave, marked by a monument with the names and ranks of the executed prisoners. Photos: Núrel Bahí Reitz.

The Majimaji Festival

The festival was opened on the morning of February 23rd. Sitting on the back of a bodaboda (motorbike taxi), we passed by groups of uniformed students making their way to the museum grounds, some chanting as they approached the gate. Loud, cheerful music could be heard coming from the museum from quite a distance, and we were met with a sea of hundreds of students, who had already gathered on the lawn in front of the museum buildings.

They stood across a permanent canopy, under which the honoured guests – including elders, Chiefs, government commissioners, and other dignitaries – were seated. A large tent was erected next to the canopy to seat the adult guests, providing them (us) with much appreciated shade, while the students continued to gather on the lawn. The atmosphere was joyful and lively, and the festival began with each of the school classes being introduced by the MCs, and called up to dance and enjoy themselves in the area between the students and the adult guests, which served as a stage for all the performances to come. The day was filled with welcoming speeches in Swahili by the dignitaries, dances, and songs.

The Majimaji-Festival had an overall joyous spirit with many honourable guests attending. Photo: Núrel Bahí Reitz.

Disregarding the content of the speeches, you could almost have forgotten the heavy history that was being commemorated. That is, until one dance performance in particular. The performance began with sounds of gunshots blaring through the speakers. Majimaji fighters ran onto the stage from behind the canopy, falling dramatically on the orange earth, dead. A woman ran with them, dropping to her knees next to her fallen fellows, shaking one, then the next, willing them to move – to live – mourning her tragic loss. The faces of the fighters were unmoving, some of them painted red, with lines like bloodied wounds. This sombre scene was held only for a moment, before the music suddenly became joyous again. A man in white robes came onto the stage and began to sing, the fallen fighters stood up, their bloodied faces now smiling, and the dance continued. The performers joined the white-robed man in song, thanking the fallen for their sacrifices for Tanzania, praising their fight.

An interplay of celebration and mourning

This transition from solemn to festive struck me as abrupt and unexpected, though not as unexpected as the scene that was about to unfold. Seated in front of us, a group of German tourists was captivated by the performance – it would be the only time we would see other Germans at the event. An elder Tanzanian man stood up from the audience and approached them. At first, it seemed that they did not understand what he was saying, but then he took the hands of two of the German women, and pulled them towards the dance, encouraging them to dance with the performers. Hesitantly, the two women obliged, standing at the edge of the group and dancing uncertainly to the music, their movements contrasting with the dancers’ practiced performance.

My first impression was that the situation was somehow wrong, and I immediately avoided eye-contact with the man making the German guests dance. How could it be okay for them to dance in this dance, that was telling such a gruesome story? Why would the elder invite them to do this? In my mind, they were now integrated into the dance in the role of the perpetrators, who were otherwise not presented on stage. And the perpetrators shouldn’t be dancing happily with the survivors!

However, I quickly realised that no one else seemed to take issue with this scene. On the contrary – multiple Tanzanian guests got up from their seats to encourage the women, some taking their hands to bring them closer to the performance, others filming them or taking photos. Before they left, the tourists said a warm goodbye to the elder Tanzanian women who were seated next to them, who seemed appreciative of their participation in the dance, even hugging the guests.

The next day, an elder man would tell my friend that he saw me dancing, confusing me with one of the women, and when I asked my friend (embarrassed) whether he corrected his elder, my friend said: “No, it’s fine, he thought it was good!”

I still do not know how to interpret this scene, but my assumptions about how this commemorative performance ought to be engaged with were clearly off. Through my own socio-cultural upbringing and my research interest in how people engage with histories of mass violence, I expected this performance to be subject to a certain level of reverence, whether it be sincere or performed. In my presumptions, the commemoration of death, and especially violent death, is typically associated above all else with mourning. I imagine performances during such commemorations, or rather, commemorative performances to be infused with this mourning. Death and mourning are in turn somehow tied to reverence, to the “sacred”, in my mind.

However, this performance ended on a happy note, in celebration rather than mourning. Unlike sacralised performances, this performance was open for anyone to join in, even those who may be associated with the perpetrators. Perhaps the audience saw this history as much more “past” than I did, far enough away for the mundane to be allowed in. Or perhaps they viewed this interaction as a sweet, reconciliatory moment. Maybe the celebration of their peoples’ heroism, embedded in a narrative of the ultimate Tanzanian victory in its anti-colonial struggle, overshadowed all sense of mourning and loss at the end of the performance. Or perhaps it meant something completely different, that I have yet to learn in my time here.

Memorialisation and tourism

In a way the scene was also fitting with the general tone of the commemorations. The Majimaji Memorial Museum as well as the commemorations were nationalised in 2010. Since then, the event has been hosted by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism. This was not only noticeable during the festival, but it dominated a considerable portion of the programme. Although no other tourists were present for the rest of the occasion, it was clearly stated on multiple occasions that one of the main objectives of the event was to promote tourism in the region.

This could be most clearly observed on the last day of the commemorations. The programme on the 27th was opened with a procession. The crowd, made up mostly of uniformed school children, collected the dignitaries from the old boma and prison where the captured fighters were held before their execution. From there, they marched together to the Hanging Place, where a select few dignitaries ceremoniously placed traditional Ngoni weapons onto the memorial located there, with military accompaniment. We marched to the museum grounds, where the ceremony was repeated at a statue representing Tanzanian independence fighters. Then, the procession was interrupted for a presentation of exhibition tents, which lined the museum grounds and promoted tourist attractions in the region. The dignitaries walked from tent to tent, as the exhibitions therein were presented over the speakers, loud enough for all those present to hear. Only after this promotional interlude did we continue onto the gravesites, where the ceremony was repeated for the last time at the mass grave. This time, the dignitaries also laid colourful wreaths at the sites, and both Christian and Muslim prayers were spoken. The ceremony was closed with a speech at the grave of sub-Chief Songea Mbano.

Perhaps it is not surprising, that at a commemorative event so infused with every-day concerns, the performances do not demand the reverence I expected them to. This is not to say that promoting tourism is a trivial matter: increasing tourism has the potential to improve people’s livelihoods in the region. It would also encourage Germans to visit the museum and the festival, to participate in the commemoration of what is also their history. Nevertheless, I could not help feel that there was a tension between the wish to commemorate the history of this place, to celebrate the heroes who died fighting, and the wish to promote tourism through such an event.

Núrel Bahí Reitz is a PhD Researcher at PRIF – Peace Research Institute Frankfurt and works for the research centre “Transformations of Political Violence” (TraCe). For her dissertation she examines the memorialisation of the genocide in Namibia (1904-8) and the Majimaji war in Tanzania (1905-7).

Cover photo: National Majimaji Memorial Museum, Songea, Tanzania. Photo: Núrel Bahí Reitz.

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