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73 minutes, 2004, Cameroon
Producer/Director: Jean-Marie Teno
In French, German and English with English subtitles

Le Malentendu Colonial looks at European colonialism in Africa through the lens of Christian evangelism, indeed as the model for the relationship between North and South even today. The film scrutinizes in particular the role of German missionaries in Namibia on the centenary of the 1904 German genocide of the Herrero people. It reveals how colonialism destroyed African beliefs and social systems and replaced them with European ones as if they were the only acceptable routes to modernity. As Prof. F. Kangué Ewané says in the film: "I can forgive Westerners for taking away my land...but not for taking away my mind and soul."

In this sense, Le Malentendu Colonial carries forward the thesis director Jean-Marie Teno so eloquently began in Afrique, Je Te Plumerai where he argued that Africa could only find its way forward into the 21st century if it affirmed its own traditions. Teno has written: "The humanitarians of today have replaced the missionaries of yesterday. Colonization has turned over a new leaf of globalization but in Africa there is nothing new on the horizon; a little more charity and less and less justice."

Teno's often droll commentary is juxtaposed to the missionaries unaware Eurocentrism and its acute deconstruction by African philosophers and historians. He begins his argument in Wuppertal, the small German city that was home to the Rhenish Mission. From here in the 1840s missionaries, often poor rural youth, were sent out to southwest Africa to bring the gospel or 'good news' (ironic in light of future events) to the 'heathen.' Rather than adapt Christianity to local Namibian cultures, they introduced Western education and customs, laying the ideological infrastructure for colonialism.

German missionaries, traders and settlers were present in the region for several decades prior to the creation of the German colony of South West Africa. Bismarck called the Berlin Conference of 1884-85 to officially divide Africa among the European powers. Although the Iron Chancellor was not particularly interested in colonies himself, German industrialists were and he rationalized that it was better for Europeans to be fighting Africans than each other. What was most notable about the conference was that there were no Africans in attendance. The film points out that so far as Europe was concerned, there was no Africans' Africa, only a French Africa, a British Africa, a Portuguese Africa, etc. The conferees saw missionaries as ideal agents for disseminating Europe's 'civilizing' mission, that is, for incorporating Africa within Europe's agenda for it.

Prof. Paulin Oloukpona Yinnon of the University of Lomé explains that the European land grab in Africa was based on a fundamental misunderstanding, le malentendu colonial of the title. Western ideas of private property clashed with traditional African beliefs that land could only belong to the ancestors or the gods. A chief could grant the use of land temporarily to a European but after that it would revert to common ownership.

Therefore when Africans came to realize that Europeans intended to permanently colonize their land, imposing their laws, customs and authority, they often rose in revolt. In 1904 in Namibia, the Herrero people rebelled against the Germans. The missionaries working among the Africans were pressured into revealing their positions and the Herrero were subsequently defeated militarily. But the Germans then adopted a genocidal 'shoot to kill' policy for the men and drove all women and children into the desert where they would die of thirst. Later any remaining Herrero were herded into concentration camps, slave labor compounds where more starved to death. The entire incident was an ominous precursor of policies which would be perfected by the Nazis forty years later.

After World War I South West Africa was assigned to South African trusteeship. With the introduction of apartheid in the 1950s, the African members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church split with the mainline church. Their breakaway church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Namibia, became the first church to write a letter in protest of apartheid policies. Alongside South African churches it played an important role in the successful forty-year struggle against apartheid.

Le Malentendu Colonial weaves a nuanced argument that even today aid policies from western lending agencies and NGOs follow the missionary paradigm, forcing Africa to follow Europe's development paths and priorities. But Prof. Ewané contends Africa can never recover from colonialism through economic or political processes alone. Any African Renaissance must, he believes, be based on a revaluation and reassertion of indigenous cultures and beliefs. This becomes harder and harder as rapacious globalization leaves less and less space for traditional or 'marginal' cultures, not just in Africa but a fortiori in the West. One might even suggest that rather than retreating to the particularities of the past, a more realistic alternative might lie in an alternative global vision contrasting with that of present day hegemonic capitalism. Le Malentendu Colonial is a major addition to the literature on colonial and post-colonial Africa and will be a stimulating text for classes in post-colonial theory, international development, African history and world history.
"The film is Afropolitanism at its best...continually makes provocative points."
Robert Gordon, University of Vermont
"Teno has been making a series of eloquent documentaries about the African legacy of colonialism. In this most recent work, Teno tells the story of the devastation of a continent with wit, irony and historical passion."
Linda Williams, University of California-Berkeley
"This documentary distinguishes itself by taking a definitive point of view. Challenging Europe‘s ‘amnesia‘ surrounding the colonial era, the film interrogates the complex relationship between Europe and Africa."
Le Nouvel Observateur


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