5500 heads in the »S-Archiv«
“I have to find Mangi Meli’s head and bring it back to Tanzania,” says Mboro. “Like it or not. I promised my grandma Tawaia. ”Mangi Meli, prince of the Tanzanian people of the Chagga, was knotted by the Germans on March 2, 1900 in Moshi – true to the tradition established by“ Hänge-Peters ”.
The colonial rulers cut off the head of the murdered man, freed it from the remains of meat and, according to tradition, sent the skull to the empire. Scientists there tore each other for bones from Africa.
Almost 5500 severed heads are stored in the Berlin »S-Archiv« (S stands for skull) of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation – Luschan brought 1,150 human heads with him from the former German East Africa alone. Other German cities literally have corpses in their basements: magazines full of skulls, bones and other body parts. Where to start looking for the head of the Manga Meli? “I imagined it would be easier,” says Mboro, smiling thoughtfully.
Seven hour agony
Born in 1951 in the village of Kishimundu near Moshi, Mboro loved his grandmother’s stories. Again and again she told of Mangi Meli, hero of the anti-colonial resistance. Unlike his father Rindi, who had supported the German “Schutztruppen”, Chief Meli defied the exploiters.
As the leader of the Chagga from 1891, Meli refused to pay the “hut tax” demanded by the Germans and organized an uprising. Despite better armament, the colonialists suffered heavy losses. For a time Meli came to terms with the Germans, but was accused of conspiracy, sentenced to death by the German captain Kurt Johannes and hanged on March 2, 1900 with 18 other Chagga princes in Moshi.
Since then, the Chagga have been in an uproar. Whether drought, locust plague or disease: Every hardship is associated with the stolen head Melis – “even the corona pandemic,” says Mboro. In the Chagga tradition, a corpse is excavated after a year, its skull is placed in a clay pot and is reburied with a view of Mount Kilimanjaro. “If the head is missing, everything falls apart,” emphasizes Mboro.
But nobody in Germany was interested in the story of the severed prince’s skull. First Mboro asked his German teacher, then the students and professors at the university – he got head shakes everywhere. “People thought I was an idiot,” Mboro recalls. Instead of helping him, they insulted the Tanzanian with the N-word and refused him a beer in a pub.
But that’s no longer the only concern for him: The Tanzanian, who worked as a trainer for the German Development Service, wants to shake up the Germans and make them aware of the colonial crimes in Africa. He has been organizing demos and campaigns in Berlin since the 1980s, commemorating the long-neglected chapter in German history.
Tribute to the butcher of men
The Maji Maij uprising of 1905? Hardly anyone knows today. After an uprising against the colonial rulers in German East Africa, the war and famine claimed up to 300,000 local victims in two years – around a third of the population at the time.
With like-minded people Mboro drumming loudly through Berlin, rolling oil drums filled with sand through the streets, laying himself in heavy chains. “How can you name your streets after criminals?” He asks. Petersallee, Lüderitzstraße, Nachtigalplatz: The “African” quarter in Berlin-Wedding honors the founders of the German colonies in Africa – at least some of the unscrupulous exploiters and butchers of human beings.
Petersallee, named after “Hänge-Peters” by the Nazis in 1939, is also to be given a new name. “There’s still a lot to be done,” says Mboro. The Berlin Postkolonial association, which he co-founded in 2007, campaigns for the renaming of streets as well as for the return of looted cultural assets, archaeological finds and human remains.
DNA comparison with Melis grandson
In a key issues paper in 2019, the federal, state and local authorities reached agreement that “human remains from colonial contexts are to be traced back”. But first the origin has to be researched: a time-consuming and sometimes inconclusive procedure.
Mboro made several inquiries to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), in whose depots thousands of human remains are stored. In the beginning the brickwork was built, he says – and only after some hesitation did he agree to clarify the origin of the “human remains”. One result of this provenance research: Six skulls owned by the SPK come from the Kilimanjaro region, Mangi Meli’s homeland.
Mboro wants to keep searching until one day he finds the real hero’s head. Scientists have informed him that there are still six skulls from Tanzania in Dresden and two in Rostock. And even 32 in Strasbourg, all from the Kilimanjaro region. Mboro wants to get in touch with the French next: “I’m not giving up.”
He owes it to many people. The chagga. His grandma. And also his great-grandfather: as a slave laborer, the man sabotaged the construction of the East African Usambara railway at the end of the 19th century and set fire to the camp with the many pickaxes. Since then, the family of Mnyaka Sururu Mboro has carried the colonial injustice in their name: “Sururu” is Swahili – and means “pickaxe”.