Anticolonial Memorial “The Elephant”

Pushing Trees

By Miriam Enefa Dzah

An elephant tramples gently on the paper. A line is erased and it moves even more slowly, more carefully. Next to the elephant, words, crossed out, underlined, half-finished. She carefully writes vocabulary in her notebook, the elephant stomps around it.

How are you doing? – Ɛfoa?
What’s your name? – Nkowode?
Where are you from? – Fika_

She has to google a word.

can ele_

The Bild-Newspaper headlines: Berlin headmistress complains:
Only 1 in 103 children speaks German at home. Yet in 77 percent of all house holds in which at least one member has roots in non-Arabic-speaking African Countries, the language of the country of origin is not spoken. Many parents do not pass on their mother tongue. The German language becomes a shield to escape humiliation at parents’ evenings or doctor’s visits. She lives in one of these households of German silence.

A good 80 years ago, Bremen’s mayor Heinrich Böhmcker loudly demanded that Bremen be given the title City of Colonies. No other city deserved it as much as Bremen, as the “birthplace of colonial thought” with its colonial monument, its harbour, and the exhibition Bremen – Key to the World.

The half-scrawled elephant looks back with quietly questioning eyes. Elephants don’t forget, they say.

A tattered phrasebook of the West African Ewe is gathering dust in an attic. In 1913, its author, the missionary and linguist Diedrich Westermann, recorded useful terms for going to market and phrases for everyday conversations. The first pages contain maps of the German colonies of the time. This is followed by the chapter on housework. In the first line, in old German script, is the translation for the word servant: subola. She reads a dialogue with the respective Ewe translation: How old are you? The answer: I am 14 years old, then: Will you work for me? And finally: “Yes, master.” It continues with the translations for sentences like: Today you have been lazy. Or: If you are late, I will punish you. Injury is literal.

It was through the Bremen Mission that Ewe was first written down and standardised. In order to be able to translate and spread the Bible, German missionaries developed the Ewe alphabet and recorded grammatical rules. The most influential among them was Westermann, who is considered a co-founder of African studies and worked at the predecessor institute of today’s Institute for African and Asian Studies at Humboldt University. The institute was founded shortly after Germany found its place among the colonial powers. Colonial officials and missionaries were to be prepared for their stay in the colonies, learn languages and political guidelines. Language is political.

Schlegel, a missionary from Bremen, translated and published the four Gospels in 1861. As early as the 1850s, Schlegel published a key to the Ewe language – perhaps it could be used to open the locked chest and hold on to the language. Perhaps it could escape if the chest was not locked. Ewe, spoken in myriad dialects, was arbitrarily frozen in a single dialect, the sea reduced to a rigid puddle. Language became property, mangled into pieces, held, distorted, frozen.

can elephants sw_

An elephant is spoken. An elephant changes. A line disappears. The body is wrinkled and abstract. The elephant moves without rehearsed choreography. It stays above water.

He, she or it?

In Ewe, there is no male or female pronoun, only one. Sometimes her mother confuses the two, and she corrects her as if it matters. Sometimes her mother talks about her school days in Togo. She grew up in a time when the use of the mother tongue in school was not only neglected but also drastically punished. Her mother did not let mother tongue become daughter tongue. The daughter cannot find words.

can elephants swi_

She looks at the finished elephant, which in the meantime points with its trunk at the word the Ewe language uses to describe it.

Atiglinyi – elephant

Literally, it means tree-pusher. She has to laugh, imagines a tree, a trunk, a thoughtful push.

A staggering elephant threatens to stomp on, so it is put in shackles and petrified.

Descendants of colonised people take an example from atiglinyi, push statues off their pedestals with care, let them go swimming.

can elephants swim

3,370,000 search results.

“Even in the sea, they don’t go swimming so quickly: Some elephants can swim for miles from island to island. They are also excellent divers, literally: usually their trunks peek out of the water like a snorkel.”

To some, an elephant seems ponderous, immobile, sluggish. In truth, it is gentle,
not here
and not there.

We petrify language as if it were tied up, in a cage, to be looked at and fed, not allowed to run away, not allowed to escape: no gender, no asterisks, no chocolate kiss, no eraser, no ink eraser, no correction, no change. That would be cruelty to animals. We don’t have to lock up language, we can let it float, throw away the key.

She paints Ayim’s walnut mango tree on the edge of the leaves, juicy and orange. May Ayim imagined meeting her Ewe grandfather in 1993 under the walnut mango tree’s thicket of thoughts, talking to each other, laughing together, speaking the same language. The elephant stretches, extends its trunk and plucks a mango from the tree. Warm wind almost blows the leaf off the table. A walnut falls on the paper. Language is supposed to push trees. Understanding colonial violence means pushing trees.

Translated by Amina Ceesay