The Africa Festival: Uniting Germany and Africa

Published on 6th June 2018

1989 was a historic year on many counts. The Monday demonstrations, the fall of the Wall, and German unification. Against the backdrop of these major political events, history was written in Würzburg, too.

This story began in 1989 with the first Africa festival. Back then, probably no one envisioned the incredible, transnational and transcontinental trajectory that this festival would take. What began with a few hundred visitors is now a red letter day on the African music calendar – far beyond Franconia and Germany.

I know that now, at the 30th Africa Festival, tens of thousands of guests congregate here each year from all parts of the country, from all over Europe and, of course, from Africa. When I consider who has performed in the big circus tent over these 30 years – Miriam Makeba, Angélique Kidjo, Manu Dibango, to mention just a few famous names, as well as today’s show by the fantastic Sona Jobarteh – I really need not worry about the future of this wonderful tradition!

Ms Bergh once said that African music is “beating heart music” which speaks to everyone alike. That is true in every respect. However, anyone who has attended a high life concert in Africa knows that the music not only speaks to your heart, but also gets your legs moving. It is simply impossible to sit still when the music starts. When I think about George Darko, Charles Amoah or K. Frimpong – now those sounds really move you, in the truest sense of the word!

Of course, my last visit to the festival ten years ago was not only because of the music. Already then, I gladly seized the opportunity to finally advocate for a balanced view of Africa in Germany. To many Germans, Africa is still the dark continent, the continent of crises and conflicts. Those certainly do exist. But more than anything, Africa is always different – and incredibly diverse. There is no such thing as one Africa!

Poverty and need do exist. But Africa also has its young people – full of curiosity, confidence and a desire to help their countries progress. Countries that are overflowing with culture. It is a wealth that we here do not acknowledge often enough.

My first Africa trip in this new position took me to Ghana and the Gambia last December. It was a trip to see old and new friends. Friends, indeed, who share many values with Germany and who work to promote the same ideals as we do: democracy and the rule of law, the protection of human rights and the great project of attaining social and economic prosperity for every individual. It was also a journey to learn about the hopes and expectations of the people there.

I met young people who are taking on responsibility for their own future in their own country – and I believe that we need to do our very best to help them in that endeavour. I am therefore especially delighted to see Sona Jobarteh. In Banjul, the Gambian capital, I was privileged to hear Sona Jobarteh play the  kora and bring alive love for the Gambia and its deep cultural roots through music. Yet it is not only with music that Sona Jobarteh sows seeds of hope. Sona is also active in very specific areas to give young people a helping hand. Sona has established a school, hidden down a side street in Banjul, which promotes the education of children and young people through dance and music. The school is a place that encourages the next generation to develop self confidence and passion. My visit there was one of the most beautiful and moving moments of my trip in December.

I was thrilled to see so much optimism and buoyancy in many of my encounters with young people in Ghana and the Gambia, whether with start ups, students, apprentices or artists. That showed me once again how, here in Germany particularly, we should not focus solely on refugees, poverty and suffering when we look at Africa. Rather, we need to focus more on the opportunities and potential harboured by our neighbouring continent and its young people.

The Africa Festival  sends out a strong and beautiful message of understanding and unity between Germany and the African continent. In this way it also gives expression to the sentiments of the many people in our country who can trace their roots back to African countries.

The diversity of African music does not only exude a passion for living, but also builds bridges and helps forge new friendships between the people. We can see how important that is every day when we open the newspaper or look at a newsfeed.

We need more international exchange, not less, and we need more interaction within our society, not less. The Africa Festival provides a platform where this can take place – a festival of encounters, partnership and exchange. My feeling is that it is a democratic, a political festival in the best sense of the word.

By Frank-Walter Steinmeier,

President of the Federal Republic of Germany


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