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Soul-searching as a Black man in Berlin

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
January 19, 2021

Tired of being the "grateful" immigrant, Ugandan-British writer Musa Okwonga left the UK to come to Berlin and explores his experience in a novel.

Musa Okwonga
Author Musa OkwongaImage: Michel Rosenberg

"So, here's my experience of growing up in Britain; it was always a case of making sure that I was grateful." These are the opening words of "The Ungrateful Country," an essay Musa Okwonga, British writer and broadcaster of Ugandan heritage, wrote for an edited collection called The Good Immigrant.

Son of Ugandan doctors who settled in the UK in the 1970s, Okwonga was raised by his mother and at 11, won a scholarship to visit an elite boy's prep school in England called Sunningdale. His experience there was followed by studies at Eton College and Oxford, highly reputed institutions that nevertheless left him with the feeling that, as a Black person, he needed to be more, or achieve more to be accepted in British society. 

"Okay, you're a guest here, you're expected to contribute something... like a gold medal or you win a baking show on TV. You're always meant to do more, but it's like, why are people here? Why did they move into a different town — to have nicer lives. Why is it so controversial that you want to get up and move out and have a nicer life?" Okwonga tells DW.

Leaving the UK

"I was covering the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. I was away [from the UK] for months," says Okwonga, who has his own football podcast called Stadio. "I kept reading [British] newspapers and the way they talked about immigrants was so negative. I didn't want to live my entire life in a country that was that negative about immigrants. I wanted to try something else for a bit," he says. His training in law and his knowledge of German made him choose Berlin.

Did Germany prove to be any different from the UK? "I find Germany a country of extremes. The people who fight for me here will fight like nobody else. The support and friendship I have found in this country has blown me away," says Okwonga about the very close friendships he developed over the past six years living in the German capital. 

"It's a direct culture, it's an honest culture, I find. There's an openness and enterprise. Having said that, there are also parts of Berlin, where I can't walk," he explains, referring to neighborhoods where members of far-right groups live. "These people inhabit my city."

'A cost-benefit analysis'

Okwonga gives an example of a time he was walking on the street. "I was walking to the train station and these two women charged me on the street. And I almost fell to the floor and said, 'Woah why did you do this?' One of the women asked, 'Kannst du Deutsch?' I said, 'Ja, natürlich.' And she said, 'Oh Good, because I'm German and we should speak German here because it's our country.'"

Another incident happened during the final match of the football World Cup in 2018, when France was playing against Croatia. As Okwonga stood watching the match, he felt something hit his back. When he turned around, he saw a woman had hit him with a wooden sign he had been carrying. Apparently, she wanted him to move and didn't think he spoke German. 

On buses and pubs, people frequently ask him if he knows where they can get drugs. People sell drugs because they're poor, not because they're Black, he argues.

The way he navigates Germany is by focusing on the positive aspects: "The trick for Germany is that it is a cost-benefit analysis," Okwonga says, adding that society here is absolutely "binary" and one is constantly "weighing up."

A lively street with  pubs and restaurants in Berlin
Berlin is also renowned for its relaxed atmosphereImage: Christophe Gateau/dpa/picture-alliance

'The human condition'

Okwonga's latest book, In the End, it was all about Love, to be published on January 26, is about a narrator of Ugandan heritage who tries to adjust to life in Berlin. As he approaches his 40th birthday — the age at which his father, who was a military surgeon with the resistance, died in a brutal revolution against Idi Amin in Uganda — the protagonist is forced to look at his life so far. The book is part-autobiography and part-magic realism, Okwonga explains, adding that his father, died in Uganda when he was 40.

"For me, I suppose it's not really about being Black in Germany. This is my experience and some things people will relate to, and some they won't."

The reason it is relevant in terms of soul-searching is because the book is about "coming to terms with what kind of child you have been, because we all want to please our parents. How do you please your parents if one of them is no longer here? 

In the End, it was all about Love is a book that juggles with ideas of race and racist experiences while at the same time trying to tell a story that transcends these boundaries.

As Okwonga says, it is about the human condition and something all of us can relate to, "because no matter what gender we are, what color we are, what background we're from, there's always a point where we look back and go, 'Have we lived a good life?'

Manasi Gopalakrishnan
Manasi Gopalakrishnan Journalist and editor from India, compulsive reader of books.