Black doctor challenges German racism

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The Independent Online

People used to buy Dr Muyemba drinks simply because of his exotic appearance. Then the Berlin Wall fell, attitudes changed, and now he is lucky to get served in a restaurant.

People used to buy Dr Muyemba drinks simply because of his exotic appearance. Then the Berlin Wall fell, attitudes changed, and now he is lucky to get served in a restaurant.

Some might despair at such change of fortune, but the 54-year-old economist from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) is not the type. When immigrant hostels started burning, he took the black man's burden upon his shoulders and became a missionary in Germany's heart of darkness. "I want to civilise the East," he declares, chuckling at the irony of his words.

It helps to have a sense of humour in his line of business: Dr Jean-Jérÿme Chico-Kaleu Muyemba travels to schools in Berlin's hinterland, the state of Brandenburg, preaching multiculturalism in a sea of racial prejudice. There are touchy moments, but he has a disarming joke ready for every occasion. When confronted by a Hitler salute, for instance, Dr Muyemba would smile and reply: "Hitler is dead. Haven't you heard?"

In the wake of the murder of the Mozambican Alberto Adriano in June, there has been much discussion in Germany about social attitudes to xenophobia. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has led calls for ordinary people to make a stand, to inform, or at least not to look away. Once again, more than a decade after the fall of the Wall, the appalling ignorance, especially in the East, is being blamed for racist violence.

For eight years Dr Muyemba has been doing his bit to plug the knowledge gap. "Hi, I'm a Bushman," he tells his wide-eyed audience as he enters the classroom. For most, it will be their first meeting with a black man. The little ones are surprised to discover that he can speak fluent German - Dr Muyemba has lived in (West) Germany since 1972 and obtained his degrees from Berlin's Free University.

On a good day, they ask to touch his hair, learn a few words in Swahili, and maybe even reassess some of the knowledge they bring from home, such as "My mum says blacks are sub-human". They certainly discover that there is more to Africa than mosquitoes, hunger, crocodiles and Tarzan. The children are invited to discuss Germany's "foreigner question" and racist terms of abuse.

There is an age of relative innocence, Dr Muyemba has found, when young minds are open. After 14, though, things get tough. Prejudice has hardened into fact, often reinforced by the "learned" input of teachers. Dr Muyemba tells of his visit to a school in Schwedt. A 15-year old boy, describing himself as a "patriot", launches into an anti-Semitic tirade. "Why are all the Jews coming here again, and not to Israel?" he wants to know. "How long must we Germans pay compensation to the Jews?" The form teacher nods: "The boy is right."

In another school in Elsterwerda, Dr Muyemba provokes pupils with a picture showing a black man holding hands with a white woman. One girl is outraged. "We Germans must keep our blood pure," she says. No one challenges her, not even the form teacher or the headmaster sitting in.

A colleague of Dr Muyemba, an Iranian woman addressed by one of the pupils of a Potsdam primary school as "doner kebab", was spat at. A subsequent investigation revealed that a male teacher was present, but did not intervene.

Dr Muyemba is not surprised. The highlight of his lesson is the question: "How many foreigners live in Germany?" The pupils' rough guess is 40-50 per cent. The teachers are not sure. "I've come across teachers who did not even know how many people live in Germany," the black missionary says.

All they know is that the old GDR had a population of 17 million. "So then I say: 'Let me, the Bushman, tell you that 82 million people live in Germany, of whom 7 million are foreigners, the overwhelming majority of whom are not asylum-seekers or drug-dealers. And 2.5 per cent of Brandenburg's population are foreigners.'"

That is the main message Dr Muyemba and other itinerant lecturers are trying to convey: contrary to myth, Germany is not being swamped by foreigners. Their work is sponsored by the Brandenburg authorities and non-governmental organisations dedicated to the fight against racism. Money is tight, but more and more volunteers are heeding Chancellor Schröder's call and offering support.

Dr Muyemba estimates that about 90 per cent of his trips are useful, and the remainder a washout because "we are only insulted and abused". But he is not giving up. "I know that the kids who have sung an African song with me have changed," he says. "The next time they meet a foreigner, they will think of me first, and won't throw that stone."