The Woyingi Blog

Mixed Race Lives: Jean Ping

Jean Ping, a Gabonese politician, is a well-known African diplomat who currently holds the position of Chairman of the Commission of the African Union. My interest in writing about him is because he is a person of mixed race; although his political career alongside Omar Bongo, the world’s longest serving non-Monarch ruler is also fascinating.

Gabonese Politician Jean Ping

Jean Ping was born on November 24th 1942 in the village of Omboué, south of Port-Gentil , to a Gabonese mother, the daughter of a local leader, and a Chinese father, Cheng Zhiping. Cheng Zhiping was from the port city of Wenzhou, China. Wenzhou’s eastern coast looks out to the East China Sea and the city boasts successful emigrant communities which made their fortunes in business in Europe and the United States. Wenzhou was one of the few ports that remained under Chinese control during the Second Sino-Japanese War which began in 1937.

The most I have been able to learn about Jean Ping’s Chinese father has been from a badly translated 2010 article originally written by Wang Qin, a Chinese diplomat in Africa,  for the Chinese Online Magazine, Africa Magazine that states that its aim is to get its Chinese readers to know and love Africa. It is unclear when Cheng Zhiping settled in West Africa. According to Wang Qin, it was in the late 1930s but according to Wikipedia it was the 1920s. Cheng Zhiping came as a labourer but soon became a merchant, selling wood, Chinaware, and seafood. He also ran a bakery. According to Wang Qin, when Jean was a month old, his father took him to be baptized in order to respect his Christian Gabonese mother’s wishes. It was also his father who named him Jean. His father sent Jean Ping to be educated in France. Jean Ping would eventually receive a doctorate in economics from the University of Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne).

Jean Ping’s political career inside and outside Gabon has been charmed. In 1972, began working for UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization). In 1978, he became Gabon’s Permanent Delegate to UNESCO until 1984. Subsequently, he became President of the Civil Cabinet of Omar Bongo, a position in which he served until 1990. According to Africa Confidential, it was this period that was pivotal for his career: “The career of Gabon’s consummate diplomat owes its success less to the impact he made as President of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2004-05 than his accomplishments as head of cabinet to the country’s veteran President, El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba in 1984-90.”

Ping’s connection with Bongo goes beyond politics. Jean Ping had a romantic relationship with Omar Bongo’s daugther, Pascaline, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, despite being married to another woman who he had no intention of divorcing. Ping and Pascaline had two children together while working side by side  in Bongo’s Cabinet. Ping took over from Pascaline as Minister of Foreign Affairs in 1994, when she became the Director of the Presidential Cabinet. Pascaline eventually married another Gabonese politician in 1995. Ping would hold the position of Minister of Foreign Affairs for nine years. In 2002, Jean Ping wrote the book “Mondialisation, Paix, Démocratie et Développent: l’expérience du Gabon, published by Editions de l’Harmattan.

In 2004, Jean Ping was elected as the 59th President of the United Nations General Assembly.

Jean Ping has been a key figure in encouraging African trade with China. He helped to organize Chinese President Hu Jintao‘s visit to Gabon in 2004. According to Africa Confidential:

As Foreign Minister since 1999, he has led Gabon’s campaign to open up trade with non-traditional partners including China, Brazil and South Africa. Ping is uncritical of the Chinese, who signed a controversial US$3 billion iron ore-backed deal for the development of the Bélinga deposit in northeastern Gabon in 2006, saying: ‘With China, everything is simple. She gives us debt forgiveness or long-term loans without interest or conditions.’

Jean Ping would eventually visit his father’s town of Wenzhou in 1987.  According to Wang Qin:

When Jean Ping first returned his hometown, the people there welcomed him heatedly just like they were celebrating a festival. The most exciting was to see his ninety-four-years-old aunt. One of his cousin even excitedly said it was unimaginable to have such a black and great cousin. They were filled with the happiness of family reunion. Even though they could not understand what each other said, their hearts were together.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping discussing the role of the African Union in economic development and peace-keeping:

You have talked about regional integration as a priority for the African Union. How do you explain why trade among African countries accounts for less than 10 percent of the continent’s total imports and exports?

I think that this is due to lack of infrastructure. You need roads and railways; otherwise you can’t provide goods among yourselves. It is not easy. In the SADC [Southern African Development Community] region, the 15 member countries have succeeded in creating a free zone for about 170 million inhabitants, [built around] the economic strength of South Africa, which produces goods, not just raw materials.

It would be good for the rest of the continent to sell to each other, but you need infrastructure and a common market. We now have a market of one billion inhabitants. But, unfortunately, 165 borders divide the continent into 53 countries. Some of these [places] have less than half a million people. Progress has been slow, but progress has been made and things are moving faster, especially in two sub-regions – SADC and ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States]. ECOWAS has the same land area and population size – about 390 million inhabitants – as Europe, but a smaller economy. The first step is regional, and then you move to the continental market. The key is taking down barriers to foster economic growth.

Is there a danger that integration could exacerbate other problems? There have been, for example, outbreaks of xenophobia in countries as disparate as South Africa and Ghana.

We can’t wait. We have some obstacles but can you imagine a project like that without obstacles? One of the big problems has been sovereignty – the principal of non-interference in internal affairs. Our charter, which has been ratified by all 53 countries, says clearly that in the case of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, we have the duty to interfere, immediately, without asking permission [from] anybody.

Africa is probably the only continent in the world that has codified that principle. This gives us the right to go into Somalia, the right to send an army to The Comoros and re-establish a constitutional government on the island of Anjouan by force. But you use force when you have no other means. You have to try all the other means and, if you can’t succeed, think about using force. Using force is not something, which can be routine.

Conflict resolution and peacekeeping are central to the mission of the African Union. How would you measure progress in that area?

We have moved a lot from 15 or 20 years ago. In 1996, the continent was confronted with more than 15 conflicts responsible for half of the deaths caused by war in the whole world. Half of them! Recall the situations in Liberia; Sierra Leone; the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ten countries were fighting inside one country; the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Many countries in the north of Africa were confronted with terrorism – Algeria, Egypt. The continent was in blood. But mainly Africans themselves have resolved these conflicts. We still have the problem of consolidation of peace, because countries like Liberia are vulnerable, Congo has not yet achieved peace in the eastern part. And we still have two remaining conflicts: Darfur and Somalia.

In Somalia, the AU has the primary peacekeeping responsibility. What are the prospects for ending the war there?

This is the only country in the world with no government and no institutions for 18 years. The country is no longer a country. The terrorists are doing everything that is forbidden, including piracy. It is not acceptable. A few years ago, [people might have said]: ‘This is happening in Africa; I’m not concerned’. But then the piracy happened. Somalia became a threat to world peace, a threat to the world economy. All these warships went to that region. But pirates were not born in the ocean and they don’t live there. They come from Somalia. If you want sustainable peace you have to go where they come from, which is on the land.

This is a collective responsibility. The United Nations belongs to all of us. Of the 192 [member] countries, 53 are African. But when we asked the Security Council to go there they don’t agree. Some said that there is no peace to keep in Somalia, which means we have to bring peace first, and then they would come to keep the peace. We are alone there. We are maintaining the security of the transitional government of Sheik Sharif Ahmed. We protect them according to the mandate that we have received. But Somalia should be a state like all others [with] their own government. They should maintain their own peace. To do that we’re training their security forces, about 10,000 troops.

How many peacekeepers does the AU have in Somalia?

Today we have 5,200 troops. We plan to have 8,000. But we are not going to be there forever, so we train, equip and pay [the Somalis]. There is an embargo on armaments, so we’re asking for a lift on the embargo for government troops. There is a road map.

In Darfur, the AU is working alongside the United Nations. How is that progressing?

In the beginning, when the conflict started, we sent our troops alone, like in Somalia. It was called AMIS, the African Mission to Sudan. It was a very difficult time. Some of our troops died, so we called on the UN to be there. They accepted to come to Darfur and we have a joint mission, a hybrid operation. It is the biggest operation ever organized by the UN. When we reach full force, it would be 26,000. Let me tell you that 95 or 96 per cent of troops there are Africans. None are from western countries. The commander is Rwandese. Rwanda has four battalions there, and Nigeria has four battalions. It’s an African component trying to bring peace to Darfur.

Today, there are no more killings, really, which means that we are moving in the right direction.

The AU is now using the term ‘low intensity fighting’ to describe the situation in Darfur. But many NGOs working there take issue with that characterization and say the conflict is still serious. In Darfur, the NGOs [are now] an industry. So you can understand that, sometimes, maybe people want to stay there. I am sorry to say it as [plain] as that. But it should be clear enough that you have four main issues in Darfur. In the African Union, we take them in a holistic manner – all of them. The NGOs consider justice here, peace there. There is a problem of security and we have UNAMID [the African Union/United Nations Hybrid operation in Darfur] to bring peace. But since the civil war there is a need for reconciliation. It is not the army that will solve the problem; it is dialogue and reconciliation among the population. It is not only to stop war or to give food to refugee camps, but to solve the root causes of the war and we have a political joint mediator working there

Further Reading:

AU President Jean Ping went back to hometown, Wenzhou, for many times by Wang Qin (2010 article translated from Chinese for Africa Magazine available online)

Jean Ping’s Profile from Africa Confidential available online

Excerpts from an interview with Jean Ping available online

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Mixed Race Lives: Theodor Wonja Michael

Ever since reading Hans Massaquoi’s memoir Destined to Witness: Growing up Black in Nazi Germany, I’ve become fascinated with the life stories of Afro-Germans. After World War II, when African-American soldiers were stationed in Germany, the number of mixed race Afro-Germans would increase rapidly up until today when their existence, although not as common as in the US, France or even Britain, could hardly be said to be rare. There are even Black History Month celebrations, organizations like the Initiative for Black Germans (ISD), that combats racism and supports programs for Black youth.

When I was in Germany, in the former mining town of Mulheim an der Ruhr, a White woman sat beside me on the train and asked me how I managed my hair. Her daughter, who was mixed race like me, was having trouble figuring out what to do with her hair and wanted a new style for going into high school. I didn’t really know what to tell her because I myself didn’t know what to do with my hair at the time. I just lived with it.

Theodor's Mother and Father Courtesy Bundeszentrale fur Politische Bildung

Theodor Wonja Michael is one of the oldest Afro-Germans living in Germany. He was born on January 15th 1925 in Berlin. His father, Theophilius Wonja Michael, was originally from Cameroon and arrived in Germany in 1894. According to Theodor, his grandfather was one of several community leaders who signed protection treaties with German explorer, and later Imperial Consul-General Gustav Nachtigal (1834-1885) in 1884 which began German’s colonization of Cameroon.  I’ve realized that many people don’t know that Germany had African colonies: Togo, Cameroon, Tanganyika, and Namibia. These were lost after Germany lost World War I and divvied up by France and England in 1919.

Growing up, German children would sometimes ask Theodor if he was from the Rheinland. This was because there were other Afro-Germans born in the Rheinland, the children of local German women and the some 25, 000 to 40,000 African soldiers who had been stationed there as occupation forces by France from 1919 to 1929. Many of these soldiers were Senegalese Tirailleurs. These mixed race children were often referred to as “Rheinlandbastards”. The German government protested the presence of African solidiers in the Rheinland and much propaganda was written about these soldiers kidnapping and raping White women. The situation was often referred to as the “Schwarze Schmach” or “Black Shame”. Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote “the Jews had brought the Negroes into the Rhineland with the clear aim of ruining the hated white race by the necessarily-resulting bastardization.” It’s hard to know if and how many of these children survived under the Nazis. According to the  Deutsche Welle article “The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany“:

Deutsche Welle spoke to leading German historian Prof. Reiner Pommerin to find out what happened to these children. “I published a book in the 70s, which told the reader about the sterilization of mixed blood children. These were children who had been fathered by occupation forces – mostly French occupation forces,” he said. His book, “Sterilisierung der Rheinlandbastarde. Das Schicksal einer farbigen deutschen Minderheit 1918 – 1937” (“Sterilization of the Rhineland Bastards: the fate of a colored German minority 1918 – 1937”) publicized the sterilization of the Black minority in Nazi Germany.

Prior to the publication of the book in 1979, this information was unknown to the public. The sterilization of biracial children was carried out secretly because it went against 1938 Nazi laws and procedures. The exact numbers remain unknown, but it is estimated that 400 children of mixed blood were sterilized – most without their knowledge, Pommerin said.

Today, the fate of the “Rhineland Bastards” still remains largely unknown. The lack of public knowledge regarding their fate may have to do with the “lack of public interest in minorities,” said Pommerin.

Theodor Wonja Michael

Back to Theodor’s story. In 1926, his German mother, Martha Wegner died, leaving behind her four mixed race children, Theodor, James (born in 1916), Juliana (born in 1921) and Christiana. In my research it states that his father was a circus performer and that after his death Theodor and his siblings were taken in by his father’s circus colleagues. According to Osei Boateng, most Blacks in Germany at the time worked in the entertainment industry. Africans were hired to portray “traditional African dances and songs”. People would pay to see them perform as if they were animals in a zoo. But it was a living. When Theodor go older even he performed in these circuses, seeing songs he didn’t even understand the words to. As Theodor grew older the racist policies of the Nazi regime began to affect his life more and more. In 1936, mixed race Germans lost their citizenship and declared “fremde” foreigners. He lost his job as a bellhop at Hotel Excelsior due to a complaint from a Nazi guest. Theodor found work in films. He was cast in a small but visible role in Germany’s first colour film in 1943, “Muenchhausen”. He played an African servant cooling dignitaries with a feathered fan. The film was commissioned by Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. When asked about the experience, Theodor said “They trained me–and it is, of course, extremely ironic that it was the Nazis who gave me my big break!”

Theodor was twice conscripted and twice rejected because he was Black. The second time was when Germany desperately needed soldiers, but he still wasn’t good enough. In 1943, at the age of 18, Theodor was forced into a Labour Camp outside of Berlin. He had to work 72 hours a week at a war munitions factory. During this time, Theodor was constantly afraid of being sterilized like many other Afro-Germans were. In 1945, the Labour Camp was liberated by Russian soldiers.

Theodor and his siblings were separated after their parents’ deaths. In my research I haven’t been able to find out what happened to his sister Christiana however, his brother and sister James and Juliana ended up in France. These siblings were only united with each other and Theodor in the 1960s. In 1994, while researching her book Rewriting The Footnotes — Berlin and the African Diaspora, Paulette Reed-Anderson met with James. He recounted to her how the German authorities in France took away his German passport and learned that he was no longer a German Citizen because he was Black:

“[It] was in 1937. We were in Paris… My passport had just run out, so I went to the German consulate to have it renewed… ‘What do you want’, the clerk demanded. ‘To renew my passport,’ I answered. ‘Your passport?!’, he said. ‘What are you, are you German?’ ‘Yes, here is my passport,’ I answered. “He examined it. “Born in Berlin on 2 October 1916 and so on and so forth. Then he took my passport and went away with it.

A quarter of an hour or more went by before he returned — but without my passport. I said: ‘I thought you were going to give my passport back to me’. “He said: ‘No, we are going to keep your passport. You are no longer German. Black Germans do not exist’. “Then, I was really angry. What was I supposed to do without identity documents and such? Nothing! How could I prove that I was really born in Berlin? This was the worst moment in my life…”

Theodor returned to acting after the war because there was nothing much else he had experience doing. He would go on to become one of Germany’s most respected Shakespearean actors. He has used his respected position to influence the casting and direction of the plays he is in. For example:

In “The Tempest,” for instance–performing the role of Prospero–he persuaded the director to cast the Duke of Milan as a black man and his deformed slave, Caliban, as white. And in “Driving Miss Daisy,” he enhanced the fond but prickly relationship of the black chauffeur with his white Georgian employer to “somewhat of a romance, a love story.”

Theodor also eventually went back to school, receiving a Master’s Degree from the Institute of Economics and Politics in Hamburg. He was able to visit Africa as the editor of the journal Afrika-Bulletin and as the economic advisor for German development projects in Niger, Ghana and Nigeria. In the 1960s, he was even able to visit Cameroon and see his father’s birthplace. Theodor said that he has always felt a connection to Africa and as a child his father told him African folktales at bedtime. However, Theodor sees himself as German, first and foremost.

In 2000, Theodor Wonja Michael was invited to speak about his experience in Nazi Germany at Howard University in Washington D.C. The lecture he gave was entitled “German-African Relations–A Retrospective From the Colonial Period Until Unification.” He had been invited by Professor Yvonne Poser on behalf of the university’s Department of Modern Languages and Literature in an effort, according to Poser to “help our efforts to integrate black German history and culture in our German curriculum and to foster a dialogue between blacks in Germany and the Howard community.”

Many in the United States still don’t know about the experience of Blacks in Nazi Germany or even that there are Afro-Germans. Theodor appears in a British documentary entitled “Black Survivors of the Holocaust” (Hitler’s Forgotten Victims UK Title) by David Okuefuna and Moise Shewa. He was happily surprised to find that at Britain’s Holocaust Museum there were many documents about the Afro-German experience under the Nazis. While at Howard University, Theodor remarked, making reference to the documents in the British Museum: “Of course, what they say is not known in America. In fact, I am puzzled about how little Americans seem to know about Africa in general.”

When asked by Afro-German journalist Jeannine Kantara what he thought Obama’s election meant for Afro-Germans, he remarked:

In Germany, we still have a long way to go. Here we encounter a form of careless racism that is based on racial purity. A German has to “look “German and accordingly, he or she must be white. I do not know whether my grandchildren or great-grandchildren will already be able to reach such a position because here in Germany they will still be confronted with the question of origin.

In 2009, Theodor received the first Black History Month Award for his role as an Ambassador for the Afro-German community. Theodor currently lives in Cologne with his second wife. “I walk a lot and rehearse, but that must soon make way because I wish to write my memoirs,” he says. “It’ll be about a German, not an African.”

Recommended Reading:

Remembering Africans in the Nazi Camps by Rowan Philip (article from The Washington Post available online)

The Fate of Blacks in Nazi Germany by Chiponda Chimbelu (article in Deutsche Welle available online)

Blacks During the Holocaust  (article from the United States Holocaust Memorials Museum available online)

Hitler’s Black Victims: The Historical Experiences of Afro-Germans, European Blacks, Africans, and African Americans in the Nazi Era by C. Lusane (Academic Text published by Routledge)

Black Germans do not exist by Osei Boateng (article in The New African available online)

We Are President! by Jeannine Kantara (article in The Zeleza Post available online)

Gert Schramm: A Black German Survivor of the Holocaust & Barack Obama by J. Kantara (article from Kantara’s Blog avaiable online)

A Tribute to Theodor Wonja Michael (article from Black History Month Berlin Germany 2009 available online)

Black History Month Berlin-Germany 2009 Website

Initiative Schwarze Menschen in Deutschland (ISD) Website

Schwarze Menschen im Nationalsozialismus by Nicola Lauré al-Samarai (article in German from the Bundeszentrale fur politische Bildung available online)

Sie sind Deutsch? Ja, klar. Afro-Deutsch (article in German from Deutsche Welle available online)

Schwarz sein und deutsch dazu by John A. Kantara (article in German from Die Zeit available online)

Video Interview in German with Theodor Wonja Michael available online

Wikipedia Page in German on Theodor Wonja Michael

Wikipedia Page in French on Theodor Wonja Michael

Other Germans: Black Germans and the Politics of Race, Gender, and Memory in the Third Reich by Tina Campt (text from the University of Michigan Press)