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This Berlin I Know… A Humboldt Prologue

(Notes taken after receiving the 2017 Alumni Award of Innovative Networking Initiatives)

Berlin. This is the city I have made my stomping ground since my first visit in January of 2006. I have always had different stories of discoveries and affection, and indelibly sweet memories at each encounter. Eleven years after, I realised that I have been visiting this city in an almost average frequency of at least two weeks in a revolution of 300 days within a year! It is a surprise that I am still discovering the city even if I claim that I know her spine, its milestones permanently inscribed in my memory. I have come to learn the history and routes of this city that I could pass for a local guide (actually I did once) and make a living out it.

I have become too familiar with the contours of this place that I feared I would never write any thing, narrative or poem, on the city lest I kill the legend of my love for Berlin. This was the place that I chose as primary location for a Georg Forster research fellowship awarded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation in 2005, which was eventually taken a year after. This was the place where I had my first class experience at studying the German language after an earlier attempt in the city of Stockholm. This too was the place outside of Africa, next to Cambridge, where I would meet an impressive school of literary scholars, historians and linguists doing African Studies at Humboldt University.

This was the city that offered the limitless resources for research in the libraries at Unter den Linden, Postdamer Platz and Invalidenstrasse. Was it not the city that produced encounters with the many streets and corners of the multi/cultural scenes of the city, first from Charlottenburg, through Steglitz, to Wilmersdorf; from Nollendorfplatz, through the many spots at Kreuzberg to Friedrichshain and Wedding, and later to Pankow through Prenzlauer Berg, and back to the very fringes of the centre at Mitte? This is the heart of the land of ideas. Here is a city where the arts intermingle with the sciences and vice-versa. I became a willing partner of the Lyrikline (now Haus für Poesie) project in which I had to introduce Nigerian authors to the growing database of contemporary poets from all continents. At different times, I have played companion or supporter to a host of African (mostly Nigerian) writers including Abdourahman Waberi, Helon Habila, Elnathan John, Abubakar Ibrahim, Emmanuel Sule, Toyin Akinosho, Femi Osofisan, Biodun Jeyifo, Tunde Adeniran, Wole Soyinka and Nadine Gordimer. It is expressly impossible to write all about it, not to talk of remembering all. Berlin is a city that always redefines itself through the seasons; it is a city truly in transformation by each passing day, a work-in-progress that I will simply admit that its exploration is still under way, after one decade and one year!

But this is also the city in which I had to spend days of argument of logic of contract to break away from a killer memorandum which an intern at Vodafone’s office on Schlosstrasse got me into, then with little understanding of the technicalities of the rules written in German. My AvH host then – Prof. Dr. Flora Veit-Wild, and another colleague, Dr Christine Matzke – ensured that Vodafone’s yoke did not last a month or two of discomfort.  Yes, I returned the bill and got back my deposit, because order and the customer’s rights ruled. And Berlin was also the place of miracle where my daughter survived an impossible fall from a three-metre high window without anti-burglary casing. The miracle of August 2006 instils in me both the fear and the assurance of the presence of God and the angels when it matters most, all the time.

I remember all in technicolor. And now it seems like my cup of memory has run over because of the single act of an invitation by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Actually every great thing starts with an invitation: in 2005, I was invited to take up a research fellowship at the Humboldt University (named after one of the Humboldt Brothers – Wilhelm) in the east side district of Berlin before the fall of the city’s historic Wall. Like other Alumni of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, I have had unfettered access to the possibilities of continued research tenures sponsored by the AvH. As they say, “once a Humboldtian, always a Humboldtian.” As long as you keep striving after excellence in research and you keep at sustaining connections and developing younger scholars, the loop is never-ending.

This year’s invitation to the Annual Meeting of the Foundation is both unique and emotional that it is now impossible for me not to remember the many beautiful and miraculous shades of Berlin in my life as scholar and poet and decimal being. In the last week of March 2017, I had received a letter from the General Secretary of the AvH naming me as one of the winners of the AvH Alumni Award for the year. I took that announcement in my stride, and looked forward to the day. Then the day arrived, and I stepped onto the stage with four other scholars, each from Canada, Belarus, Greece and Turkey, to receive the certificate of award for innovative networking initiatives.

When I received that certificate after the brief but captive laudatio, three things happened to me. First, it seemed to me that in the eleventh year of my induction as Humboldt Fellow, I am being asked to continue in the course of my research afresh in and with a different frequency. Secondly, I realised even more that my project is no longer my project: there is a recognition of this gesture of pan-African studies with an intention to extending its scope beyond its announced objective. Thirdly, and related to the previous point, the effort put into the project becomes a model and inspiration to other scholars, especially the younger ones, from Nigeria, Kenya, Cameroon and South Africa, who witnessed the occasion and thereafter wanted to know what it took to win such a prestigious award with an academic research project. These three intimations, together, point at the valuable necessity of being a beacon to others who desire and who work towards excellence and relevance in their various disciplines.

When eventually the special session of the African-German Network for Excellence in Science (AGNES) held on June 29, it was a great opportunity for me to share and feel the passion of other experienced African researchers for the future of the scholarship of the disciplines on the continent, with strategic planning in the present. No doubt, AGNES under the leadership of Heather Marco, Jens Gebauer and Odunayo Adebooye, is doing very well for early career scholars of African nationality.

For sharing in the joy of that brief star-shy moment at the awards night at Technische Universität Berlin, I thank you: Prof. Dr. Susanne Gehrmann and Dr. Pepetual Mforbe Chiangong of Institute of African Studies, Humboldt University; my fellow Humboldt Alumni – Prof. Isidore Diala (Imo State University, Owerri) and Prof. Akin Odebunmi (University of Ibadan); Prof. Odunayo Adebooye, Nigeria’s Humboldt Ambassador (Osun State University); the all-African team of Humboldt fellows, and my Berliner friends and families, the Ajayis, Funke and Adeoye Adeniji…

Berlin, my stories of lights, laughters and love come rushing back, and I can only tell one at a time. This Berlin, I know.

Aderemi Raji-Oyelade, or

Remi Raji

June 30, 2017

Published on:: 
June 30, 2017