It was Isaria Meli’s first trip to Ulaya (Europe), and it had to be Berlin. The tall and cheerful 85 year-old grandson of Mangi (“chief” or “king”) Meli had waited long enough. Almost 120 years after the murder of his grandfather by German colonial troops, his knowledge on German violence in the Kilimanjaro region could finally be heard in the very city where Africa was shamelessly cut like a cake by European powers in 1884. During Tanzania Network’s conference Shared History? – German-Tanzanian Colonial History and Memory in late October 2018 which took place in Berlin, his perspective uplifted discussions on the emotional value of human remains and their significance for working through colonial history.
Isaria Meli: the story of Mangi Meli, 27 October 2018 (Kiswahili & German):
Meli, son of the great Mandara, became Mangi (King) of the Chaga people of the Kilimanjaro region in 1891.
After Chaga warriors killed a Soudanese soldier working for the German colonial troops because he stole from Chaga children in Kirua, Chaga people and Meli were seen as belligerent, although the Kirua chief had sent cattle to the German officier Wolfrum in reparation for the killing. Now considered as a threat to colonial rule, Meli was singled out by Imperial Commissioner Carl Peters, a.k.a. “mkono wa damu” or “bloody hands”, who wrote in a letter to British missionaries:
“I beg to inform you that I shall propose to the German government to crush these people by war in order to have peace in the Kilimanjaro district. […]
I shall ask the German Government to send me approximately 150 soldiers in order to finish this young fellow.”
In June 1892, soldiers from the so-called “Schutztruppe” marching towards Moshi were ambushed by Meli who forced them to flee. In August 1893, German colonial forces captured the fort in Moshi and forced Meli to kneel to Mangi Mareale of Marangu, who had opportunistically accepted propositions for an alliance with the colonial rulers. Mareale accumulated wealth and power in the region and allegedly poisoned Chief Sina in 1897, another Chaga chief who had also risen against German colonial rule in 1891.
In 1900, Meli and other chiefs were accused of plotting against the colonial station. Together with eighteen other Chaga leaders, he was hanged by German soldiers. According to numerous accounts by Chaga people, Meli’s head was severed by German soldiers and taken away.
Mnyaka Sururu Mboro, co-founder of Berlin Postkolonial e.V.
Who has the right to claim for the return of human remains?
There are several remains from German East-Africa in Berlin. In Strasbourg, France, at least 30 remains of Chaga people are kept at the Institute of Anatomy. Among them, the skull of Chief Mkunde from Kibonoto. Isaria Meli and Mnyaka Sururu Mboro have been to German museum collections to seek the skull of Mangi Meli. The latter even started this quest in 1978, when arrived for the first time in Germany, without success. They both explain how this task was bestowed onto them by their respective grandmothers:
Isaria Meli: “Mangi Meli was there and Masinde, who is my grandmother and wife of Mangi Meli, had to watch when he was hanged. She had already given birth to two children. My father at the time was five years old, and after her husband was hanged, she ran off with her children and went to hide in Uru, and stayed in Uru, until we grew up and returned. So when she returned, I was born, and she became my grandmother, the one who has told me the history of the events that took place there, until she died in the year 1939.”
Since March, the exhibition Mangi Meli Remains features permanently in Old Moshi, administered by the local organisation Old Moshi Cultural Tourism. A statue of the Mangi has been erected next to the execution tree, and local youth are empowered to take tourists through the rich legacy of Chaga resistance to German colonialism. The organisation also leads tours around Moshi, showing how infrastructure built by the Germans has been re-adapted and re-used to fit the needs of the local community, and ensure that this history is passed on to future generations.