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The film “Schlafkrankheit” (Sleeping Sickness) and the fear of home

In Germany, sleeping sickness is a state often imputed to friends and colleagues who are notoriously slow or lethargic. As a genuine disease, it hardly exists at all. However, the African variety claims several thousand lives every year. This difference in perception is in itself symptomatic of the problems portrayed by Ulrich Köhler in his new film “Schlafkrankheit” which implicate Africa and Western development aid.

Foreign country - home country - Cameroon

The film’s main figure is the Dutch development aid worker Ebbo Velten who lives in Cameroon with his German wife Vera. His project to combat sleeping sickness has been successful, and now it is time to return to Germany where their 14 year-old daughter is attending boarding school. Ebbo has to stay on in Cameroon after Vera has already left for home. However, even before her departure it becomes clear that Ebbo cannot leave Africa behind. It later emerges that his bond with the continent is essentially a product of his fear of returning to a European home that has now become foreign to him.

Three years later, Ebbo is still in Cameroon. He has not followed Vera back to Germany, but married an African woman who is expecting his child. But his new wife’s family exploits him. He himself tries to spin out the life of the development project that has really come to an end, and prolong his earlier existence. At this point, a representative of the World Health Organisation appears on the scene to evaluate the programme – and evokes Ebbo’s dark-skinned mirror-image.

The point of Western development aid

Alex is French, with Congolese roots. With this device Köhler presents his audience with a genuine moral challenge because Alex – contrary to what we might expect – does not feel at all connected with the land of his fathers. From the moment he steps foot on African soil he feels painfully foreign, insecure and out of his depth. He thus reveals to Ebbo the very fears which have been preventing the Dutchman from returning home. This revelation hits Ebbo so hard that he literally runs away from his French alter ego and, in doing so, from his fears.

Ebbo seriously loses touch with reality, a situation illustrated in a conversation with a Cameroonian friend which ends with the friend saying, “You’re more native than I am!” However, his desperate attempts to assimilate in the home he himself has chosen uncover, above all, cultural differences. In “Schlafkrankheit”, Ulrich Köhler thus poses the question as to how development aid can be effective in a world one is supposed to change but only understands from the perspective of an outsider.

Returning Experts

Do you come from a developing or emergent country? Have you completed training or university studies in Germany, or worked here for some years at your profession? Are you thinking about returning to your home country and using your knowledge and skills to change things for the better there?

If so, please inquire into your chances for support through CIM’s Returning Experts Programme, the German government programme to help integrate experts into the development cooperation activities of their home country.

More information on www.cimonline.de

July 2011

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