I am from the University of São Paulo in Brazil and, as part of the SPeCTReSS project, I spent one month at Rühr Universität in Bochum, Germany, and my mentor was Dr. Stefan Berger. The theme of my research is trauma and fictional representations of the sidelined historical figure Roger Casement, sentenced to death for high treason, for having sought German support for Irish independence at the brink of the First World War. Casement’s writings as a British Consul exposing atrocities committed against humanity are illuminating in terms of the way in which he was able to navigate through African and South American countries and cultures.
I arrived in Germany in the last days of December and left at the end of January, a period when most colleagues and students were not around. I was based in the city of Bochum, known for coal mining and, of course, a must-see is the Deutches Bergbau-Museum, which reveals history of mining in the Rühr area.
I also profited from the fantastic facilities offered by the university, such as the library. I took some of my time to visit other cities such as Berlin, whose cityscape carries the indelible scars of traumatic events, such as the two World Wars and the remnants of the Berlin Wall, reminding us that there are visible and invisible ways to promote division. I did not have time to visit all museums, but the Anne Frank Zentrum is certainly worthwhile in order to understand how a collective traumatic event affects the lives of individuals, such as the Frank family.
In terms of research, I profited immensely from a short stay in Belgium, as I had arranged a visit to the archives kept in the Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Tervuren. The Museum is known worldwide for its African masks and artifacts that date from the early 20th century reign of the absolutist monarch Leopold II. It is one of the most visited in Belgium, but it is being renovated. At the Research Centre, I had the chance to read and photograph the material I needed for my ongoing research on Casement and the African Congo.
I was particularly taken by surprise with Germany, which I already knew was outstanding in terms of culture, infrastructure and social services. But what really called my attention was the people. Even though I do not speak the language, the Germans made an effort to communicate with me, and helped me carry my suitcases on the trains or gave me precise directions when I was lost. One man even changed a 100 Euro bill that no one would take, for two 50 Euro bills. My landlady in Bochum was really kind, and gave me tips concerning what to do, where to eat and how to use the washing machine with two doors.
Different from the perspective of a European travelling to the “developing” urban landscape of São Paulo, I went in the opposite direction. I travelled from a society where trauma is an ongoing, daily process, as we are surrounded by social inequality, river and air pollution, poor transportation and fear of being approached by pickpockets.
However, despite the stark contrast in terms of infrastructure such as excellent public transportation and less social inequality, I arrived in Germany two weeks after the terrorist attack at the Christmas Market in Berlin. Hence, to my mind, the Spectress secondment program was valuable as it provided me with a different perspective towards binary oppositions such as “developed” x “underdeveloped”, “us” x “them”, “safe” x “unsafe”, “polluted” x “clean”. As a result, after the experience of spending time in a country that is not one’s own, makes one capable of deconstructing pre-established preconceptions. Therefore, I suppose the lesson I have learned is that we all have monsters in our closets that that become less menacing when looked at up close, spoken about and “worked through”.