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Speech by Federal President Horst Köhler honouring Henning Mankell on the occasion of the awarding of the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize

Der Bundespräsident am Rednerpult Osnabrück, 18 September 2009 Photo: Guido Bergmann, BPA © Photo: Guido Bergmann, BPA

Four years ago, Henning Mankell attended an Africa Forum I hosted with the aim of bringing Africans and Germans together for a dialogue on partnership. On that occasion he told the story of a young African who went around barefoot and was dressed in rags. He had painted shoes on his bare feet. This was a way for the young man to display a sign of his dignity, despite the fact that he lived in extreme poverty. Though the large room located on the Petersberg hill near Bonn was full of guests, it grew very quiet. Presidents, entrepreneurs, scholars and artists from Africa and Europe listened intently. Henning Mankell had captivated them all.

Today we will also have the privilege of listening to Henning Mankell. Most people know him as the author of his bestselling detective novels. Yet his artistic work also encompasses other genres. Did you know that he has also written children's books and worked as a dramaturge? I could go on and on about his oeuvre but I will limit myself to the part for which Henning Mankell is being honoured here today: his work for Africa.

I cannot think of another bestselling European author who has linked his work to Africa as intensively as Henning Mankell has. Anyone who reads his novels, Chronicler of the Winds or The Red Antelope for example, quickly realizes that in these books Africa is not reduced to war, disaster and disease, but that rather his books depict a continent bursting with creativity and cultural diversity. Henning Mankell takes us on a journey to Africa. We experience the courage, solidarity and open-mindedness of Africa's people. And we are left speechless when we realize how ignorant we are. I am truly very pleased that Henning Mankell is being honoured with the city of Osnabrück's Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize.

The person after whom the prize is named once said the following about his most famous book All Quiet on the Western Front: "This book is not meant to be an accusation or a confession. It is merely an attempt to give an account of a generation that was destroyed by war - even if they escaped its grenades." War reduces people to such a primitive state that Remarque coined the term "human animals" for the soldiers on the front. In this iconic anti war novel, a soldier sitting at his friend's bedside thinks about how he can take the boots that are now superfluous for someone who has had his legs amputated - as if it were perfectly natural. The pair of expensive soldier's boots make their rounds - from the dying friend to the next young man doomed to die. The authors Erich Maria Remarque and Henning Mankell share a certain gift: they have the ability to tell momentous stories by focusing on minute details.

Violence and war always play a role in Henning Mankell's stories about Africa. No wonder. In the 1990s alone, after the end of the Cold War, over eight million people were killed in armed conflicts in Africa. That nearly matches the number of soldiers that were killed in World War I. Fortunately some of the wars in Africa, in Angola and Mozambique for example, have ended. In other parts of the continent, the wars rage on: eastern Congo, Darfur and Somalia are just a few examples. For centuries, war was a nearly constant part of life in Europe as well. A glance at our own European history reminds us how exceptional it is to experience the peace we have now enjoyed for over two generations. And it shows us that it is possible to overcome war.

This is also true for Africa. The primary responsibility for peace lies in the hands of the Africans. They are well aware of this. The African Union is searching for ways to put a stop to the violence. This also includes the decision to depart from the principle of non-intervention on the African continent.

Military intervention must remain the last resort. First and foremost, and above all, it is important to respond to warning signs in time, that is before people take up arms. In Africa, by the way, these are primarily small arms (MT) that come mainly from European factories. And it is also important to recognize the underlying causes of violence in Africa. We have to be aware of the context of poverty, the exploitation of natural resources, water scarcity and unfair trade conditions in order to understand that the outside world shares responsibility for the conflicts in Africa.

In his books, Henning Mankell always points to this context and concretely shows the trail of exploitation that lead straight to us. In doing so, he holds up a mirror and gives us the opportunity to understand what's actually going on. That is important because much of the news about Africa just doesn't move us anymore; sometimes it is simply unimaginable for us. Henning Mankell takes on this indifference in his literature - just like Erich Maria Remarque who once said: "If I show you a person in their entirety, their beliefs, hopes and struggles and then show you how they die, it will be forever branded into your memory."

Erich Maria Remarque said, "My topic is 20th century man and the issue of humanity." Henning Mankell's topic is the issue of humanity in Africa.

Henning Mankell does not dodge descriptions of death, but he devotes himself intensively to the living. In an interview he criticized - in my opinion quite rightly - the practice of reducing Africa in Western minds to disasters, violence and dreadful epidemics by saying: "If we go by what the mass media reports, we learn all about how Africans die, but nothing about how they live".

At the same time, the living are often survivors. Among others, I'm thinking of the men whose hands were chopped off so that they could not vote, of the women who became victims of systematic rape and of the children who learned nothing besides killing. Henning Mankell does not shy away from strong words. His images and descriptions are drastic, which makes for uncomfortable and rousing reading. But even if one is seemingly powerless in the face of violence, everyone can do something to help a victim to carry on. This is also a message found in Henning Mankell's work.

The story of Sofia is perhaps Mankell's most impressive story. As a little girl in Mozambique, Sofia stepped on a landmine. It was just a small step off the side of the road. The explosion killed her sister and mutilated Sofia. She had to have both legs amputated. And yet, she has an incredibly strong will, one that not even an explosive could destroy. The will to live, to be happy and to share this happiness with others. Today she is a mother of two and Henning Mankell calls her one of his closest and dearest friends. Read his story about Sofia - if you haven't already. You will be amazed by her courage and just as enraged at the senselessness of the violence she became a victim of. Every year approximately 6000 people around the world continue to be mutilated by landmines. Every third victim is a child.

I view the awarding of this prize to Henning Mankell also as proof that in Osnabrück, the "city of peace", people know that enduring peace is more than the mere absence of war. Peace requires development and justice. The connection between poverty and violence is well known. Violence rears its ugly head all too easily when people feel they have no opportunities or prospects for the future. That is not just the case in Africa and it does not have anything to do with the allegedly "archaic" tribal cultures that are often mentioned by our media. Henning Mankell always points this out.

I remember a discussion I had with him in 2006 in Berlin very well. He said that for him the centre of Europe was not Brussels, Paris or Berlin, but rather the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. There, the bodies of Africans who tried to reach Europe constantly wash up on shore.

I fear that if nothing changes, the number of these boat refugees will increase even more dramatically. But responding by sealing off Europe's borders is neither a politically nor morally acceptable solution. Instead, we have to work on creating conditions that allow people to stay in Africa. They would do so if they had education, employment and security there. To think that this is impossible is not only wrong but also inhumane - and smells racist. Of course we need good governance in Africa. The poorest suffer the most from corruption. And there is still far too much corruption. However, we also need changes in the world outside of Africa - in trade and commodities policy, in development cooperation and, last but not least, also in Africa's representation in the multilateral institutions. And no other continent is as closely linked to Africa as Europe.

I think it is very commendable that Osnabrück, the "city of peace", has turned its attention to Africa with the awarding of this year's prize. Ladies and gentlemen, your city can also help foster partnership with Africa. What I have in mind are local partnerships, perhaps even in cooperation with other European cities. I'm thinking of individual institutions, schools and associations cooperating with partners in Africa. Direct contact between people is what is important. When people celebrate and grieve together, talk and listen to each other, they begin to develop friendships and mutual understanding. Usually this doesn't even demand many resources. The individual will to get involved with Africa for the long term is at least as important. Your city already maintains an important documentation centre on war and the causes of war. It could focus more strongly on Africa.

I Die, but the Memory Lives On. That is the title of Henning Mankell's account of the Memory Book Project in Uganda. The project gives parents with AIDS, who know they will die, the opportunity to create a memory book for their children. There are twelve million AIDS orphans in Africa - a mind-boggling number. The Memory Book Project draws attention to the story behind this number - the fate of parents and children. It helps the children to better understand their own lives. It gives them an identity that provides them with the strength to shape their own life, their own future.

Because many of the participants in the project cannot read or write, the books are sometimes just filled with drawings and small objects. These books are a deeply touching, moving testimony to human kindness and dignity.

Showing respect for the people of Africa and their dignity is a recurring theme in Henning Mankell's work. He neither romanticizes nor demonizes, but rather guides his readers through a world that is geographically close, but emotionally very distant for Europeans. A world in which a human life is part of a story that begins long before one's own birth and that continues to be told after death. So I advise you to go on a mental journey with Henning Mankell and discover Africa's mythical self image. Open your mind to the possibility of learning from Africa.

In contrast to many others who are only involved from a distance, Henning Mankell knows what he is talking about. He spends half the year in Mozambique. As he puts it, he lives with one foot in the Swedish snow and the other in the Mozambican sand. In addition to his humanitarian involvement, he also works with African artists in his Teatro Avenida in Maputo and founded a publishing house for young Swedish and African authors. In terms of showing respect for Africa, Henning Mankell is an excellent example of practicing what he preaches. That is important for truly understanding and grasping the situation in Africa. That is why I will continue to listen to Henning Mankell when he tells me and all of us about Africa.

Now I would like to talk about a creature whose beauty, ease and ability to transform has always spurred the imagination of people around the world - butterflies. Henning Mankell often mentions them. Their ability to easily transcend borders inspired the title of his play "Butterfly Blues" on the fate of refugees. Butterflies also appear in the memory books he tells us about - when a mother places them on the pages of the book she is making for her children. And in Erich Maria Remarque's work, they fly above the trenches and land on the skulls of the fallen soldiers. Their silent beauty interrupts the horror and gives hope. Africa is a continent full of beauty, ease and the ability to transform - Africa is full of butterflies. And Henning Mankell is a friend.