Between Hammer, Machete, and Kalashnikov: Contract Labor Migration from Angola and Mozambique to East Germany, 1979-1990 

This is part of our special feature, Beyond Eurafrica: Encounters in a Globalized World.


It is 2014. The faded flag the German Democratic Republic used from 1959 to 1990 blows in the wind on a makeshift flagpole in the heart of Maputo. It consists of the tricolor: black, red, and yellow, and features the symbols of the worker and peasant state: a compass and hammer encircled with rye. Although East Germany has long since ceased to exist, twenty-five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, 8900 kilometers to the South, a group of Mozambicans raises its state flag every single day in the country’s capital, even as it has become a museum relic in reunited Germany.

Every Wednesday morning, a group of former Mozambican contract workers, who worked and trained in East Germany from 1979-90, gathers under the flag in the Jardim 28 de Maio, colloquially known as the Park of the Madjerman, in the vicinity of the Labor Ministry. The Madjerman, as this generation of contract workers to East Germany is known, have occupied the park since the early 1990s. The offices of the “Central Base of the Madjerman” are located in the park’s public toilets. A few members gather every day to set up shop, drink, exchange gossip, support each other, and plan the next events. The Wednesday demonstrations against the Mozambican government start with mutual prayers at the headquarters. Donning German flags, soccer caps, T-Shirts, and all sorts of German apparel, the group makes for an odd picture as they march singing and dancing through the streets of Maputo. They are demanding repayment of their social security benefits and outstanding wages that were in part withheld during the 1980s. After two decades, protest has become a way of life for them. Let us now look beyond current returnees’ grievances and delve into the history of socialist solidarities that brought about 22,000 young Mozambicans and at least 1,600 Angolans to work and train in East Germany between 1979-1990.[1]


The labor and training program

The global confluence of the cold war, decolonization, and development under which this program took place is visualized in the design of the Angolan and Mozambican state flags. The Angolan flag, adopted with Angola’s independence in 1975, features the same colors as the East German flag but displays centrally a machete, a yellow half gear and a yellow star. It visually echoes the Soviet iconography of hammer and sickle. This emblem reminds the spectator of Angola’s independence struggle, the MPLA’s role in it, and unites the industrial workforce and peasantry under the socialist star. The themes of war, work, and socialism are reiterated in the Mozambican flag, a colorful assemblage of green, white, black, yellow, and red, featuring a Kalashnikov with bayonet, a hoe, and an open book on a yellow star. Whether workers were represented by the hammer in East Germany, the gear in Angola, or the hoe in Mozambique, their transition from farmers (machete) to industrial workforce (hammer) took place inspired by the yellow star but under the shadow of the succession of wars (Kalashnikov) in Angola and Mozambique. The title of this blog post thus brings together not just the geographic constellation that defined the cold war world of these labor migrants, but also speaks to the plans for socialist development in the newly decolonized African nations.[2]

An agreement regulating temporary Mozambican labor training migration to East Germany was signed on February 24, 1979, during General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Erich Honecker’s Maputo visit.[3] The Angolan version was signed six years later on March 29, 1985. State planners envisioned an ambitious economic, political, and cultural program that served the interests of all partners. Its objective was to train the future vanguard of Mozambique and Angola’s working class. The trainees were to be employed on mutual projects ranging from mining, to agriculture, and the textile industry. In theory, this program served as much to increase the human resources required to realize Angolan and Mozambican industrial development, as it helped assuage the East German need for labor, raw materials, and increased productivity. Few of the East German economic initiatives in Angola and Mozambique materialized, however, and the ones that were implemented suffered from a lack of skilled workers, mismanagement, international sanctions, and civil wars.[4] The agreements governing the labor programs were suspended during the process of German re-unification.

Eligible Mozambican candidates for transnational migrant labor positions to East Germany had to be between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, physically fit, and have completed at least a fourth-grade education. Angolan candidates had to be between eighteen and thirty years of age, pass a physical exam, and had to have completed at least a six-grade education. Distinguishing them from the Mozambicans, many also had a military background. Overall, there were fewer female worker-trainees than male trainees. Foreign women made up 29.8 percent (or about 57,000 people) of all foreigners in 1989; only 10 percent of Mozambican worker-trainees were women.[5] The workers were not free to choose their area of employment; they were trained in heavy and light industry from mining to the textile. They also had to transfer a part of their wages back home (this ranged from 25 percent to 60 percent for the Mozambican workers). Worker-trainees were sent on four-year contracts conceived as career training and work opportunities. Some Mozambican workers served two to three contracts. A number attained the level of skilled workers, although very few reached the skill level of master craftsmen. Many, especially those who came after the massive expansion of the program in the late 1980s, only received limited training in operating a particular machine and never rose to the pay level of skilled laborers. From the Mozambican perspective, the East German program not only trained the worker on the factory floor, but served to educate a socialist Homem Novo (New Man), steeped in real socialism as practiced in East Germany. To that end candidates were selected from all over the country to fight tribalism, and across family backgrounds, to form Mozambique’s working class. This enthusiasm for the training of a socialist vanguard labor force was an expression of its time, determined by a global confluence of the cold war, decolonization, and development.

The reasons why young labor migrants decided to work and train in East Germany are intertwined with the repercussions of the hot cold wars in Africa, colonial legacies, and socialist plans for development of the post-colony. Fabião, a Mozambican former migrant summarizes the complexity of motives:

First of all, you were occupied. You could go and work and receive technical training, which was better than doing nothing. Secondly, we had a sixteen-year war in this country, and life here was very difficult. It was a chance to escape the insecurity. Also, to escape the poverty because here in Mozambique we faced a lack of jobs, a lack of security, a lack of schools, no free movement of people and a severe lack of things. There were so many refugees and displaced people, but there were no safe spaces. Thirdly, it was a real benefit for my personal life. I had the ability to work to support myself and my family. I learned a lot about a different way of life. I learned how to be organized and it was my first work experience. I liked it.[6]

The Angolan and Mozambican migrants to East Germany were as much educational migrants, war migrants, and aspirational migrants as they were labor migrants.


The lived experience of Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees in East Germany I: Production and Consumption

Film Factory my Great Model[7]

Film factory my great model
Not egoistic, from your ranks emerged
Trained Mozambicans …

You prepared us by the force of your ideas …
You built chemistry into our brains …
You constructed a great laundry …

You built Magnetron great model
Infinitely you made cassettes, taped cassettes
Film factory my great model
You were my great pride


–Regina, February 27, 2007

As a young Mozambican woman, Regina migrated to work and receive vocational training on the factory floors of East Germany. As Regina’s poem demonstrates, work and training were matters of the heart for many young worker-trainees who took pride in production. To some, Regina’s work for six months in the company laundry and for two years rolling cassettes and magnetic tapes might not appear desirable, but it provided meaning to Regina. In the rhetoric of revolutionary Mozambique, work was a means to free the country from its colonial past and build a prosperous Mozambique that guaranteed a decent life devoid of exploitation to everyone. On a practical level, young Mozambican worker-trainees were to learn the value and culture of socialist work in East Germany, while being prepared – through vocational training – for future employment in the envisioned industrialized Mozambique. In the meantime, their temporary migration to East Germany kept them off the fragile labor and education market at home and enabled them and their families access to remittances in the form of goods from Europe.

Once in East Germany, the arrivals underwent language and skills training, though the quality of both varied according to the company they were placed in and the time period of their migration. Yet, worker-trainees soon started to produce but also to consume East German goods. The labor and training program formed and disciplined Angolan and Mozambican skilled socialist workers and the workers negotiated their work and training environment. At the same time, they read the East German consumer landscape through the lens of their experiences of scarcity in the conflict economies at home. They thus invested in necessities and luxury goods from East and West to maintain host and home networks; and, they invested in their personal futures.

Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees’ consumption habits are best thought of along two temporal axes and two relational axes: First, they consumed with an eye to their East German present and immediate future. They enjoyed fashionable clothes, music, alcohol, cigarettes, and much sought-after food items like bananas, rice and garlic familiar from home. Moreover, they bought presents with which to maintain relationships with friends, colleagues and romantic partners in East Germany. Secondly, they invested in their return home. They relished the autonomy their work abroad afforded them to buy goods in order to prepare for the establishment of their own households back home; these goods ranged from electronics to furniture and kitchen equipment. The migrants’ consumption enabled them to acquire the personhood they desired by sustaining both their host and home social networks and collecting the material basis for their future life back home.

Our life was good in comparison to what we had before and what we had after. We did not have to pay for housing, or water or electricity. Food did not cost very much so we had a lot of money to spend on drinking, partying, disco and to buy things.[8]

Worker-trainees sent home parcels filled with goods and sometimes hard currency exchanged on the black market. They also brought back suitcases of goods destined to support their dependent networks at home. Like Lino, many migrants were excited to lay the foundations for their own home: “The majority of things I bought, were to prepare for my own house.”[9] Like Lufaquenda, they were also aware of supporting the wider family: “My salary was for me to buy clothes and things I brought back for my family. …I brought dishes, and electrical appliances. I was one of the first girls who brought back a sound system. I brought it back when I returned to Angola on holidays.”[10] Many worker-trainees were further tied into informal networks that connected them to the West; they therefore did not have to restrict their consumption possibilities to Eastern goods even prior to the fall of the Berlin wall. The worker-trainees’ experiences transcended stereotypical Cold War simplifications of Western consumption and Eastern production. For Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees, production and consumption were two sides of the same coin. Participating in the labor and training migration they became workers and consumers.


The lived experience of Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees in East Germany II: Between inclusion and exclusion

Angel Lezewik[11]

I swear!…One day I will meet you
Do you remember…on top of that stage
Lubricated by the Marrabenta[12]
I taught you how to move your hips
And the legs, remember always the sounds
Of the Mozambican Marimba
The sound of drumming
Wazimbo[13] singing
Fortifying through dance our unification…

–Regina, February 27, 2007

Regina’s poem describes her love for an East German man, whom she met in 1989. In that, it is both quotidian and exceptional. Quotidian because it describes the age-old feeling of love; exceptional because female Angolan and Mozambican worker-trainees in East Germany did not cross the unstated East German color line as frequently as their male counterparts in the 1980s. Historically, interracial relationships – as the one that inspired Regina’s poem – between European men and African women in the colony and between African men and European women in the metropole had been subjected to governmental surveillance and sanctions. Regina’s love existed in a different time and place but matters of interracial intimacy remained matters of state-control.

Intercultural relationships were the sites of intercultural learning. In her poem, Regina speaks about teaching her lover how to dance Marrabenta. She is the active figure, the holder of cultural knowledge, who instructs an East German man. Her poem thus introduces the “mozambicanization” of some parts of East German society. In the majority of cases the roles were reversed and Angolan and Mozambican men dated East German women, who, as holders of knowledge – language and cultural – served to help integrate the migrants into a foreign East German world. In this context a new generation of Afro-Germans was raised primarily by their East German mothers, grandmothers and in state-homes. In accounts of male migrants, intercultural love is sought out consciously; East German women were perceived as compass to a foreign land:

I made my way in Germany with the help of my girlfriend. …She was the daughter of the foreman. …What was of interest to me was to have a partner who could help me integrate as quickly as possible and to understand more.[14]

East German women were not likely to enter relationships with African men lightly. East Germans often yelled racist slurs at white women seen on the streets with African men. Many families and friends disapproved of these interracial relationships and this societal condemnation played a fundamental role in shaping relationships, as some relationships were clandestine and others deteriorated rapidly. East Germans secerned the African visitors about which they knew little. Bernardo, whom an older German woman in Rostock took in during his first week in East Germany, describes these racist encounters:

We didn’t have an easy life. When you arrive in a foreign place, everything is difficult and we suffered from racism. …This was really annoying. People insulted her [his East German partner] when she was with me but she told me not to engage and we continued like that and I got used to this way of life and finally I also had very close German friends. But in the beginning, it was a shock because I did not expect to hear these kinds of things.[15]

The existence of racism in socialist societies was anathema for socialist parties; from Angola to the Soviet Union, countries united under an anti-racist banner. The official East German ideology was no exception and claimed anti-imperial and anti-racist politics. East German foreign policy was keen on portraying the image of an engaged socialist state supporting African liberation movements, opposing South Africa’s apartheid regime, and advocating for a socialist paradise. It was illegal to make racist comments, physically attack people or engage in any other form of racist expression; if such expressions were reported punishment followed. These politics did little to root out racism and xenophobia through enhancing mutual understanding, but rather suppressed non-conformist behavior of any kind to the private realm. The oral histories reveal that the East German state enforced the illegality of racism fairly well in the public realm amongst its citizens. Yet, as its power began to crumble and its citizens were subjected to dramatic political and economic changes, and, finally, the dissolution of their state, racism and xenophobia could no longer be contained or suppressed.

The labor program was not planned to welcome young people with emotional and sexual needs. Instead, it envisioned these worker-trainees more akin to labor machines. An atmosphere of relative sexual freedom in East Germany in the late 1970s and 1980s stands in contrast to the restrictive sexual attitudes vis-à-vis the African youth. The state saw the normative worker-trainees as implicitly male, without emotional attachments or reproductive rights. The organization of the worker-trainees’ work and leisure time in East Germany was not intended to facilitate the formation of romantic relationships or other meaningful private contacts that would foster integrating into East German families. Who loved whom was political in East Germany, especially when it included love between citizens and non-citizens. Contrary to the rhetoric of international brotherhood the East German state tried to limit personal connections between citizens and foreigners in an effort to protect the socialist nation state. Moreover, it was in the interests of all three states’ to make marriage difficult in order to circumvent questions of permanent emigration.[16]

The workers’ social life of socialism vacillated between modes of inclusion and exclusion. Many workers remember their time in East Germany through the prism of human relationships; these shaped the migrants’ thinking about themselves as African migrants, and about real socialism in East Germany. As intimate strangers, they became part of neighborhood bars and shops, and became immersed in East German family life despite the governments’ attempts to maintain distance between the temporary international guests and the East German population. The prism of human affective relationships ranging from romantic encounters and family formation to racist and xenophobic hate crimes, illustrates how the migrants carved out their own social spaces in an increasingly hostile environment.




Of the 15,100 Mozambican and 1,300 Angolan worker-trainees who were registered in East Germany in 1989, only 2,800 Mozambicans and 200 Angolans were left in East Germany at the end of 1990.[17] These numbers illustrate what the last delegate from the Mozambican labor Ministry in East Germany, Pedro Taimo, calls a “hasty return.”[18] That is a euphemism for a messy and unforeseen mass return of workers that overstretched the capacities of the East German, Mozambican and Angolan states alike.

 Initially many returnees were hopeful and excited about their homecoming. Many dreamed of a life as wage laborers in Angolan and Mozambican industries, allowing them to build their own houses and families while contributing to the economic development of their home countries. Yet, the ongoing civil wars and the economic and political transitions from planned economies and one-party states to free market democracies made the program’s original intentions unattainable. Returnees found themselves catapulted into conflict economies that were not able to provide employment and facing governments that no longer had neither an interest nor the ability to place them in appropriate jobs.

In the early stages of return, workers participated in the sharing economy and gained social standing via the goods they brought, ranging from kitchen and household appliances to transport vehicles, electronic entertainment equipment and professional tools. But disappointment seeped in quickly as returnees struggled to find their feet economically, socially and politically. As most could not secure employment they slowly parted with their newly acquired goods from abroad in order to survive. These Eastern goods now came to furnish parallel markets and fueled the exchange economy; ironically, the vestiges of socialism thereby contributed to the transformations of Angolan and Mozambican economies to market economies.

The days became darker, day after day even darker, no compensation money, nothing. The time had already arrived to look for work, but not even work appeared. I still recall those sad moments when I separated from the goods, day after day, piece after piece. The TV, the radio, until the much esteemed MZ, I had to say goodbye because I had to live…[19]

The profound experience of loss that the majority of returnees felt during the 1990s dominates the perception of many returnees to this day. All returnees lost the future they had imagined as reward for their migration; for some life turned out to be better, for many worse than imagined. Many returnees lost their goods, their social standing, their job security and portions of their transferred wages. They were also confronted with the loss of affective ties to East Germany. Many left children and romantic partners behind with whom contact frequently ceased over the years. Finally, they lost the ability to navigate their home cultural context without being reminded of how profoundly their attitudes had changed about things such as gender roles and sexuality.

The returnees navigated the ruins of socialism with a mindset that had been shaped under socialism – above all real socialism in East Germany. They remember having enjoyed a certain standard of public goods and amenities – namely, public transport, health services, contract labor, union activity, subsidized housing and basic necessities, and leisure time activities – sponsored by their companies and the state, against which they measure their post-return lives. Seeing Angola and Mozambique through the eyes of socialist cosmopolitans, they judge things differently: they demand an accountable state and, importantly, amelioration of their living conditions. The legacies of socialism remained alive in their thoughts and practices long after the respective governments had abandoned the ideology. The legacies of their experiences in East Germany not only impacted their daily interactions with the world around them. But importantly, it provided returnees with the ideas and tools to fight their marginalization and keep alive their memory in the Angolan and Mozambican governments’ consciousness. On the one hand, the large-scale migration of Angolan and Mozambican unskilled migrants to East Germany is now a faint memory of a bygone era: The German Democratic Republic, the People’s Republics of Mozambique and Angola all ceased to exist. On the other, the legacies of this migration are still felt in the present-day lives of thousands of Mozambicans and Angolans.



Marcia C. Schenck received her PhD in history at Princeton University (September 2017). Currently, she is a fellow at the International Research Center for Work and Human Lifecycle in Global History, re:work, at the Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany. Her research interests include African and global history; the history of labor, migration, education, and development; oral history and life history, humanitarian history as well as the history of international organizations. Marcia holds an M.Sc. in African Studies from the University of Oxford.

This post draws upon research conducted for my dissertation entitled “Socialist Solidarities and Their Afterlives: Histories and Memories of Angolan and Mozambican Migrants in the German Democratic Republic, 1975-2015,” History Department, Princeton University, Sept. 2017.



[1] Almuth Zwengel, “Kontrolle, Marginalität und Misstrauen? Zur DDR-Spezifik des Umgangs mit Arbeitsmigration,” in Die ‘Gastarbeiter’ der DDR: Politischer Kontext und Lebenswelt. Studien zur DDR-Gesellschaft, ed. Almut Zwengel, (Berlin: Lit, 2011), p. 4. These numbers are rough estimations since the annual entry of foreign labor was counted, but several workers served more than one contract. The Mozambican labor ministry today estimates that approximately 17,000 workers migrated to East Germany. Chefe do Departamento de Estatística, Ministério de Trabalho, Moçambique, Armindo Mapasse, Interview conducted by the author, Maputo, Mozambique, May 15, 2014.

[2] From the late 1940s until 1990, the Cold War overlapped with decolonization and development efforts in Africa. This nexus opened up new African migration routes to the global “East”– various Eastern and central European countries – and the global “South” – places such as Cuba, China, and India. African migrants travelled the world as university and school students, professors, soldiers, freedom fighters, vocational trainees, worker-trainees, trade unionists, and party cadres. These diverse groups understood their migrations in the framework of an international battle for decolonization, progress and development.

[3] Illona Schleicher, “Berufsbildung und Wirtschaftsbeziehungen DDR-Mosambik,” in Engagiert für Afrika: die DDR und Afrika II, eds. Ulrich van der Heyden, Illona Schleicher, Hans-Georg Schleicher, (Münster: Lit, 1994), p. 184. The agreement referred to here is the Abkommen zwischen der Regierung der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik und der Regierung der Volksrepublik Moçambique über die zeitweilige Beschäftigung moçambiquanischer Werktätiger in sozialistischen Betrieben der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik, 24.02.1979.

[4] Hans-Joachim Döring, “‘Es geht um unsere Existenz,’ Die Politik der DDR gegenüber der Dritten Welt am Beispiel von Mosambik und Äthiopien,” (Berlin, Links Verlag, 1999), p.164.

[5] Jürgen Mense, “Ausländerkriminalität in der DDR: Eine Untersuchung zu Kriminalität und Kriminalisierung von Mosambikanern 1979-1990” in Transit | Transfer: Politik und Praxis der Einwanderung in der DDR 1945-1990, ed. Kim Christian Priemel, (Berlin: be.bra wissenschaft verlag, 2011), p. 214, p. 217.

[6] Fabião, Interview conducted by the author, Maputo, Mozambique, March 13, 2014.

[7] Excerpt from one of Regina’s poems entitled “Film Fabrik Meu Grande Modelo,” original in Portuguese remains in Regina’s possession. IMG_7810, image is in my possession. Regina from Maputo wrote the poem in 2007 as part of a creative writing class. Almost twenty years lapsed between her experience and her processing of the memory in this poem.

[8] Bato, Interview conducted by the author, Maputo, Mozambique, January 27, 2014.

[9] Lino, Interview conducted by the author, Maputo, Mozambique, May 13, 2014.

[10] Lufaquenda, Interview conducted by the author, Luanda, April 22, 2015.

[11] Poem entitled “Anjo Lezewik” by Regina Vera Cruz, February 27, 2007, IMG_7812. The original remains in Regina’s possession, a photo is in my possession.

[12] Marrabenta refers to a style of dance music developed in Maputo during the 1930s and still enjoying great popularity today. It is a mélange of traditional Mozambican and Portuguese folk elements.

[13] Humberto Carlos Benfica, a famous Mozambican Marrabenta singer, is known as Wazimbo.

[14] Ilibio, Interview conducted by the author, Luanda, Angola, April 16, 2015.

[15] Bernardo, Interview conducted by the author, Luanda, Angola, April 2, 2015.

[16] Marriages between contract workers and East Germans needed the approval of both states, see Dennis Kuck, “’Für den sozialen Aufbau ihrer Heimat’? Ausländische Vertragsarbeitskräfte in der DDR,” in Fremde und Fremd-Sein in der DDR: Zu historischen Ursachen der Fremdenfeindlichkeit in Ostdeutschland, ed. Jan C Behrends, Thomas Lindenberger, and Patrice G. Poutrus (Berlin: Metropol, 2003), p. 278.

[17] Almuth Berger, “Annäherungen – Bericht der Ausländerbeauftragten des Landes Brandenburg,” (Potsdam: Die Ausländerbeauftragte des Landes Brandenburg, 2006), p. 38; Andreas Müggenburg, “Die ausländischen Vertragsarbeiter in der ehemaligen DDR: Darstellung und Dokumentation,” ed. Die Beauftragte der Bundesregierung für die Belange der Ausländer (Berlin: Bonner Universitäts-Buchdruckerei, 1996), p. 18.

[18] Pedro Taimo, Interview conducted by the author, Maputo, Mozambique, May 20, 2014. In 2006 there were still about 20,000 former foreign contract workers in Germany. About 100 Mozambicans and 70 Angolans resided in Brandenburg alone, see Berger, “Annäherungen,” p. 36.

[19] Adevaldo Banze, in Ulf Dieter Klemm, Moçambique – Alemanha, Ida e Volta: vivências dos Moçambicanos antes, durante e depois de estadia na Alemanha, (Maputo: Instituto Cultural Mocambique – Alemanha (ICMA), 2005), p.38.



Photo: German Democratic Republic flag, Germany with grunge metal texture | Shutterstock
Published on March 1, 2018.


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