Scrambling for Africa, Again: Germans in Kenya

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


Across the world, the effects of neoliberal capitalism and anthropocentric excesses act as stressors on people and their natural habitat. On the sub-Saharan African continent, neoliberal economic development, in conjunction with economic and political programs of authoritarian postcolonial rulers, have increased the economic and social precarity of the urban and rural poor. Policies and projects by neoliberal actors, be they local or global, betray greedy mindsets that were born during the period of European colonialism and resonate with the earlier, nineteenth-century “Scramble for Africa.” Amidst a rhetoric of human rights, development, progress, and humanitarianism, another round of economic exploitation is taking place. Colonialist attitudes are allowed to linger and reemerge in new fashion, and we find evidence of the cultivation of these attitudes both in discourse and in practice. A point in case is the relationship of German-speaking countries to Kenya, which is evident in the board game Mombasa and the role Germans currently play in Diani, Kenya. (For the sake of convenience, I refer to Germans, Swiss, and Austrians collectively as “Germans.”)


The Board Game Mombasa

In the German-speaking world, the second scramble for African resources, pursued by European and other global players as much as by local elites, has secured a clear presence in popular culture. Note, for example, the board game Mombasa, which was developed by the Austrian game author Alexander Pfister, released in 2015, and distributed worldwide (“Partner”). Pfister has created a number of successful games, including several that have colonial themes, such as Freibeuter der Karibik (Pirates of the Caribbean, 2008), Händler der Karibik (Traders of the Caribbean, 2013), and Great Western Trails (2016). Mombasa is a complex strategy game (Mombasa). It is designed for 2-4 players ages 12 and up, and the minimum time for a complete game is identified at 75 minutes. The board consists of a map of Africa, on which four strategic locations are marked: Cairo, Mombasa, Cape Town, and Saint-Louis (on the west coast of Africa). While the map is broken down into territorial units, these units do not correspond to historical entities.

The instructions begin with an outline of the overall trajectory: “In Mombasa, players acquire shares of chartered companies based in Mombasa, Cape Town, Saint-Louis and Cairo and spread their trading posts throughout the African continent in order to earn the most money.” The game is then historically situated: “Chartered companies were associations formed for the purpose of exploration, trade and colonization, which links them inextricably to a very dark chapter in human history: global colonialism. This period lasted roughly from the 15th century to the middle of the 20th century and is associated with exploitation and slavery.”

Most importantly, however, the game’s creators attempt to distance themselves from any potential accusation of condoning the exploitation of Africa and Africans:

Although Mombasa is loosely set within this time frame, it is not a historical simulation. It is a strategy game with an economic focus that roughly refers to historical categories and places them in a fictional setting. The exploitation of the African continent and its people is not explicitly depicted within the game play.

The German original reads somewhat differently: “Die Ausbeutungen des afrikanischen Kontinents und seiner Einwohner wurden nicht ins Spielgeschehen eingebunden” [The exploitations of the African continent and its people were not included in [the action/events of] the game. My translation.] The insertion “explicitly” into the English translation is curious (and perhaps points to a somewhat critical translator), as it could imply that the exploitation of the African continent and its people is “implicitly” part of the game. The German-language instructions, however, disavow that connection altogether. Nevertheless, in both the English and the German versions, a certain embarrassment is tangible in the disclaimer acknowledging that the game is conceptually inspired by the historical realities of Africa’s colonial exploitation.

Apart from the cities identified on the northern, eastern, southern, and western peripheries (two of which sound European), African place names are absent from the map. Even more, African peoples and their cultures are entirely erased from this game. The two women and two men who are depicted on the front and sides of the game’s box as carrying cotton, coffee beans, and bananas in baskets on their heads and shoulders are dressed in somewhat ahistorical garb that does not seem to bear cultural specificity. The landscape features an undefined African savanna with mountains in the background. As John Noyes, Johannes Fabian, and David Spurr, among others, have pointed out, the practice of erasing the presence of peoples and histories in preparation for colonial conquest is one of the central representational strategies of colonialist writing. The notion of “empty space” that awaits discovery and cultivation pervades colonial discourse across cultures and centuries.

While the specificity of African culture, history, and people is obliterated, the images of the colonizer are also not tied to a national culture or specific empire. Rather, the game presents key attributes that are associated with colonial rule more broadly: a notebook, pen, ink, and a feather, associated with a hand that belongs to a white body; a part of a uniform; a helmet; a compass; little figurines of soldiers on horseback; diamonds; and a map. These attributes make up the images on the cover of the game, and clearly speak to exploration, the military, bureaucracy, and trade as key components of colonial rule.

The winner of the game is determined by a combination of four factors: the cash players have on hand, the trading company shares owned, the diamonds accumulated, and the value of an ink jar and bookkeeping track. The game thus clearly articulates basic elements of a capitalist economy. In addition, these four elements are communicated via key tropes of colonial rule, and thus provide the link between the colonial period and today’s neoliberal era. While colonial specificity and violence are erased from the game, Mombasa brings to the fore those elements that also play a role in today’s scramble for Africa: natural resources, cash and stocks, and treaties of all kinds.

In what ways is this fictional interest in appropriating African spaces and resources related to practice? Why is there this German interest in a game set in Africa? The game’s title, Mombasa, appeals to German sensibilities toward Kenya, and the release of the game in Germany should not come as a surprise to those who are familiar with the history of Germany’s post-independence involvement with the East African country.


German Tourists and Settlers in Kenya

After independence, Kenya opened its doors to foreign investment, and tourism became one of the main industries that attracted investors, particularly from Europe. When tourism began to develop in earnest during the 1960s, German entrepreneurs, among others, played a crucial role in pioneering the kinds of enterprises—upscale hotels, restaurants, bars, discotheques, safari businesses, and diving schools—that became the hallmark of coastal tourism. Tourism was only part of Germany’s material involvement with Kenya: West Germany was the first country to recognize independent Kenya, and investors and companies quickly established a host of economic collaborations with the newly formed nation.

This involvement of German entrepreneurs in building Kenya’s coastal tourism ensured that a significant portion of Kenya’s tourists have come from German-speaking countries: by the mid-1990s, German-speaking tourists outnumbered British tourists and were the largest group of visitors, spending on average a longer period in Kenya than their British counterparts. In 1996, for example, tourists from Germany alone numbered 104,800 (18.9 percent of all tourists), while 97,600 (17.6 percent) tourists came from the United Kingdom (Berman, Impossible Missions?, 175–212, 219–233). In 2009, a total of 940,386 international arrivals were recorded at the two main airports, with 395,828 of them categorized as tourists. Among those tourists were 63,592 Germans, 15,810 Swiss, and 5,302 Austrians, and though the overall share has decreased in comparison to 1996, German-speaking visitors still made up 21 percent of tourists (Berman, Germans on the Kenyan Coast, 42-46). In 2013, the market share of overnight stays of tourists from Germany alone was at 19.6 percent, while the numbers for tourists from other European regions dropped. Because Germans vacation mostly on the coast, they were and have been the most visible group in this area.

Over the past decade, I have conducted research in Diani, a resort town that sprang up in response to the burgeoning tourism industry. Germans became active participants in the development of tourism in Diani in the early 1960s. New upscale hotels were built during the 1970s, and until the early 1990s, most were owned or managed by Germans. The German presence in hotel management waned after the 1990s, and with it so did the number of tourists, especially after a crisis in tourism brought on by the Kenyan election-related violence of 1997 from which the area never fully recovered. Germans, however, became leading figures in the real estate market, which has been booming since the mid-1990s. In addition, Germans remain the largest group of tourists in Diani, and some have also settled in the area. German expatriates, some of them retirees, play a crucial role in Diani’s economic space as business owners, landlords, employers, and consumers. In 2014, more than 1,000 Germans rented and owned property in Diani, and hundreds more lived in adjacent areas. Overall, the effect of the presence of about 3,000 expatriate entrepreneurs and residents of various origins, along with that of tens of thousands of tourists annually, is profound. (Since 2015, terrorist attacks in Kenya have led to an exodus of expatriates and also a decrease in tourism in Diani, but it is too soon to assess whether the German role in Kenya has significantly changed.)

To make room for the economic growth and ultimately gentrification that began in earnest in the 1980s, villagers were often kicked off their land while others sold their land voluntarily. But what seemed to them to be significant profits were not invested beneficially: Villagers were unaccustomed to an investment-oriented economy and in many cases quickly lost the substantial sums they received from the sale of land. As a result, some of the individuals who were previously able to sustain themselves by growing food on their land (for consumption and sometimes for sale) and who owned their own homes now pay rent and work salaried jobs, if they can find any work at all. Within the course of five decades, Diani went from being a group of largely self-sustaining villages to an urbanized area with high rates of poverty, crime, prostitution, and drug trafficking and with needs in all essential areas, including health care, education, sanitation, and even food.

While gentrification pushes African Kenyans off land they once owned or used, humanitarianism and romantic relationships provide opportunities for them to address some of their needs. These social practices, which did not exist in the area before the advent of tourism and the real estate market, entangle African Kenyans with various groups of immigrants and tourists (most of them Europeans) in intimate ways. Many tourists and settlers, who usually do not understand the connection between global economic developments and the poverty they encounter, feel compelled to improve the living conditions of African Kenyans and engage in humanitarian aid activities that are described locally as “charity.” The extent of charitable activity is so great that in Diani, for example, every private or public school is funded fully or partly by foreign donors. Overall, the dominant model of charity in Diani shifts the responsibility for addressing health care, sanitation, and education-related needs away from Kenyan institutions to foreign humanitarians. Although Kenyans display a significant degree of agency in securing funds from expatriate humanitarians and foreign donors, the structures of charity release the Kenyan government and the local community from accountability. Historical forms of solidarity (such as the utsi and mweria systems of the local Digo people, also in their relation to the top-down Kenyan self-help movement harambee) have been replaced by appeals to charitable organizations to meet infrastructure and other community needs, such as building toilets and digging wells. Traditional forms of communal self-help were based on principles of reciprocity and mutuality, but the present-day Kenyan contribution to humanitarian projects in the Diani area is minimal. Perhaps the way in which African Kenyans manage to get expatriates to contribute money and time on their behalf has an element of subversiveness to it, but it is also conditioned on locals having to and being willing to transfer degrees of control over their affairs to outsiders. While calls for the serikali (government) to address local need remain unanswered, the eagerness of European humanitarians to take care of matters is more than welcomed by the Diani community, albeit on terms that only rarely consider mutuality and reciprocity.

Marriages, along with other long-term romantic relationships, provide another vehicle for African Kenyans to gain or regain some degree of control over resources. The overall effect of marriages and romantic relations is profound: Assuming that, in each case, between ten and twenty Kenyan family members are affected economically by both marriages and long-term romantic relations, I suggest that between 1 million and 2 million Kenyans have seen some sort of economic effect from these transnational relationships over the past twenty years, including an increase in land ownership and housing (Berman, Germans on the Kenyan Coast, 127-71). Most of that effect is felt among the coastal population, but it also reaches upcountry communities because many who work in the tourism industry hail from various areas of Kenya. The high level of occurrence of romantic interactions speaks to the desperation and resilience of people who are faced with a lack of options. These liaisons have the potential to create new solidarities, or at least sensibilities. But for the most part, in addressing their precarious situations, disempowered Kenyans make what Antonio Gramsci calls “spontaneous common sense” decisions (such as engaging with Germans and other Europeans through the charity model), as opposed to the “good sense” (or “new common sense”) of collective action (Gramsci 48-52).

What I document for the Diani area can be seen in many regions of Kenya. The international scramble for resources, for example, has led to the carving up of the country into 63 oil exploration blocks (46 until 2015; “Kenya to Auction”). Many of the more than 300 companies that are prospecting in Kenya are foreign, and local residents who want to maintain ownership of their resources often must contend with an alliance of foreign investors and local politicians. Disputes between companies and local populations are common, especially in the Turkana area (Mkutu and Marani, 50-53). In fact, across sub-Saharan Africa, international investors are a key factor in fomenting local resistance and, in turn, state violence against locals (Wegenast and Schneider). Royalties from the export of Kenyan minerals are set between 2.5 percent and 10 percent, and of these profits, only a fraction goes to local communities (“Update 2”; on the 2016 mining act, see Kadima). In order to lessen the resistance of locals, contracts for mining companies, for example, often include humanitarian band-aids, provisions that they build a hospital or a school for the communities that are forced to sign away their rights over land and resources. Along these lines, the shifts of land ownership in Diani—away from the original owners of the land, the Digo people, to a mix of expatriates and upcountry Kenyans—are accompanied by charitable action toward those who appear as losers in this economic scenario. Humanitarians, however, are generally blind to the factors that cause the poverty they seek to eradicate.


Humanitarianism as Hush Money, Romance as Common Sense Action

Overall, the significant material reality of German-Kenyan interactions and the current second Scramble for Africa create contexts in which the game Mombasa can be understood. While the creators of the game deny the game’s connection to the history of colonialism, its relevance to contemporary developments is apparent. This board game, however, only speaks to the economic dimension of current interactions (humanitarianism is explored in other games, such as the board games Pandemic, Tomorrow, and AFTERSHOCK: A Humanitarian Crisis Game). Alternately, the German-Kenyan case, as I explore it in Germans on the Kenyan Coast, shows a larger picture of transnational connections on multiple levels. As Lisa Lowe brilliantly shows for the colonial period, economic, social, intellectual, and political dimensions are interconnected transnationally in complex ways (Lowe, Intimacies). If we think together the effects of neoliberal capitalism (such as the shifts in land ownership), humanitarian activities, and romantic relations, we come to understand contemporary dimensions of the transnational interplay of economic, political, and social action. Just as abolitionism accompanied the first Scramble for Africa, humanitarianism, as much as it comes with good and sincere intentions, merely adds a kind face to economic exploitation. Rather than creating new dependencies and moving resources under the mantle of progress in the name of human rights, attention must turn to securing fair trade regulations and a level playing field.


Nina Berman (PhD Berkeley) is director of the School of International Letters and Culture at Arizona State University. She has published books and articles on various questions related to German colonialism and orientalism, minority literature, disability, translation, and intercultural contact, including German Literature on the Middle East: Discourses and Practices, 1000-1989 (2011, Outstanding Academic Title 2012, Choice) and Impossible Missions? German Economic, Military, and Humanitarian Efforts in Africa (2004). With Klaus Mühlhahn and Patrice Nganang, she edited German Colonialism Revisited: African, Asian, and Oceanic Experiences. Her most recent book, Germans on the Kenyan Coast: Land, Charity, and Romance (2017), discusses social and economic dimensions related to the contemporary presence of Germans on the coast south of Mombasa. She is presently co-editing, with Kimani Njogu and Michael M. Ndurumo, an anthology on Disability and Social Justice in Kenya.




Berman, Nina. Germans on the Kenyan Coast: Land, Charity, and Romance. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 2017.

—. Impossible Missions? German Economic, Military, and Humanitarian Efforts in Africa. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.

Fabian, Johannes. Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object. New York: Columbia University Press, 1983.

Gramsci, Antonio. Prison Notebooks. Vol. 2, translated by Joseph A. Buttigieg. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Kadmina, Anne. “Exploring: A Detailed Look at Kenya’s Mining Act, 2016,”

“Kenya to Auction 17 New Oil Exploration Blocks in 2017,”

Lowe, Lisa. The Intimacies of Four Continents. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

Mkutu, Kennedy, and Martin Marani. “Changing Security Context in Kenya’s Devolved Governance: A Study Commissioned by Centre for Human Rights and Policy Studies (CHRIPS) for DANIDA.” June 2014.


Noyes, John K. Colonial Space: Spatiality in the Discourse of German South West Africa, 1884-1915. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood, 1991.


Spurr, David. The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and Imperial Administration. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

“Update 2—Kenya Acts to Get a Bigger Share of Mineral Resources.” Reuters August 5, 2013.

Wegenast, Tim, and Gerald Schneider. “Ownership Matters: Natural Resources Property Rights and Social Conflict in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Political Geography 61 (2017): 110-122.



Photo: Trading posts of companies throughout the African continent @ Spiel in Essen 2015 | Mombasa

Published on March 1, 2018.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email