So Long, Nigeria!
The Director, Goethe Institut, Nigeria and a jolly good fellow, Marc-Andre Schmachtel says “Auf Wiedersehen’’ to Nigeria this June leaving a scintillating memory of his good deeds for arts and culture in Nigeria. Yinka Olatunbosun reports.

Marc-André Schmachtel, the bespectacled striking young man at Goethe Institut has a book shelf in his office that bears a semblance of a kaleidoscope, with its books in different colours and shapes, covering cultural topics as well as historical ones. By the time you are reading this, most of these books would have found their way into different moveable cartons for easy lifting as the cultural advocate returns to Germany in July. For his impartial support for artists across the various expressions, this reporter decidedly visited him during office hours recently at the City Hall, Lagos Island.

Schmachtel was born in the German town of Lübeck on July 1, 1979. His first expedition to Africa was during his school days. He finished his high school in Windhoek, Namibia and returned to Germany for higher learning. The focus on his thesis is on African cinema. Between 2008 and 2010, he worked for the Goethe-Institut in Cameroon. He is also a passionate photographer.

Perhaps, the first thing that draws you to “Marc”, as he is called by his Nigerian friends, is his humility. Once, he was watching one of his subordinates struggle with the connecting cables that were meant to project a movie on the big screen at the Nigerian Film Corporation, Ikoyi.

Unfortunately, one of the cables which would project the sound was missing. Apparently, the technical assistant forgot it at the Goethe office, Lagos Island. Meanwhile, the hall was already packed with audience who were expecting to see a movie that should have been showing about 30 minutes earlier. Rather than take offense, as any superior would, Marc volunteered to go to the office to retrieve the cable. That was one of the many instances where Marc had displayed the humble spirit.

He is also approachable and that is one of the reasons why you may need to wait for him sometimes. People hem him in at events because he listens patiently. No doubt, he will be missed by the culture community here but the organisation that he represents is here to stay just as his numerous cultural legacies. When Marc resumed on November 1, 2010, he brought a lot of creative ideas on board. Video art exhibitions, Molue mobile museum, electro music shows featuring foreign disc-jockeys and workshops refined our creative-sphere. He recounted the circumstances that surrounded his sojourn to Nigeria six years ago, precisely on October 30, 2010.

“I was in Cameroon as a language adviser and I applied for the position here in Lagos and got the job,” he began. “I learnt about the job while I was in Germany for a break. It was a big deal for me. I started in Cameroon at a much younger age, for a two-year traineeship working in the culture department. There was no other position in other countries then. I had a colleague at the language department then who went on paternity leave so I took his position.”

The director job in Lagos was a big deal for him because it came with additional responsibilities. But he assumed the role conveniently given the background that he had in his previous position. He could have suffered culture shock on arrival but Cameroun had given him a foretaste of African life and he was prepared to explore other culture terrain but not without making some little findings about Nigeria on his own. He knew that the population of Lagos was about that of the entire Cameroon and he was ready to accept a bigger job in a bigger city.

“I was involved in project called Nigeroon-Cameria,” he continued. “It was a programme for the film industry in Cameroon. You know Cameroon is a bi-lingual country. There are parts that are Anglo-phone and some parts are Franco-phone. I had bought their films in the street and they are not very interactive. So, the Francophones didn’t know what the Anglophones were doing. There was such dichotomy. We spoke to them about getting some Nigerians among the Nollywood filmmakers to Cameroon. So, we brought to Cameroon Teco Benson, Kunle Afolayan and resource persons like Jahman Anikulapo and Victor Ehikhamenor. That was my first encounter with Nigerians from the film industry. It was a very interesting exchange for them.

“Being in Cameroun, you’d hear a lot about Nigeria that they are dynamic people and hardworking. All my vehicle spare parts I purchased were from Nigerians. So, I had this idea that Nigeria is a big country with a lot of business people. Nigerians are very entrepreneurial. I was also in contact with my colleague here. He told me about the city, the chaos, the traffic and lots of challenges. But above all, it is full of super interesting people. I knew it would be interesting.”

In an instant, a gleam of emotion surfaced on his face as he remembered something personal too. Two days after the cheering news of his new job in Lagos as Director, Goethe Institut, Nigeria, he received the shocking news of the death of his girlfriend who was under-going an internship programme at a development agency in Sierra-Leone. Though it was a long distance relationship, it was nonetheless a painful experience especially when the cause of death was malaria.

“It was a very critical time for me. Lagos was my chance to do something positive instead of mourning. It was tough trying to do my responsibility and not trying to lose myself to grief. I think it was a right thing for me to take this job. There are so many interesting people here and I think that is one of the things that make Lagos one of the best places to work. You will meet a lot of engaging people and I can say that it may not have been possible to do all that I have done here elsewhere in ten years.”

Though Marc couldn’t bring back his lady, he was determined during his tenure as the director, to bring to life a lot of “dead’’ places. One of them is the Nigerian Film Corporation, where a bi-monthly screening of films from both Nigerian and German filmmakers commenced. Also, many cultural shows were activated and artists, who would have ordinarily remained invisible, came to light with their artistic expressions. Marc-Andre acknowledged the help of Nigerians who brought ideas to meet his.

“Of course, I have some ideas myself,” he said. “When I am walking around Lagos, I get some ideas naturally. But there is so much creative energy in Lagos. Yes, they may not have the right infrastructure to do this and that. Goethe has been here since 1962. It was easy to follow up on the existing programme template. It was one thing to do that and it is another to develop fresh ideas.”

One of the fresh ideas that he brought was to convert vacant buildings to performance spaces. He was quick to recognise the lack of enabling infrastructure as a problem of artists in Nigeria. While looking for a new office for Goethe Institut, he discovered an abandoned building in Lagos a few blocks away from Freedom Park, off Broad Street, Lagos.

“The idea of a printing press came up when we were looking for a work space. That was one of the challenges I encountered when I came in here. The first thing I had to do was to sign the lease agreement for the use of City Hall. Luckily, my predecessor had secured this place but had to leave before the contract. So, I signed the contract. We didn’t want a permanent space although it is a nice place but there were challenges. When we started, the air conditioners were not working and lights were switched off at 7 pm so we couldn’t do any evening classes.

“I just saw this old building called the printing press. Nice building, I said. But it was completely empty. In other countries, you’d find buildings like that which are not occupied and artists often use them as performance spaces. We started doing some dance workshops and exhibitions in the space. This is one of my inputs to the culture sector. I didn’t just see Lagos as the place where I live but as where I work.”

The rooftop at City Hall was Marc’s favourite spot where he’d watch the city lights and it became a melting ground of many creatives. A few years ago, it was a ritual to have Lagosians there after work, unwinding with performance art, spoken word and movie screenings with a guarantee to have some cold beer and small chops on the house. But that cultural tradition stopped and Marc knew the reason.

“I am not too happy about it. It is a perfect place up there. But there are two challenges. One is the management. They don’t want us to have events there continuously. They feel that if we have too many people on the roof top, the tiles will get damaged. That happened actually. When we started, we had water dripping from the ceilings. And another challenge was security. If we had big events and many people come in, using the stairs, evacuating people can be difficult in case of emergency.”

When the rooftop doors shut, another window of entertaining Lagosians opened with Afropolitan Vibes which Goethe Institut had supported from inception when just a handful of people came for the open-air monthly concert with Ade Bantu has co-organiser. Marc explained why his organisation threw its weight behind the show even with its little budget.

“We didn’t have much regular live music shows in Lagos when I came in,” he explained. “The existing ones didn’t have this live, open-air feeling. We moved in here almost the same time that Freedom Park was opened so we are neighbours. We needed audience and we needed to be known as well because it has been one year without any official presence with moving out of Ozumba [Mbadiwe Street] to Lagos Island. There is this image people have of the Lagos Island as a place for the area boys. But I think it is safe. So, as for the Afropolitan vibes, we are happy that it has grown so big and we only pay for the fliers. We cannot sponsor but we can support programmes that promote culture and creativity,.”

What Marc found disturbing is that a lot of organisations prefer to work “like islands”. He thinks collaborations can breed development for cultural activities in Nigeria if well-managed. The regret that many people have is that the German language school at the Institut is only domiciled on the Lagos Island. And the requests for other centres have risen over the years from other cities such as Port Harcourt and Abuja. Marc promised that with more teachers and funding, it is possible to replicate the learning centres.

“We don’t have enough teachers,” he said. “Our teachers here are all Nigerian teachers. They had been trained in the university and to find good students who are ready to teach is not easy. Also, it is hard to offer them a salary that they can accept. Many good ones have enrolled for scholarships and had left Nigeria. In the last three years, we have lost at least four teachers to scholarships. And to replace them is not easy. We have good people but you need to train them and get them empowered. I will love to have the classes replicated in Yaba and Ikeja but we need decent spaces. It is not impossible but we really have to look at the budget and in the end it has to be cost effective.

We want to retain the same standards. And we have been speaking to our partners, that is, other language centres that teach German so that they can award certifications. We have sent some of our teachers to such centres to support them.”
Marc doesn’t teach at the Institut. He is busy with administrative work and projects while fulfilling supervisory roles. Given that scenario, Marc hardly has a spare time.

“That is the problem with culture. It is very difficult to separate work from leisure. You have a situation where you step out of your role as a director. I am just a normal person going into the cinema and if someone recognises me and says ‘hi’ and wants to speak to me about a project, I can’t tell them that, ‘Sorry, I am not here as a director.’ I try sometime on Sundays, once every month, to be completely free of work and I don’t go out at all. I may just do some shopping and hideaway and relax the brain because if people are continuously interacting with you, your mind is always working.”

Film archives are part of the things Marc thought Nigerian film institutions should rethink. Recently, a workshop was organised in partnership with the Nigerian Film Corporation under his watch to boost capacity in preserving history through film archives. A farewell festival of sorts would draw the curtain on Marc’s time in Nigeria as he resumes at the film department at the Goethe Institut, headquarters in Germany. What souvenir does one give a man whose self-driven spirit, asides the inter-cultural exchange initiative, has inspired the entire culture community in Nigeria? Perhaps, a Nigerian wife will do.

“I don’t know if some of my partners here will like to see me with some Nigerian wife. But my girlfriend is in Germany. She is a theatre director,” he revealed.
The other option for a souvenir is to christen him with a Nigerian name but he said that had been done on his arrival.
“I have one. One of our partners, a dancer, gave me a very Nigerian name, Mukaila. Now, that is the reaction I get every time I mention that name,” he said in response to this reporter’s involuntary laughter.