• Politics
  • Working the African bush(es): Tales from Görli


Working the African bush(es): Tales from Görli

We've all seen them, and know where to direct tourists and stoners when asked where to get their special 'wares', but the Görli dealers themselves remain a mystery. Until now.

Image for Working the African bush(es): Tales from Görli
Photo by Tania Castellví

Kathryn Werntz: How I spent four weeks on the job with the Görli dealers, learning the tricks of the trade, the Mandinka language and above all heaps of life philosophy, African style – mostly from one man, a “real Rasta”, my brother Kinmu.  

Before most of us are even thinking about our morning coffees, my brother Kinmu wakes up and begins his daily U8 train ride: from his tiny flat in Reinickendorf to his raucous school in Neukölln to the bushes of Görlitzer Park. In comparison to his cramped but quiet flat, his school is a cacophony of life: jabbering girls and chattering sewing machines. Kinmu, three other guys, and about 50 girls dutifully spend 30 hours a week studying German and learning the tailor trade.

Kinmu is not my actual brother, but he has adopted me as his sister because I am a strange white girl trying to learn his native Mandinka language. Kinmu is far from white, and far from his homeland. Hailing from The Gambia, a tiny sliver of a country in West Africa swallowed by Senegal on three sides and met with the forceful Atlantic Ocean on the fourth, Kinmu arrived in Germany two years ago. He risked a lot to get here, and while we all know that Berlin provides many distractions, Kinmu understands that if he’s cool and stays in school, in two years he’ll land a good-paying job. For now, like many Berliners, he puts up with a crappy Nebenjob.

On the assembly line

Kinmu clocks in at Görlitzer Park by 2pm or so, with his schoolbag slung over his shoulder. His colleagues are all boys. And they snicker each time I show up to sit next to him. The guys work on a sort of assembly line. About 10 of them form a line, the guy in the back shouts directions for about 45 minutes and the guy up front does what he says in order to earn his wage. When he’s done, he goes to the back of the line and becomes the shouter, and so on. Kinmu usually works as the safety inspector of the operation – sitting about 20 metres back to keep an eye on things. That is, looking out for cops.

Kinmu and the rest of his pals are providing Berliners with their most beloved plant: cannabis. Focused on school by day and homework by night, his evenings and weekends are spent in the African bush of Görlitzer Park. You probably have seen them, grouped around various park entrances: dark Africans. Prone to wide, white toothy grins when provoked. Some move around on bicycles, most are just standing, leaning or sitting around. There is usually a band of 6-10 guys along the park’s outer fence and a few more, like my brother Kinmu, sitting casually on the concrete planters which line the street. They are usually under the shade of overgrown bushes (where some stash their inventory), or ancient trees, sometimes venturing out onto the asphalt bike path to do some ‘trading’.

On the shaded path that leads into the vast openness of Görli and its guitars, drums, paperback books and silk performers, there is a different energy, fuelled by flitting eye communication and nervous transactions. As the most innocent citizen, you tend to avert your eyes as you brush past buyer and seller.

Dealing marijuana, my Gambian brothers take a huge risk as they are all here on asylum. This means they have successfully weaved a good enough story of persecution and/or certain imminent death if they were to stay in or return to their homelands. Being caught dealing could mean being shipped back home.

“Allama koi” – community matters

At his Neukölln school, everyone thinks he’s 17. In reality Kinmu is 27 years old. He managed to get himself to Berlin via an uncle who paid for his ticket and helped him get his tourist visa. This uncle was also his asylum sherpa, teaching Kinmu how to navigate the refugee officers, the paperwork and the lawyers, and how to generally survive well enough to be successful in this European dream. He told him that if he said he was 16, he’d get to go to school. And he did.

Kinmu would never have been able to get here and indeed stay here without the support of his new Berlin ‘family’. Africa, known for its sense of community, also helped him land his job. All he had to do was show up at the intercommunity ‘Arbeitsamt’ in the park and ask for a spot in the assembly line. He walked up to the group of Gambians and told them he was new, he needed to make some cash and he wanted to sell. Of course, was their answer.

Like any other asylum seeker, Kinmu is not allowed to work. Which begs the question of how one is supposed to live on €224 a month. Not to mention the money many need to send back home; Kinmu for example has a family of 10 back in The Gambia that rely on the cash he sends them. [NOTE: A new ruling by the federal court in July 2012 will raise the asylum stipend to match Hartz IV, that is, €374].

“Allama koi” (we must take care of each other) quotes Kinmu from a popular Gambian rap song – a new Mandinka phrase for me to learn. All of the dealers know it. They watch out for one another in lots of ways. And they have extended this to include the other non-African dealers with whom they share the Görli turf.

Though business flows here at Görli, there are moments of quiet. During these times, sitting close to one another on the small concrete planter with nothing but overgrown weeds around to look at and nothing to listen to (it’s Ramadan and music is a no-no), we reflect on life, the importance of family and community. We agree Germans, and whites in general, do not have a deep sense of it, and we all shake our heads in sadness. Allama koi.

Of cats and mice: know your enemy

On a particularly sunny and cheerful Berlin afternoon I’m caught off guard: Kinmu springs off his feet and starts shouting in loud and rapid Mandinka to the guys on the assembly line. I crane my neck to see what the fuss is about: a police riot truck, its green and white slowing right behind us.

“You boys clean?” I get three “hahs”, that is, yes in Mandinka. I sit tight.

The cops make a big show of cruising by, and an even bigger show of turning their trucks. All the while, everyone just stands there, staring casually at the cops, barely shifting weight from one foot to the next. It is only when the cops step down from the truck, fall into a tight four-person walking formation and are but a few metres away that the dealers become frenetic.

The guys first sway towards one escape route, but as the cops change their position, they sway back towards the park – all with the ease of what looks like a well-trained football play. Suddenly, they take off running, all the while smiling and laughing as they whoop and holler and dive through bushes. In comical slow-mo, the cops meander over to where the guys had

just stood, looking a bit dumbfounded – all of this gives me the impression of nothing less than a circus clown act.

Why don’t the cops just get down to business? It is a bit cruel after all, this cat and mouse act of keeping the dealers alert without ever really pouncing or sweeping.

Sitting next to Kinmu and my other safety patrol, the cops never even glance at me – what with my white skin and respectable clothes (I keep reasonably covered for Ramadan when I’m with the guys). About 45 minutes later, the cops wander back out the way they had come, laughing at what seemed to be a discussion about a TV series. About 30 minutes later, the dealers come back onto the assembly line. Alles in Ordnung.

The mood changes quickly and soon the dealers have me laughing. In typical West African style, they receive my openness with a thousand times more hospitality. When they find out about my visa problems and that I have no job – “We’ll teach you how to make asylum. No worries.” They even offer to give me a kilo to deal. “But you should take it to Sweden. You will make more money in Stockholm.”

Purity and piety in dealing: keep yourself pure, body and mind

One afternoon, a little dog comes over to sit with us. Kinmu asks me if I like dogs.

And you?

“Well, I like them, but not how they keep them here in Germany. The dogs lying in the beds and all. That is wrong. According to Islam dogs are animals and are dirty. When they lick a plate, you must wash it seven times. Islam respects animals, but animals have their place.” And almost on cue, Kinmu stands up: time to go to the mosque.

Why not just pray here in the park?

“No way! Are you crazy? It is impure here. People piss here. No way.”

And selling pot? How does Islam feel about that?

“Well, I hope Allah understands. I am a real Rasta, I do not drink, I do not smoke cigarettes, I do not smoke pot. But I must make money. I study German, and I study textile, but I must work – otherwise my parents will make me come home.” I marvel at how these grown men sound more worried about what their mothers think than the cops.

Kinmu is adamantly against drugs:

“Weed is evil. It is evil no matter what.” So because he is a “real Rasta”, or Rastafarian, and because he is a Muslim, and because he does not want to lose his chance at permanent residency, Kinmu keeps clean. He sells just one or two bags a day and never keeps the stuff on him.

One day, when Kinmu wanted to know if I was not smiling because I was sad, he took to lecturing me on keeping not just my bed and dishes clean, but also my soul.

“You must pray. And if you do not believe in a god, then you must meditate. Okay? You must go home and meditate.”

As I stand and proceed to leave: “And keep your house clean!” he adds.

No such thing as a sick day

I show up this afternoon to a very quiet, very sullen park. The sun is out. It is 22 degrees. What’s up, Berliners?

I walk past an empty park entrance into the vastness of Görli, turn a corner, and see the problem: a major park-wide raid underway. No one looks happy, except maybe the K-9 pooch sniffing to his heart’s content. I plop down on a bench by the large circular lawn next to some older, non-dealing brothers who are strumming their guitars and singing religious songs from Senegal. They tell me the cops have been there for hours – and that part of their infiltration was taking video and photographs of these friends of mine while they sat and strummed. They had tried to protest but would rather not get the cops angry.

I then spot a group of 10 cops stalking one very small bushy area by the Senegalese dealing turf. Suddenly six cops come barreling out of the bushes right behind us. They haul an ‘Arab’ (Kinmu and his friends refer to the non African dealers, including East Europeans and Turks, as ‘Arabs’). Then a young white woman comes running from out of nowhere – snapping her very journalist-looking camera. Good. Just as I am thinking about rights infringement, the 10-man team quietly nabs a young African man. No chasing, no barreling. The lad just ambles next to the cops until he is put into a paddy wagon. By the end of the day they will have filled another one.

Meanwhile a sea of sad-looking whites pass by, some of them helplessly mouthing the words “later?” to the dealers. My brothers’ heads shake: definitely not.

With 22,000 Berliners between the ages of 15-64 using marijuana at least once a day (according to polizei.berlin.de), I have come to think of these guys as doing a public service. When I suggest to Kinmu he may be doing a favour to the world by selling, he is plenty annoyed and suggests I use Ramadan to reflect on this.

Before I leave for the day, I tease the dealers about asking the cops for a truce during Ramadan (here in the northern hemisphere this means 28 days during which they do not drink water or eat food for 18 hours). Then I commend them for working whilst fasting, both for the physical strain and moral dilemma. And I can see that as each day passes, they look weaker and get grumpier. I am still met with smiles, but we just sit silently, less and less Mandinka spoken and fewer secrets shared.

Though our conversations grow lighter as Ramadan drags on, each day my respect for these guys deepens. They go to school, study German, live away from their families and homes, work hard to earn money and keep their faith. I tell them I am a bit jealous of their asylum, of their free school, training, housing and food. But I let them know that I am not angry with them for falsely claiming official asylum – especially in comparison to all of the Germans and Ausländer I know living off the dole and doing nothing with themselves.

“Yeah, those guys.” Kinmu smiles ironically and leans back, puffs out his belly and rubs it, mocking a thick German accent: “Ich bin arbeitslos. Schaaade.” We both chuckle, we both know the type well.