Released in 2001, Nowhere in Africa is a movie adapted from the autobiographical novel by Stefanie Zweig titled Nirgendwo in Afrika. The film chronicles the story of a Jewish family fleeing Germany just before WWII and making a new life for themselves in 1930’s Kenya. It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2002 as well as five German Film Awards (Golden Lolas) in addition to many nominations. This is the first Oscar in 25 years for Germany (after The Tin Drum).
“…but one can’t really live here.” – Jettle when she first arrives in Kenya
The novel: Nirgendwo in Afrika was written by Stefanie Zweig and translated into English by Marlies Comjean. It is the autobiographical story of Zweig’s childhood as a refugee in 1930’s Kenya told from the child’s perspective. The story chronicles the Redlich family, Walter, his wife Jettel and their daughter Regina who flee Germany shortly before WWII. They move to a remote tenant farm in Kenya where they take the position of caretaker. The family is torn apart in the realization that they can not turn back to a quickly changing Germany and must confront their new life in Kenya. Though Kenya is thousands of miles away from Europe, letters from family and a British stronghold of the region continually resists her new life at every turn while her daughter Regina quickly embraces the new culture, befriending their cook Owuor and learning Swahili. Unlike her parents she remembers little of her early years in Germany. As the family learns to embrace their new lives, Walter finds himself haunted by the life he left behind in Germany and feels he has a duty to return. Regina’s dream comes true when a baby brother is born in 1946. Walters’s choice to return with his family to Germany and help rebuild their homeland wreaks chaos on the family. Regina has few memories of Germany. Jettel has finally found a place for herself on the farm. She has lost all relatives and feels that there is nothing for her to return to in Germany.
Regardless of the fact that the novel and film are set over 50 years ago, the relevance to today is not lost. With such a large number of refugees in the world today, Nowhere in Africa provides us with a glimpse of the struggle that refugees encounter daily.
Walter Redlich : 'It's not that I don't like the English, it's more... That they don't like me.'
Colonel: 'Well, they don't like me either! I'm Scottish.'
About the Author: Stefanie Zweig was born in Leobschütz, Upper Silesia in 1932. Her parents were well-educated and lived a typical upper middle class life. Though Jewish by birth, the family was not stringent in their practice of Judaism. At the age of 6, Stefanie fled with her parents to Kenya to avoid Nazi persecution in 1938. They did not know that Kenya was a British colony, only that authorities required a low 50 Pounds (about $2500 US today) per head. With the aid of the local Jewish community in Nirobi he gathered the entry fee for his wife and daughter to emigrate in his trail. Her father contracted malaria shortly after their arrival. He worked as a tenant farmer, a life that was light years away from his previous profession as a prominent lawyer in Germany. School became compulsory and her father was able to earn just enough to send her to a British school in Nirobi where she learned English. She hated school, was poor at sports and found it hard to make friends with the British children. She insisted on being at the top of her class so that her father wouldn’t feel his money was being wasted. By 10 she was aware of Auschwitz and what it meant for her relatives not to have escaped in time. By the time her bother was born in 1947 the family had found a niche for themselves in Kenya. In 1944 her father enlisted in the British Army, which would enabled him to return to Germany after the war. Upon their return Stefanie was confronted with an alien world. She could not read or write German. Frankfurt had been bombed to the core and it took the family 10 months to find a place to live.
Stefanie Zweig lives in Frankfurt and works as a freelance journalist and author of children’s books. For 40 years she was an arts editor at a newspaper. When her children’s books received awards she was inspired to try to write a novel about her childhood. Since then she has written two best-selling autobiographical novels Nirgendwo in Afrika and Irgendwo in Deutschland. Since her childhood Stefanie Zweig went back to Kenya twice and she can still speak Swahili. She did not get involved in the movie of the film.