Photo Credit: @Alex.kleis_.jpeg
How Zewdi, Berlin's First Black-Owned Travel Agency, Highlights Black German History
Meet 27-year-old Miriam Fisshaye, founder of Zewdi, the first decolonial Black travel agency in Berlin, where she is based. Born in Ethiopia to Eritrean parents, Miriam was raised in Frankfurt, Germany, but always maintained a bond to her African heritage.
Growing up, Miriam lived in a neighborhood full of immigrants, which she describes as “the UN” due to its diversity. However, despite being inhabited by Sudanese, Togolese, Afghanis, and people of various other origins, most of the teachers in the schools were white Germans who reproduced structural racism.
“In school, the Black history of Germany never appeared in our history books, unless it was referring to colonialism or the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” said Miriam. “The colonial past of Germany, besides its role in the Berlin conference of 1884, was not mentioned at all, and our teachers were not equipped by the school curriculum to bring forth diverse stories.”
Miriam recalls asking her teacher, during her studies of the National Socialism era, if Black people died in concentration camps, as well. The answer was succinct, bordering on derogatory: “I don’t think so. Black people didn’t exist in the past.”
Her story echoes those of Black children throughout the diaspora living in primarily white societies, whose schools and teachers have failed miserably at providing the truth and depth of their people and histories. So, it’s unsurprising that Miriam was able to relate to Black youth in countries like the United States and United Kingdom.
“For issues of diversity, racial equality, and injustice, it was common to look to the USA or the UK. We often didn’t have a word for our injustice, and adopted the American words to use as our own. Studying African American history and books gave me at least the universal understanding of intersectional injustice and racial based inequalities.”
With travel having always been a part of Miriam’s family’s life, it provided a gateway to knowledge. They had relatives in several European countries, such as the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden, Norway, and the United Kingdom, who they visited during summer holidays.
“To see the world is to learn, and I became aware that although Black people were present, our history was somehow invisible. It may have been the occasional museum painting with a Black person in it, but without a name or backstory given. What I also observed through these childhood travels was the predominance of the European perspective in the global travel narrative, despite travel itself being broader. I didn’t see, in my youth, Black explorers on TV or in travel and leisure advertisements. Black or brown people were refugees; displaced, migrating, but not traveling.”
Thanks to her grandfather, who was an Askari–a soldier in Italy’s Regio Corpo Truppe Coloniali (Royal Colonial Corps)–and a passionate storyteller, Miriam knew Germany had a colony in East Africa, and that some of the soldiers migrated to Germany in the 20th century. Finding the evidence that they existed, however, was a mammoth task.
“Organizations such as Initiative Schwarze Deutch, Each One Teach One eV, and Afrika Median Zentrum partly helped me understand and reveal the hidden history of Black people in Germany.”
Inspired by her findings, Miriam desired to share the history of Black Germany with others. She moved to Berlin to study, and in June 2021, she completed her master’s degree in sustainable tourism.
Miriam founded Zewdi, which means “queen” in the Tigrinya language spoken in Eritrea and Northern Ethiopia, in June 2020. She named the company after her paternal grandmother, a proud, beautiful, Black woman who embraced her culture and stayed true to her heritage in the face of racism and discrimination during the colonial era in Eritrea.
“Having a love-hate relationship with Berlin, I realized some time ago that I can use my passion for Black history and my knowledge of tourism to showcase Berlin’s little-known Black history. In my experience, even local Berliners are not aware of Black German history, as early as the 17th or 18th century. They would not know names such as, Gustav Sabac el Cher and Martin Dibobe. They would not have taken a tour through Berlin focused on Black heritage.”
The very first tour Zewdi offered was the Black bike tour, in which participants explored the history of the city together via bicycle. Today, in addition to this tour, Zewdi offers post-colonial walking tours, package tours to Zanzibar, startup group tours, and exclusive events, such as a Kemetic yoga workshop in collaboration with Jamaican yoga instructor Akosua Aset.
Quite popular and always fully booked, all bike tours are individually curated, unique experiences where Miriam matches the route and history together for a compelling journey. For those seeking an introduction to Berlin’s Black history, the post-colonial walking tour is ideal. It takes participants through the Afrikanische Viertel or “African Quarter” in Berlin.
“This tour aims to draw attention to Germany’s colonial past and its presence today in Wedding, Berlin. I do this tour in collaboration with Mnayaka Sururu Mboro, a prominent Afro-German activist and one of the founders of Berlin Postkolonial e.V., which has done a wonderful job making colonial places in the city visible.”
Through the work of Zewdi, its collaborators, and other organizations, people of all races are learning about Germany’s Black history and culture. Miriam has built herself a seat at the travel and leisure industry table to help fill a gaping void and provide a valuable and much-needed learning experience.
“The Afro diaspora community increasingly wants to have travel and leisure experiences reflecting their identity and reality. The demand is there, but the supply in Germany is limited. With Zewdi, I am working on that. I think exploring Berlin’s Black history makes this city more welcoming and more accessible to Black people. Berlin is not only Brandenburger Tor, but it is the African Quarter, as well.”
With February also being Black History Month in Germany, Zewdi is hosting two special events on February 20 and 27.
“Both are an invitation to look back into German history to learn the stories of 106 individuals who were abducted from Africa, Oceana, and America to be put on display as colonial subjects.”
In the future, Miriam would like to create travel experiences, both virtual and analog, that cut across intersectionally to reach a diverse audience, not only in Germany, but globally.
“My dream is that from Basra and Cape Town to Brasilia and Stockholm, people will have the possibility to explore and connect to the Afro diaspora community. I am following with interest the huge possibility to create virtual travel experiences on the metaverse. I would like to be a pioneer in this area, especially the possibility of creating a virtual travel experience where you can do things like learn about pre-colonial era Africa or experience an Afrofuturistic city.”