Today’s Doodle, illustrated by Berlin-based guest artist Helene Baum-Owoyele, celebrates Cameroonian train driver Martin Dibobe. On this day in 1919, Dibobe and 17 other African people petitioned the German government for independence and civil rights for all people in Germany’s colonial empire.
Dibobe was born in 1876 in Cameroon, which became a German colony in 1884. The son of a Douala chief, he learned to read and write in a missionary school. In his youth, the German government ordered Dibobe and many other Africans in Berlin to join an ethnographic display designed to teach Germans about daily life in Africa and gather support for colonialism. In 1886, Dibobe and one hundred other Africans were shipped to Berlin on a steamboat.
For six months, Dibobe lived under terrible conditions and appeared as an “exhibit” of African life in Berlin’s Treptower Park. Afterward, he stayed in Germany and worked as a locksmith in a local factory before falling in love with a German woman. Although the registry office refused to document their union, they later married with the support of a clergyman.
Dibobe then earned a job at the Berlin subway system and worked his way up to become the first Black train driver in the city. Unsatisfied with his social mobility, he advocated for African rights across the empire. It’s believed that the German government sent Dibobe back to Cameroon to help build a new railway line around 1907. During this time, he shared his views on equal rights with chiefs in his native country.
After the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, Germany ceded its colonies to France and Britain. Dibobe rallied fellow advocates to appeal to Germany’s National Assembly. The Dibobe petition included 32 demands supporting equal rights for the country’s African migrants, but it was ignored by the government.
Cameroon fell under French rule and when Dibobe tried to return in 1922, they denied his entry. He then traveled to Liberia where he most likely died. Today, a plaque commemorates Martin Dibobe’s efforts at his old address in Berlin. In the face of blatant racism, Dibobe always championed African rights and paved the way for future activists.
Thanks, Martin Dibobe for serving as a role model for future advocates of Black independence.
Guest Artist Q&A with Helene Baum-Owoylee
Today’s Doodle was illustrated by Berlin-based guest artist Helene Baum-Owoyele. Below, she shares her thoughts behind the making of this Doodle:
Q. Why was this topic meaningful to you personally?
A. Martin Dibobe, like many other Black people of note in Germany is barely if at all cited in history. It was meaningful to me to be able to dive deeper into his story and to know that more people will do the same after seeing the Doodle. A lot of my work as an artist is about creating visibility for the BIPoC community.
Q. What were your first thoughts when you were approached about the project?
A. I was very excited to be given the opportunity to work on a Doodle. Especially one that is meaningful and local to me.
Q. Did you draw inspiration from anything in particular for this Doodle?
A. The font in the background is inspired by Weimar Republic era typography. But mostly I drew inspiration from Cameroonian art, especially its various textiles. Martin Dibobe came from the coastal region but with his petition he represented the whole of Cameroon and the African continent so it was important to find a balance between local and global.
Q. What message do you hope people take away from your Doodle?
A. I hope it becomes more common knowledge that Africans and Black people in the diaspora have always been present and active in moulding history. They have always fought for a better present and future. We (all) have a lot to thank them for.
Early Doodle Drafts