Abdulrazak Gurnah’s prose is polished and clean, easy to read. It also has a aftertaste to the narrations and conversations that are heard on African soil, which makes each of the words appreciated. But under it flow many other things, horrors and atrocities crystallized in a constellation of themes scarcely dealt with in African literatures. One of them is the presence of Asian communities settled in East Africa in the 19th century. Men and women who fled poverty in India and the Arabian Peninsula and found a livelihood in that region. Many were traders in search of ivory and controlled the slave trade from the interior to the coastal regions. Goods they exchanged for trinkets, rifles and gunpowder, as the author reflects in his work.
Later, the British would spur the arrival of these people as skilled labor to build railroads, for example, in their East African colonies, and to fill jobs for those who did not consider the natives fit. But the Indians and the Omanis were already there before the settlers arrived. Also in present-day Tanzania, the country where Gurnah was born. And yet, little was said about them. In recent years, some authors have shed some light on these communities, as is the case of the Kenyan Peter Kimani with Dance of the Jakaranda (2017) and the British Hafsa Zayyan in We Are All Birds of Uganda (2020). Long before them, Gurnah always placed the center of his narrative on these people and describes in detail and tenderness their customs and ways of life. Perhaps he was the pioneer in this field.
When the Germans arrived in West Africa they already found the Asians there. And this is another originality of Tanzanian literature. Many of his novels are set in the German colonial period, in what was German East Africa (the Deutsch-Ostafrika), a territory that encompassed the present-day mainland of Tanzania, as well as Rwanda and Burundi. The colony was established in the 1880s when German troops intervened to stop a revolt against the German East Africa Company that operated in the region and remained until the end of World War I, when after the German defeat the League of Nations surrendered Rwanda and Burundi to Belgium and Tanganyika, as the mainland part of present-day Tanzania was known, to the United Kingdom. In your last book, afterlives (2020), Gurnah shows German resistance to the British invasion during the war and the role played by the Askaris, the native troops who fought (forcibly in most cases) alongside the Germans.
Many novels have been written denouncing the effects of British and French colonization on African societies. It is worth mentioning as an example the classic par excellence of African literatures: the world falls apart (1958) by the Nigerian Chinua Achebe. But German colonization was rarely mentioned in African literatures.
This, like the others, broke the harmony existing in the various societies present on the African continent prior to its arrival, imposing its rules and arrogating to itself the faculty of collecting taxes. Furthermore, he dealt with any attempt at dissent and rebellion with an iron fist. This intervention convulsed an entire social and relationship system that until that moment had functioned and generated violence never before experienced in the area. In what is perhaps the best Tanzanian novel – paradise (1994) –, these issues are very present and in a very subtle way it is shown how everything falls apart with the arrival of the Germans.
But Gurnah is not naive and does not try to portray an idyllic pre-colonial Africa as perhaps Achebe and other contemporaries do. The Africa that existed before the arrival of the settlers was an Africa full of contradictions with its differences, inequalities, superstitions and a lot of cruelty. But, as brutal as it was, it would never be like that of the Germans, cold men, rigid and very sure of themselves, so much so that popular myths said that they “eat iron” as the author points out in some of his works.
All colonizations are characterized by their massacres, and the German one is no different. Just remember the genocide of the Herero and Namaqua peoples in present-day Namibia. In Tanganyika this also happened. There, at least 75,000 Tanzanians were massacred to repress the Maji Maji rebellion (1905-1907) in which various peoples rose up against the German administration because of the shortages and poverty generated by the German colonial policies that required peasants to do forced labor on cotton plantations. , mainly, to be its product exported to the metropolis. This made them need to abandon their own fields that were the ones that fed them. This brutality of the German colony is very well evidenced in Gurnah’s narrative.
A third theme, perhaps smaller and more transversal, very present in the Tanzanian’s work, is that of racism. Asians consider Africans inferior and treat them as such, imposing discriminatory norms in the spaces they control. This reality can still be seen today in East African countries. Gandhi himself was accused a few years ago of this racism during his stay in South Africa, which caused demonstrations and protests in various parts of the African continent that culminated in the removal of his statues in some universities, as happened in Ghana in 2018. Germans think the same of natives, but also of Asians and treat both groups with equal contempt.
It is possible that it is the presence of these themes and others in Gurnah’s work or any other reason that led a committee of Swedes to award him the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. Perhaps it also influenced the fact that this committee seemed to like to rotate continents and genders every year, in an attempt to be parity or something. So it was to be assumed that this year the prize would go to an African man. All bets indicated the Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o, eternal candidate for the award, and yet, that was not the case.
As much as we may like Gurnah’s work, if we were given the opportunity to choose we would have preferred the prize to go to Thiong’o. In his literature, many of the issues Gurnah dealt with are present, but perhaps presented more crudely. In addition, the perspective taken by the Kenyan is different, more from the last ones on earth, the most maimed and trampled. He recounts the struggles for independence, the sacrifice of the people, the hope when freedom is achieved, and the disenchantment of reality when those who led that dream settle in power and use it for their own benefit. And these criticisms cost her imprisonment, torture and exile. But perhaps Thiong’o is too revolutionary and radical for the committee members.
Thiong’o is a reference in African literatures, well known and followed in his country, where his works are published in Kikuyu and English, and throughout his continent. Gurnah is virtually unknown in his home country. He lives in the UK and developed his career there. It is very difficult to find your books in Tanzania, which need to be imported from the UK. They are found only in the bookstore of a shopping center mainly frequented by expats at prices that only those expatriates can afford.
Humbert, from Arusha, in the north of the country, confirms this: “Not many people know him here, so the award went practically unnoticed. Only the Government posted some messages on social networks congratulating him”. Mussa, in Zanzibar says: “It seems there is a famous writer who was born on this island and we didn’t know.” Finally, Abdurahman in Dar es Salaam underscores what has been said by previous ones when he says that “saying that no one knows Gurnah in this country is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but very few would have heard of him before the news of the awards. Here, we are more of literature written in Swahili”.
But let’s not fall into the trap of elucidating whether African literatures exist and, if so, what they are. Sudanese writer Abdelaziz Baraka Sakin, author of The Messiah of Darfur, has already got into this mess on these same pages.
The fact that it is the whim of Swedes and does not satisfy our desires does not prevent the Nobel from granting a deserved recognition to an author who managed to ensure that the horror of colonization is not forgotten, among many other things. In addition, it will help to disseminate his books and give readers the opportunity to read narratives where “the universal is not the western one”, as Sonia Fernández Quincoces, a specialist in African literature, says.