Africa, by Gurnah
Abdulrazak Gurnah’s novels have been on long lists and short lists and they earned the author a Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.
When I decided to read some novels set in Africa, I started with his. I just finished my fifth one. They all involve the area shown above as, German East Africa, which is now, mostly, Tanzania. The action either takes place there on the southeast African coast — or in England, where many southeast Africans chose and/or were forced to relocate.
Gurnah is a wonderful storyteller, processing detailed family histories and cultural traditions through the meatgrinder of colonization.
What do I now understand that I did not understand before?
Partition of Africa
In 1870, about 10% of the African continent was controlled by European powers. At the outset of World War I in 1914, 90% of African territory was colonized. I knew that, but maybe not in such stark terms.
Gurnah does not write about Africa. He writes about a corner of Africa. Every colonization project was different, as was every resistance movement and, eventually, every process of gaining national independence.
If all I knew was what I read in five of his novels, here is what I would think about Africa:
Before the Partition Years
Almost everybody was poor. There was no industry, no jobs as we think of jobs. The fortunate people had some form of home but many just slept on the floor where they were all day.
Most people didn’t seem to do much but they kept busy. They served customers in small shops. Tended gardens. Sat around a lot and schemed.
Some people lived in small sleepy towns on the coast of the Indian Ocean. Some lived inland and were small-time farmers.
Most people prayed constantly, at least five times every day. Children went to Koran School and learned how to recite the Holy Words. Females generally stayed out of sight and covered up when they went out.
Non-African people had been coming from the Arabian Peninsula and India for thousands of years. They had their own cultural communities, but they intermarried with African people as well.
Foreigners — Arabs, Persians, and Indians — had controlled the coast long before Europeans made their way down. The interior and the lakes region were ruled by African tribes
The map goes back to the 1660s and suggests the Indian and Middle Eastern influence.
I don’t remember a single element of resistance to outside control.. It was a given — that wealthy traders ruled.
The adventurous Africans were the ones who went into the interior and made it back to the coast with valuable trade goods. Parts of Gurnah’s. “Paradise” have a Conrad, “Heart of Darkness” feel.
There are no urban areas. Mombasa, at the northern edge of Gurnah’s world, in British East Africa, plays the role of distant city that a few people steal off to and are not heard from again. Until decades later. Mombasa’s population in 1900 is estimated to be about 15,000.
Europeans and World War I
The WW1 image I grew up with was trenches in Europe and young men mowed down trying to conquer a few yards.
Before I read Gurnah, I’d never imagined every male and some of the females from an inland village where outsiders came maybe once a year being forcibly conscripted by German soldiers to serve as bearers or whatever they wanted. That hadn’t happened before.
There had been plenty of brutality. What the Europeans brought was efficiency and scale. Everyone in the village. Gone. Every bit of food and livestock. Plundered.
What I had also not imagined was that some people willingly chose conscription. There was no ‘upward mobility’ at home. You had to leave, but how? When you don’t know any better, being part of platoon with a plan could seem like a good career move.
Africa was devastated by a conflict among Europeans now called World War I.
Maybe it’s the lack of obvious individual options that makes family so dominant in Gurnah’s stories. Family is a major shaping influence in all cultures at all times, no question.
In the author’s slice of time and place, family is the motive or the explanation for everything. Feuds drive events and never end. Feuds among families and within families.
In matters of love, it is not what the heart says that matters — what matters is the family someone comes from. Even in matters of business, it is not what the numbers say that clinches a deal. What matters is the family background of all the parties. Only when the whole family and all its public stories are known — plus at least some of the private ones, can we know someone well enough to do business or get married.
Women lead their lives largely secluded from men who are not their husband or brother, in order to protect their honor. Their honor raises or lowers the family honor.
Counterintuitively, women can help their family a lot by having sex outside their marriage with people who are very powerful. What they lose in public respect, they more than gain in the ability to casually ruin other people’s lives.
Women have very little say in their first marriage and matrimony is not seen as an entirely personal relationship. It is more a familial relationship. However, being married off to a much older man can work out well in the long run if he dies soon enough and leaves sufficient wealth. At that point, the woman can have her pick of suitors and choose for love and companionship.
Being successful in terms of wealth, prestige or both always means leaving the family unless it is already wealthy and you are the oldest brother.
De-colonization was seamless. Awful, but seamless. Most people did not experience a ‘struggle for power.’ They just experienced power, sometimes being used against them for reasons they could understand, but usually for reasons they could not.
Germans left and after a second world war and then more fighting, the British left. But someone was still in power every day. There was no break.
No Gurnah character I have met so far has experienced war or independence.
What they did experience was more State intrusion into life. Government at every level dispossessing people if not outright disappearing them. One character spent seven years in a penal colony because he wouldn’t do a small favor for someone, someone two degrees of separation from power but that was close enough.
One unique aspect of Tanzanian independence was its Communist nature. This is reflected in the novels by the one European destination that was not the UK — East Germany. Leaving home for technical training in Soviet-ruled East Germany was a way out.
By Leaving Home I mean Leaving the Whole Culture.
Based only on Gurnah, I would assume that most African males who could, left home and most African females didn’t, unless they were married off to someone in a distant location.
Gurnah left home and never went back, not to live anyway. He did not leave because he wanted to. Most people didn’t. He was eighteen and changes in power he had nothing to do with made his home unsafe for him.
He never writes explicitly about the thousands of Arabs who were massacred in the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964. A character in a novel knows someone who suddenly disappears and the family realizes it is no longer safe to stay.
It was different being a refugee in the UK in 1968 than it has become. He was more an object of curiosity at that time than a focus of blame. One of his characters is called the n-word more than once and his English girlfriend is forced by her English brothers to stay away from him.
Gurnah became a professor and a writer. He wrote and still writes about the past. His characters are almost always trapped by history and often traumatized by it.
It is now 2023 and that world may be gone. I expect that the same themes have rolled forward.
Gurnah’s ancestor’s were Arabs but Zanzibar is no longer a Sultanate. Its major industry is a new form of colonization known as tourism.
The same party has held power in Tanzania since Independence in 1961. It has been formally committed to socialist principles for decades, but recent economic growth has not been shared equally.
You wouldn’t know this from reading the novels but you’d assume it.
Tom Nickel writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about, such as Abdulrazak Gurnah and Africa.
Tom and Abdulrazak were both born on December 20, 1948. They both went to went to London to study in 1968. Abdulrazak went on to become a Professor and a Nobel Prize winner.
Tom holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.
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These are the five Gurnah novels this article is based on:
Paradise, 1994; By the Sea, 2001; Desertion, 2005; Gravel Heart, 2017; Afterlives, 2022