F Afterlives (Tanzania) *Kindle - Beyond Achebe: Reading the Continent

Afterlives (Tanzania) *Kindle

When he was 20 years old, Abdulrazak Gurnah fled to the UK from Zanzibar when the black population overthrew the ruling Arab government (Gurnah's family was of Arab descent) in 1968.* 19 years later he wrote his first novel at the age of 39. He spent the next three decades writing in relative commercial–though not critical–obscurity. That is, until 2021 when he won the Nobel prize for literature “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents” "Afterlives" is his latest novel which showcases his expertise in making macro issues, such as colonialism, personal and piercing. Gurnah’s 10th novel spans the timeline from early 1900s east Africa to Tanzanian independence in the early 60s. In it he tells the multi-generational story of several families struggling in an East Africa caught in the middle of a fight between a waning Germany and a desperate teetering British empire.

Exploring themes of colonialism, racism, independence, emigration and love, Gurnah unravels the lives of an abused orphan named Afiya, her brother Ilyas (gone to fight as an askari for the Germans), and a diminutive dreamer turned German Schuztruppe named Hamza. The author’s prowess is apparent as brings these three lives’ intersection into stark relief–leaving the colonial masters’ struggles as background noise. This is the mark of a great book for me–it shifts the attention of the western reader from a default focus on similar western powers and brings it to the personal level of the men and women who own the country and land–the lives that remain in countless generations.

*This is a VERY simplified explanation of the Zanzibar revolution on an island that was very ethnically diverse and hardly monolithic. 

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Key Quotes:

  • The askari left the land devastated, its people starving and dying in the hundreds of thousands, while they struggled on in their blind and murderous embrace of a cause whose origins they did not know and whose ambitions were vain and ultimately intended for their domination.
  • The war crushed those niceties out of him and showed him staggering visions of brutality that taught him humility. These thoughts filled him with sorrow, which he thought was the inescapable fate of man.



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