A Novel that Reckons With German Colonialism in East Africa

Nobel Prize Winner Abdulrazak Gurnah, author of "Afterlives," writes literature that challenges complicity and state violence

European settlers in German Southwest Africa, ca. 1911 via Wikimedia Commons

In 2021, Abdulrazak Gurnah, author of ten novels, including By the Sea, Paradise, and Desertion, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 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.” Gurnah’s newest novel, Afterlives, which captures the devastating effects of German colonial rule in East Africa, is enriched by his deep knowledge of the subject, which he became familiar with both through firsthand stories from friends and family and through his own subsequent years of research. 

In Afterlives, Gurnah tells the story of intertwined characters who seek connection despite the ways that colonization has ravaged—and continues to destroy—the landscape, their lives, and their futures. There is Ilyas, who is stolen as a child by German colonial troops and forced into the war. When he returns to what was once his home, he finds that his parents are gone and his sister, Afiya, has been given away to a different family, where she is beaten and forced to work for no pay. There is Hamza, who voluntarily joins the Schutztruppe and goes to war, “a nightmare.” Hamza is taught German by an officer who shows him kindness laced with a cruelty that taints every interaction. When the characters meet, they all bear scars, both visible and not, from a war that has inflicted harm upon them, even if they are not on the frontlines or even of the same generation.

I spoke to Gurnah over Zoom about writing into history, balancing hopefulness with the weight of harm, the power of story, and what winning the Nobel Prize has meant for him and his work. 

Jacqueline Alnes: This story is set in a landscape ravaged by countless violences; colonization harms people, relationships, the earth, bodies, entire towns, industries, futures. Everything seems so intertwined. How did you approach writing about colonization and its effects in Afterlives, in particular?

Abdulrazak Gurnah: It was the nature of colonialism to be overwhelming. Essentially, suddenly a group of strangers arrives and says, “We are running this place. We are running the show.” This means that everybody, sooner or later, will say, “You’re not.” Sooner or later, they have to be slapped down or otherwise subdued. Because of the political structure of many of the places—not all—that were colonized, certainly in that part of Africa, the European nations that arrived with their military forces weren’t dealing with a nation. They were not dealing with a state. They were working with groups of people who were competing or negotiating or getting on or not getting on. So, in a way, they could actually deal with one group at a time. 

In the case of somewhere like Afterlives, that landscape, the Germans were at war from 1886 or 1887, whatever year it was that they decided to claim that part of the world, they were at war from then until, literally, the territory was taken away from them in 1918. In other words, that state was coercive and violent and, generally speaking, unwelcome. The appearance of the Germans in East Africa was, from the beginning, a military operation, an invasion. It was a little bit like the Spanish people arriving in Mexico, or something like that. 

There was no conversation; it was conquest. It’s not surprising that the entire episode is just so full of violent anger, given also that the Germany that existed in that period was already a militarized state. 

JA: In an interview with The Guardian, you talk about the lack of knowledge that British people hold about “less glamorous histories,” meaning they are aware of their own geography, but have very little knowledge of places outside that. Though I’m in the U.S., while reading Afterlives, I’ll confess that I was made very aware of my own lack of knowledge about the presence of Germany in East Africa. The book itself alludes to the idea that there is an extensive history chronicled, but many of the documents and records are from the colonizers, the Germans. What does inhabiting history through your work mean to you? 

AG: All colonial history is written—or at least what’s available to the general reader—in the West, would be the ones of the colonizing powers. Very little from the colonized. But I grew up there. I grew up with these stories from relatives who had, in some respects, been involved either as conscripts or later on in the second world war as volunteers with the colonial forces. And these are stories that were always around us, some of them mythic: the Germans were like this, the British were like that, and so on. But this is how stories are translated. To me, it wasn’t new to people in our modern-day Tanzania, it wasn’t news at all. This is not something unknown. This is something fully known. In some cases, in the area in particular in the Southern part of what was German South West Africa, where the Herero people lived, you may remember from the book. After they were defeated, their leader was beheaded and brought back to Germany as a trophy. Well, just a while ago, that head has been returned to its place of origin. 

This is still a living history. It isn’t something so far distant that people are unaware of it. A museum has just been opened in that part of Tanzania in Iringa, which is to commemorate the German presence in that part of Tanzania. So my point is that it isn’t news. It’s something that bears revisiting because details are also worth looking at again, even if you know the story. It’s very good to know more. For other people, in Germany, Britain, the United States, Argentina, this is news.

I guess that’s what makes writing interesting and worth doing, that you are able to say, “Let me tell you about this.” Literature is about pleasure and challenging certain ideas or injustices, but it’s also about bringing the news and telling us about things that we didn’t know about at all or knew very little about. That’s one of the fun things about reading about other places.

JA: This book, as much as it chronicles the violences of colonization in real time, also foreshadows the long shadow of harm still to come. What do you hope present day readers take away from reading this account? 

AG: I’ll mention that I hope they enjoy it.

JA: Which I did!

AG: Excellent. I want it to be engaging because I hope it makes the world smaller, in a sense. I remember reading Goethe, the German poet, when he was launching himself on his project of world literature, read a novel written by a Chinese writer and said, “My god, they’re just like us!” He was kind of surprised at this possibility that they weren’t so different. It doesn’t have to be that dramatic, but that’s one of the things you get from reading about these things we don’t know. We think: they’re just like me, or I am just like that. I hope that these things don’t seem outlandish, like something that would happen on the moon, but that people would read this history and think that now they understand something about the period, about the episode, about how colonialism works and I guess it’s contemporary meaning. 

There are still people in denial about what happened or want to see that colonialism was a wholly beneficial or benign project. Or want to believe the myth of civilization rather than self-serving greed and violence. And, also, complicity. What does it matter to us if this had happened? Do we bear any responsibility? Clearly, Germany does. The British are more reluctant about it, but the German state has embraced this idea and is paying millions in reparations to southwest Africa—Namibia now—for the Herero people. It doesn’t repair lives, of course, but it’s a symbolic gesture to say we take responsibility for what we did. There is a contemporary dimension to all of this, to say that these are not just things that happened; they are things that still have to be accounted for and how people understand themselves and their history and their responsibility to others. 

JA: While thinking about this book in the weeks after reading, the glow of love between characters and a certain sense of hopefulness stuck with me, despite the fact that this is such a devastating portrait of the effects of colonization. For you, what is the balance between our capacity to love and bear the weight of harm? 

AG: We can’t escape harm, unfortunately, sooner or later. Maybe lucky people or people in peaceful or lucky states or societies can, but in your rich and prosperous country, every day we hear stories of mass shootings and various other harm going on. State harm is different, of course. Harm, at least in that period, in that episode, is not escapable entirely. It does seem to me that we, human beings, have a capacity for retrieving something from this harm. You see it in the way that victims of war and violence are able to rebuild their lives. You see it in the way that people who individually, or in small ways, suffer psychological damage and can retrieve something from that. I admire this and I have written about this in many of the books that I have written. This is an example, I suppose, of Hamza and Afiya are two people who have gone through traumatic experiences and are able to retrieve something from that. They are able to do it because of love and generosity. That’s how it is. Despite violence and cruelty, there is still an ability to get something out of it, somehow, and come away with something that allows life to go on. 

JA: Stories play such an important role in the lives of many of these characters; they serve as a form of shared joy on the porch, allow for agency, enable escapism sometimes, and contribute to a greater collective narrative as well. As someone who has written so many books, what do you think is the power of story? 

All colonial history is written—or at least what’s available to the general reader—in the West, would be the ones of the colonizing powers. Very little from the colonized.

AG: If you are reading something that engages you, then what engages you is a degree of involvement with people’s minds and lives and dilemmas they face and how they resolve them, and that kind of thing. One aspect of story is how we live ourselves, simply because that’s how we think. We think and narrate lives to ourselves. And the other thing is that stories are a way to express a world view, especially in a storytelling culture, that is to say one that is not fully dominated by a TV, say. Or one that is not fully dominated by image. People talk to each other. People sit around, outside and inside their homes. In that respect, that’s what I mean by expressing a world view. As people tell stories, that’s how they view the world, that’s how they understand what’s going on around them. They don’t read newspapers—I mean, maybe now they do more, but in the period I was writing about in Afterlives they wouldn’t have been reading about the news. They would hve been telling each other about it and comparing stories. 

Stories do that; they express a world view. They are very important. We are assimilating that world view, sharing it, solidifying it, and creating a communal resource, a way of expressing solidarity. Stories work to make culture, make society. And then also, they are entertaining. It’s important as a way of passing on literature, by which I mean if you don’t have libraries, or if people are not literate, as they probably were not universally in that period that I’m writing about, then what we call literature, poetry, storytelling and the pleasure we get from that, is conveyed orally by a storyteller. There are all sorts of ways that stories are essential to human society, whether we read them in books, tell them to each other, or watch them on TV. They are all stories.

JA: What did you learn from telling this story of Afterlives, in particular? 

AG: For myself, I learned that I enjoyed writing, still.

JA: Always good to figure that out.

AG: Yes, it was good. It was pleasurable to write, partly because I had just retired from my academic life, so it was the first time that I was actually able to do nothing but write, if I wanted to. I could work at a good pace, without rushing.

The other thing is I got to do a lot of reading. I knew quite a lot about this material because of my work, but I was able to do some focused reading and I found out a lot of things I didn’t know as a result. For example, about the diseases and health programs that were brought in and carried out. European medicine was still something quite new and miraculous. In some ways, it was miraculous because there were so many advances in medicine in that period. In a way, if you’re thinking about the benefit of colonialism—incidental, not intentional—then that was one: the arrival or introduction of medical discoveries. Germ theory, for example, various forms of epidemics that were identified, like cholera. 

I found out a lot more about the processes of German colonization, most interesting was that I found the story with which the book ends. Some people say, “Don’t tell me, don’t tell me,” so I won’t, but it was more or less a real story. It was interesting to discover other stories by former soldiers or people who became stranded in Germany during the Nazi period. It was a good book to write and a very interesting book for me to research. 

JA: When you were talking about the incidental benefits, something that crossed my mind is that there was the potential for so much connection and shared experience through Hamza learning German. On the surface, in a different situation, learning a shared language seems like it could be such a beautiful space for building community cross-culturally. But instead, for Hamza, his knowledge of German is sometimes weaponized against him. 

As people tell stories, that’s how they view the world, that’s how they understand what’s going on around them.

AG: My idea in the officer teaching Hamza German and leaving him with a copy of Schiller is that there is a sort of tenderness in his embrace of the boy. Some readers have wondered whether there is a sexual interest there, but it doesn’t matter if there is or not. What I think I was after there is that even agents of such violent or ideologically driven violence like colonialism, even agents of that are divided themselves. They can recognize the humanity of those who they are subjecting in this way. This division cannot be acknowledged because to acknowledge it is to say: I can see that this person is just as human as I am but I am still going to treat them terribly. That would be a very difficult thing to think about or to say. The acts of kindness, then, are disguised as something else so they don’t seem like weakness. They don’t seem like an admission of guilt or being involved in an unworthy project. This was also trying to tease out the officer’s relationship with Hamza. He can’t quite say I look after you as well as I can, but at the same time he does.

JA: I would be remiss not to ask one last question: What has it been like to win the Nobel Prize? 

AG: It’s been really wonderful, of course. For any writer, its reception is global, which means everybody, whether they are big readers or not, gets to know about it. For some reason, perhaps because of who has been awarded it in the past, it has such enormous respect. Nobody says, “Oh, what a load of rubbish this thing is.” Everybody is aware of it. For that, it’s great. I feel very honored and proud to be included in the line of many writers I admire. 

The other brilliant thing about it is that people want to publish the books in their own languages. There are new editions in many, many different languages and places where I never thought anyone would want to read my books, but they are going there. That’s wonderful. And readers, all the people wanting to talk, like you, about the work. Finding new readers, books getting around, books coming back for reprinting. For a writer, what can be better than that? 

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