In his tenth novel, Tanzanian author and academic Abdulrazak Gurnah follows three characters whose lives have been shaped by colonialism in Deutsch-Ostafrika. As these interlinked friends and survivors come and go, live and work and fall in love, the shadow of a new war lengthens and darkens, ready to snatch them up and carry them away.
Afterlives is set in East Africa before, during, and after the First World War at a time when Germans, the British, the French and the Belgians divided up the continent. This period and the events that took place are described as a “forgotten piece of African colonial history”. How has this part of history been forgotten? And how many more stories are still to be discovered?
Quite a lot of African colonial history is forgotten in the popular British imagination, with a few exceptions, including South Africa and the Boer Wars, David Livingstone, Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. The history is not forgotten by everybody. Historians of colonialism study this period and these events, as do the people who live in these parts of the formerly colonised world. So perhaps your question could be: how has this part of history slipped through the popular memory of the First World War? Part of the answer is probably that there was not very much British glory to report. Very few British troops were involved. It was a dogged hit-and-run guerilla war which the German-led troops probably had the better of. Most of the soldiers and all the carriers were Africans. The greatest casualties were among African civilians who died from starvation and the consequences of the violence in their midst. For them it was a terrible and devastating war and not at all forgotten.
Tell us about your research into the lives of people living in East Africa during colonialism.
I was born and grew up in Zanzibar at a time when we were still colonised, so the first impulse towards writing about these events came from my own experience. Much of the novel covers the period before I was born, but stories of that earlier time were around us as we grew up, some of them told by relatives who had been part of the war. The additional research accumulated over the years, from my reading and in my work as an academic, and from the usual writerly luck, when a detail comes out of the blue and sticks.
How did the characters of Ilyas, Afiya and Hamza come to you and at what point did you decide their stories would interlink?
Hamza came first, as a casualty of the war trying to make a recovery. Afiya was also a casualty, of poverty and of gender and neglect, and she too has a life to retrieve, so linking them was always a strong narrative possibility. Ilyas came from reading about an askari [local soldier serving colonial powers] veteran who went to Germany after the First World War. His story, which I heavily fictionalised, provided the idea and allowed me to explore the choices people made and the sides they took.
Hamza is left scarred by a problematic relationship with a German officer after volunteering to join the Schutztruppe. How important was it for you to explore the long-term impact of abuses of power?
I said just a moment ago that Hamza came first but the officer came with him. I wanted to suggest or to hint at the equivocal motivation of the oppressor, whose capacity for empathy or even love is compromised or disabled by his exercise of power. The officer cannot show his affection for the young soldier, and perhaps cannot allow himself to understand the nature of it.
How do the events that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries continue to leave their mark on the region?
The region we are talking about was known as Deutsch-Ostafrika. In the immediate aftermath of the war, large parts of the country in the south were depopulated. The British administration that took over renamed the country Tanganyika. There is an important detail here. In the negotiations that followed the end of the First World War, Germany was dispossessed of her colonies, which came under the administration of the newly-created League of Nations. The territory the British took over and renamed Tanganyika was a mandate of the League of Nations. The understanding was that it was not a colony but a territory that was to be prepared for independence. That sly tail-piece there – prepared for independence – was the beginning of the end for European colonialism in Africa, although it took another 50 years before its fulfilment. How did all these events leave their mark? European colonialism transformed the world, and now the formerly colonised have to find their way out of the complex and sometimes crushing legacy it left behind.
To what extent can fiction help us to confront the truths about colonialism?
Fiction can help us imagine fully the conditions and circumstances they depict. Historical writing does this as well, and I often find that when I have read a novel about a period I did not know about, I want to read historical accounts to deepen my understanding of what I have read.
I think the two kinds of narratives inform and enrich each other.
Can former colonial powers ever make up for what was stolen and lost?
They should but it is not just the powers that stole but their representatives as well, and the stealing has become complicated by other dealings and resellings. It will take a while to sort out but we are moving that way. Such discussions would have seemed completely impossible a decade or two ago, but now we hear various institutions expressing an interest and contrition, so let’s see what that comes to.
The murder of George Floyd and this year’s Black Lives Matter protests have opened up a new conversation about structural racism in the UK. What steps need to be made to address racial inequalities?
It is not that the injustices were unknown before. The steps that need to be taken are to put an end to the injustices and not to ignore them or to issue defensive diatribes against those who campaign for their termination.