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Tanzanians Are Very Proud of the Nobel Winner We Haven’t Read

In a country divided over identity and language, literature can be tricky.

By , an independent consultant based in Tanzania.
The author Abdulrazak Gurnah
Zanzibar-born author Abdulrazak Gurnah poses for a photo after he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, in London on Oct. 8. Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

On the evening of Oct. 7, I was minding my own business at home in a suburb of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when a message pinged in from a Polish friend: “Congratulations for the Nobel Prize in Literature for A. Gurnah.” I had no idea who he was talking about, although the name rang a faint bell. One Wikipedia read later, and I was able to respond, “Thank you kindly! Well deserved. I haven’t read much of his work but it is a pleasure that a Zanzibari has won.”

The truth is that I, like the vast bulk of Tanzanians, hadn’t read Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Zanzibar-born author who left aged 18. He is a relatively unknown author—not unusual for Nobel laureates. But what might be novel in the case of Gurnah is just how truly obscure he is in Tanzania. That didn’t mean we weren’t delighted and elated by the news. But the obscurity of Gurnah in his home country until this month has brought up some tough questions about our own identity, literary culture, and divisions.

Tanzania is a union between Tanganyika and the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, which comprises the main island of Unguja, which most people call Zanzibar; Pemba to its north; and a scattering of smaller islands. That’s why I was careful to call Gurnah a Zanzibari, not a Tanzanian, although when he left the country in about 1966 the two had already formed the United Republic of Tanzania. But I have reason to be sensitive to the delicate matter of citizenship in my beloved and sometimes frightening country, where nationality can be weaponized.

On the evening of Oct. 7, I was minding my own business at home in a suburb of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, when a message pinged in from a Polish friend: “Congratulations for the Nobel Prize in Literature for A. Gurnah.” I had no idea who he was talking about, although the name rang a faint bell. One Wikipedia read later, and I was able to respond, “Thank you kindly! Well deserved. I haven’t read much of his work but it is a pleasure that a Zanzibari has won.”

The truth is that I, like the vast bulk of Tanzanians, hadn’t read Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Zanzibar-born author who left aged 18. He is a relatively unknown author—not unusual for Nobel laureates. But what might be novel in the case of Gurnah is just how truly obscure he is in Tanzania. That didn’t mean we weren’t delighted and elated by the news. But the obscurity of Gurnah in his home country until this month has brought up some tough questions about our own identity, literary culture, and divisions.

Tanzania is a union between Tanganyika and the semi-autonomous archipelago of Zanzibar, which comprises the main island of Unguja, which most people call Zanzibar; Pemba to its north; and a scattering of smaller islands. That’s why I was careful to call Gurnah a Zanzibari, not a Tanzanian, although when he left the country in about 1966 the two had already formed the United Republic of Tanzania. But I have reason to be sensitive to the delicate matter of citizenship in my beloved and sometimes frightening country, where nationality can be weaponized.

That sense of identity is still evolving. There is a movement for an independent Zanzibar that doesn’t usually make the international press until general elections invariably result in repression on the isles—before, during, and after the voting process. Tanzania, birthed six decades ago, continues to scream its way into the world, full of contradictions and hidden violence and dangerous secrets, yet somehow it works. The price of keeping it working has been the sacrifice of various forms of truth, including historical accuracy, journalistic, freedom and artistic integrity: all the dangerous stuff. Gurnah’s win brings up a lot of these painful questions, even if swathed in the comforting glow of an international victory.

When I turned to social media to find out what reactions were to this excellent news, I found a delightful conflagration. There were exuberant congratulations and a burst of national pride that Tanzania had won this distinguished prize. But Gurnah being identified as Zanzibari cracked the door open to discussions of a painful past that remains largely unexamined and unresolved. The bloody revolutions that helped forge the union between then-Tanganyika and Zanzibar left a painful legacy behind. Race, class, religion, and even gender were brought up—all of our lurking schisms.

For a peaceful and stable country, Tanzania has a long and deep memory and a mean streak that is best left dormant. But writers have this penchant for “unending exploration,” as the Nobel citation put it. They like to poke at old wounds, even when everyone else pretends the pain has gone away.

Thus, perhaps tellingly, Tanzanians did not talk much about Gurnah’s actual body of work. He is a retired professor who lives in England and writes in English, and we are a society with a strong anti-intellectual streak that is currently rejecting bilingualism under the guise of national pride. There’s an ongoing discussion about the role and place of English, the language of the colonizer but also a gateway to the world, in Tanzanian education—one that often gets caught up in nationalistic narratives.

None of that stopped an increasingly autocratic ruling party, which has dominated Tanzania since its formation, claiming Gurnah as a child of the nation.

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to accuse us of being an anti-intellectual society. The work that is required to shape a post-colonial, modern nation-state is so overwhelmingly vast that it’s no wonder we often fail at it. But the anti-intellectualism used by the government in suppressing critical thinking and dissent is part of the design, and as such literature has been severely constrained. Yes, this is in part by circumstance, because as a poor country we really do have trouble delivering basic literacy to citizens, but it is also on purpose, because what we choose to consider appropriate literature has already—by being deigned appropriate—been censored and curated for us. What use, then, do we have for the likes of Gurnah, an exile who writes about the difficult interstices, the questions, the memories, and the longings?

But if these stories became part of our public curriculum, what fires might we light in young Tanzanian minds, and what else might they discover? No, no. The government prefers to tell us that we are an oral culture and that too much reading is an elite pursuit of the leisured class.

By winning the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, Gurnah has done Tanzania, the Swahili Coast, and Africa a great service. He has complicated matters. He forced us to talk about who we are and who is not part of the “we.” About how we got here in the first place, and where we want to go. About the dismal state of our literature, both who gets to write it and who reads it—or doesn’t. and about memory and how that is passed on, the tyranny of the official history.

This moment will not last. In fact, by the time you read this the discussion about Gurnah and the Nobel Prize may well have faded into the background, overtaken by the latest scandal or triumph as our restless social conversation dictates. But Gurnah is there now, part of our conversation. Subsequent discussions about arts and literature, history and identity will be influenced by his works’ place our collective reality from now on. It will continue to challenge our complacency, which is his wonderful gift to us.

One last thing. I have always admired Zanzibari command of language both in Kiswahili and in English, the graciousness and subtlety. What Zanzibaris say and how they say it fascinates me, especially what they choose not to say at all. President Hussein Mwinyi of Zanzibar sent his congratulations on Twitter to Gurnah, thanking him on behalf of all Zanzibaris for this historic honor. In turn, Gurnah dedicated his win on Twitter to Africa and all Africans. He told Larry Madowo of CNN that he is Zanzibari, Tanzanian, and British. “All of them,” said the author of the intimate in-between spaces, the journeys, and the feelings they produce. All of them.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for the Mikocheni Report, based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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