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Abdulrazak Gurnah: Afterlives

There are quite a few African novels about British and French colonialism but relatively few about German colonialism. This book implies that there are quite a few in German but relatively few come to mind. I can think of only two on this site: perhaps surprisingly Thomas Pynchon‘s V, which mentions the brutal treatment of the Herero in Namibia by the Germans and William Boyd‘s An Ice-Cream War, about World War I in East Africa between the British and the Germans, an issue which comes up in this book.

This novel tells the story of a few connected people in what was the German East Africa,became Tanganyika and then Tanzania, starting around the turn of the nineteenth/twentieth centuries. While the earlier characters are affected one way or the other by the German colonisation, they are, with one exception, not at the forefront of the brutality, though they and we very much hear about it, including the brutal repression of rebellions, both with military power as well as scorched earth tactics, leading to mass starvation of the population.

We start with Khalifa. Thanks to his father’s Gujarati connections, he gets a job in a small bank where he stays for eleven years. (Khalifa has an Indian father and African mother.) On one occasion, thanks to a bribe he accepts, he helps a merchant called Amur Biashara. (For Khalifa, the modesty of the bribe allowed him to suppress any feeling of guilt at betraying his employers. He told himself he was acquiring experience in business, which was also about knowing its crooked ways.)

Amur Biashara later gives Khalifa a job as he himself could not write the Roman alphabet and Khalifa can. Khalifa thought he might be more involved in the business but he is not, to his disappointment. Nevertheless, the job is not a bad one. As regards his boss, no passing stranger could have mistaken him for anything but a modest or even saintly member of the community, but people knew otherwise and spoke of his cut-throat ways and his rumoured wealth with admiration. His secretiveness and ruthlessness in business were thought essential qualities in a merchant.

A few years later, he learns that his mother, whom he had not seen for some time, has died. He hurries to the village, where he finds that his father is also dying, both victims of malaria.

Back at work, Amur Biashara offers Khalifa his niece, Asha Fuadi, as his wife. He is now thirty-one and accepts. He first meets her only after the wedding. It seems that her father had borrowed a lot of money from Amur Biashara and that now that both parents had died, Amur Biashara owns the house, given in security to Amur, so someone is needed to look after her and Khalifa gets the job.

Asha has three miscarriages and through she is a good Muslim, she goes to a spiritualist for help and is told that Khalifa must give up snuff, go to Mecca and go regularly to the mosque. Khalifa agrees but does not do any of the tasks. Amur suddenly gets ill and dies and his son Nassor, more interested in carpentry than business, takes over and is fleeced of large sums of money.

While we are following these events, we are learning of various rebellions against the Germans and the brutal repression used by the Germans to put them down: The Maji Maji victory left hundreds of thousands dead from starvation and many hundreds more from battlefield wounds or by public execution.

Khalifa will soon meet Ilyas and they become firm friends. Ilyas had run away from home, been bullied by an askari and rescued by a German officer. The German wants to show that the Germans are civilised and he helps Ilyas, eventually getting him a job on a sisal plantation.

Khalifa suggests to Ilyas, remembering his own situation, that Ilyas should visit his own parents which he eventually does, only to find that both are dead and that he has a young sister, Afiya, who has been handed over to an uncle and aunt. We soon learn that she is very badly treated and Ilyas rescues her and take her back with him.

We are now in 1914 and World War I. The Germans are recruiting locals to help fight the British and Ilyas, a keen supporter of the German because of the help they gave him, signs up, despite being strongly discouraged from doing so. The Germans are gifted and clever people. They know how to organise, they know how to fight. They think of everything … and on top of that they are much kinder than the British, he says, to which one of his friends responds in the thirty years or so that they have occupied this land, the Germans have killed so many people that the country is littered with skulls and bones and the earth is soggy with blood. I am not exaggerating.

While he is away, Afiya is returned to the uncle and aunt. She has now had something of an education. However, when her uncle sees her writing on a slate (he is illiterate), he viciously beats her as it is, of course, immoral for a girl to write. She gets a message to Khalifa, who rescues her.

We do not, however follow Ilyas’ experience in World War I but that of a new character, Hamza. Hamza has joined up to escape from something but we do not know what till much later. He finds life under the Germans very hard but a German officer takes to him – there are clear homosexual implications here – and he becomes the officer’s batman. We follow the harsh life there, the declaration of World War I and how the Germans, who are outnumbered, do not go quietly, fighting to the bitter end and being very cruel to the native population. 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.

Gurnah is highly critical of both sides saying that the locals are slaughtering and being slaughtered by armies of people they knew nothing about: Punjabis and Sikhs, Fantis and Akans and Hausas and Yorubas, Kongo and Luba, all mercenaries who fought the Europeans’ wars for them.

We know, of course, that the British eventually win though not without their difficulties. Hamza is wounded (by a German) shortly before the end but he manages to make it back and goes to the town where he lived, which happens to be the town where Khalifa and Co live. He even gets a job there and we continue to follow him, Khalifa and Afriya.

We continue to follow the stories of Khalifa, Hamza and Afriya, as well as a new-born called Ilyas, named after the still missing Ilyas. Though we do not get as nearly as much detail, we follow events up to past Tanzanian independence in 1961. Indeed in the latter part of the book, current political events are glossed over to follow the story line of our main characters.

It is clear that Gurnah is far more interested in the period of German occupation. As we see with Ilyas Senior, not everyone thought the Germans were wicked though clearly most did, if only because they were so brutal. However, while the brutality is repeatedly mentioned, particularly during World War I when we are following Hamza and the troop he is with, Gurnah is mainly interested in how the lives of the local population continue and how they are affected, if only indirectly by the Germans.

He does get into British occupation and, while he sees the British as more efficient administrators, they are still very racist, as we see with the settlers who wanted to remove all Africans from Kenya and make it what they called A White Man’s Country, and those who wanted to remove all Indians and only allow in Europeans but keep the Africans as labourers and servants, with a sprinkling of some savage pastoralists in a reserve for spectacle.

Gurnah tells an excellent story of various individuals while giving us a first-class portrait of Tanzania and its predecessor states and, in particular the German occupation. The individuals struggle but do manage to survive under colonisation and, of course find ways round it, e.g. by smuggling. Of course, as in any good novel it is more about the people than the politics.

Publishing history

First published by Bloomsbury in 2020