Tanzania in the limelight after Abdulrazak Gurnah's Nobel honour

Abdulrazak Gurnah: accidental author and voice of displaced

How many reading this article knew the name Abdulrazak Gurnah?

Who is Abdulrazak Gurnah?

He is the winner of the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature, considered the highest award any professional can claim globally.

There have been varied discussions (online and media) about this unknown man. Of course, Gurnah is a gifted writer, and I personally read one of his most known novels (Paradise) many years ago. Back in 1994, it was shortlisted (i.e. almost won) for the UK’s Booker and Whitbread prizes. That says a lot about this guy.

The discussions around Gurnah’s winning of $1 million for his Nobel nomination have been endless.

Journalist Sammy Awami’s article hollered: “In Tanzania, Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win sparks both joy and debate.”

Part of the debate is that the man has not been living in Tanzania.

How do you identify with a country?

Hey. Look at the Tanzanian community overseas. There are those who never miss conferences, weddings, parties, political forums. Or live here and just call themselves Tanzanians but don’t BOTHER with social gatherings. They even wouldn’t know the current Minister for Finance. Might have heard of President Magufuli’s death in March 2021, but hardly mourned. Then the third group. Left ages ago ...and... do not want to EVER return. Probably still hold grudges. Hardly teach their children KISWAHILI...they have adapted other lingos, passports and cultures. Every now and then (once a year perhaps) they might do something Tanzanian. Like cook ugali. Or acknowledge where they were born. They can be Asian or African. Proud to have be born in Mwanza , Moshi or Tanga. However, that is just blah blah. They don’t give a hoot!

But who is Abdulrazak Gurnah?

He was born in Zanzibar (December 1948) and fled in 1967.

Historically, 1967 is a star year.

Early this week, the social media blogger Maggid Mjengwa posted an archive photo (in Instagram) of Mwalimu Nyerere and Rashidi Kawawa leading a marathon walk in support of the 1967 Arusha Declaration. Said Mjengwa in Swahili, “These guys preached what they believed in. Ujamaa.”

Many Tanzanians flew out in 1967. The most celebrated was the late Oscar Kambona, main opponent of Mwalimu Nyerere and Tanu’s ujamaa philosophy.

So who is Abdulrazak Gurnah?

Writers and artists never leave a place. They have a duty to their skill and conscience. A writer is endlessly searching, creating and inspiring. It doesn’t matter where they live. What food they eat. Or their car preference nor the colour of their socks. It’s all about the duty of the arts.

In the masterpiece Paradise, Gurnah writes, “Respect yourself and others will come to respect you. That is true about all of us, but especially true about women. That is the meaning of honour.”

A colourless, frontier-less, universal statement.

So who is THIS Abdulrazak Gurnah?

Many Tanzanians had (and have) never heard of Gurnah. Not just because they didn’t know him. Why should you know people who left 50 years ago? You were probably not yet born.

They don’t know him because they DON’T READ books. Not just books. They don’t read books written in English. Swahili rules Tanzania. English is used as well, but not as much as in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, our neighbours. Having said that, not many read Swahili books anyway. The majority of excellent Swahili writers hail from Zanzibar. Adam Shafi. Mohammed Said Mohammed, Said Ahmed Mohamed, to cite a few. It’s actually no surprise that Gurnah won the esteemed Nobel Prize.

There is a tradition of writing on the islands. In 1998, Adam Shafi won the Writers Prize in Tanzania. Vuta Nkuvute, the amazing book, is now a feature film.

In 2018, Zainab Baharoon won the Mabati Cornell Prize. She is not just brilliant, she is female (like the honourable President of the Republic.) Yes, Zanzibar has a tradition of writing and clever minds.

So...THEN...who is Abdulrazak Gurnah?

Gurnah has a collection of at least 12 novels and various essays. He is professor of English and post-colonial literatures in the UK. His entire life has been around literature and writing. And he has made us known, and we should dig deeper.

The London-based Swahili lecturer at School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), Dr Ida Hadjivayanis, was quoted telling Al Jazeera, “Gurnah is an author who speaks the truth. The characters in his books are familiar. Their link to home (Tanzania and especially Zanzibar) often hits a chord.”

Dr Hadjivayanis is currently translating Paradise into Swahili.

This says much about Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah.

Maybe we should not just check him out, but start reading books as well. And what else? We should write more books. Whatever his personal story and circumstances, he has inspired us.