BOOKS | A review of Afterlife: When fiction writers dip into history

By Chris Kabwato

Recently, I wrote about our lackadaisical attitude as Zimbabweans towards record-keeping, and maintaining archives (films, music, books, photographs etc).

Zimbabwe: A nation of collective amnesia

I argued that in the absence of deliberate plans by the state, corporations and philanthropic organisations to preserve our past and present, storytelling becomes a conscious political act to ensure that certain events are not erased.

This week, I would like to share my review of Afterlives, a novel by Tanzanian-British writer Abdulrazak Gurnah. It is an example of how a writer fully understands key historical events that happened in their country and creates fictional characters who must negotiate a messy and painful history.

Please read on.

Review of Afterlives

Historiography is a fascinating field. The question of how history is written and from whose point of view, is profoundly ideological. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives [Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2021] can be read as an assertion of how ordinary people’s stories matter in the context of seismic events that fundamentally disrupt their social existence.

In a 2022 interview with the United States of America’s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), Gurnah said his novel explores: How people cope, how people who are caught up in these conflicts that have nothing to do with them. How they hang on to something. How they retrieve something from the traumatic events that they are part of. But he is also concerned by the ‘callousness’ and ‘lack of responsibility’ by the perpetrators of the violence, whether they be the British, French or German.

Afterlives is the story of young people, brother and sister Ilyas and Afiya and a war renegade Hamza. The lives of these three people connect by coincidence in a small unnamed coastal town in German East Africa (Tanzania) against a background of colonial subjugation and the First World War. At the age of ten, Ilyas runs away from home and is gang-pressed into joining the Askaris fighting against the various ethnic groups resisting occupation. On his return, he learns that his parents have died and that his sister Afiya has been given over to a ‘relative’ where she is more a serf doing all the household chores than a member of that family.

Although he rescues his sister and places her under the care of the kindly raconteur Khalifa, Ilyas is soon off again to join the Germans as they battle the British in the First World War. Hamza is badly wounded fighting as part of the brutal and sadistic Askaris of the German schutztruppe. He makes his way into the same unnamed town where he will meet and fall in love with Afiya. Hamza and Alfiya marry and name their child Ilyas, after the uncle that does not return from the war. It is the younger Ilyas who will find out, years later, the sad truth of what happened to the senior Ilyas who ended up living in Germany in the aftermath of the First World War.

Gurnah’s novel uses historical dates and events intelligently as signposts to context, whilst weaving in the fictional lives of his characters into the same events:

He [Khalifa] started with the tutor the year the Germans arrived in the town and was with him for five years. Those were the years of the al Bushiri uprising, during the Arab and Waswahili coastal and caravan traders resisted the German claim that they were the rulers of the land. The Germans and the British and the French and the Belgians and the Portuguese and the Italians and whoever else had their congress and drawn their maps and signed their treaties, so this resistance was neither here nor there. The revolt was suppressed by Colonel Wissmann and his newly formed schutztruppe.

The schutztruppe play a key role in the disruption of the lives of Ilyas and Hamza:

The schuztruppe, the army of African mercenaries known as Askari under the direction of Colonel Wissmann and his German officers, was at that time made up of disbanded Nubi soldiers who had served the British against the Mahdi in Sudan and Shangaan ‘Zulu’ recruits from southern Portuguese East Africa.

It is this merciless army that terrorizes local communities and brutally puts down anti-colonial revolts that Ilyas and Hamza join, separately and unbeknown to each other. The two young people’s responses to their experiences speak to Frantz Fanon’s ‘the mutilation of the colonized people by the colonial regime.’ Khalifa’s incredulous response to Ilyas’ announcement on his intention to join the schutztruppe as they battle the British for control of Deutsch-Ostafrika is at the nub of the themes of the novel:

‘Are you mad? What has this to do with you?’ his friend asked. ‘This is between two violent and vicious invaders, one among us and the other to the north. They are fighting over who should swallow us whole. What has this to do with you?’

The backdrop of colonial violence serves as the canvas for Gurnah to draw his ordinary characters whose lives are marked by instability, displacement and trauma. The main characters lack a unifying structure they could hold on to. Afiya and Hamza’s marriage becomes an attempt to deal with their respective ghosts – the disappearance of a brother, and the trauma of violence and injury in war. However, their son Ilyas inherits their trauma, and his partial healing comes from unearthing the truth on the fate of his Germanophile uncle who ended up in a Nazi concentration camp.

Gurnah has the ability to weave a seamless multi-layered story that brings to the fore the oppression of women (Afiya’s attempt to read and write is viewed as a subversive act), the caste system and indentured labour, the Indian merchant class and the ambivalent attitude towards the colonial wars, the German missionaries and the benign influence that hides its collusion with the brutality of colonialism and the emergence of a class proud to read and speak German.

In Afterlives Gurnah succeeds in the affirmation of little people, giving a voice and a face to the ordinary women and men against the backdrop of historical events that they have no control over.

Ultimately, Gurnah is making a political statement on the need to confront history and remember the intergenerational effects of colonialism.

A lesson for our people: the past is never dead.