WHEN the Nobel Prize Committee announced on 7th October 2021 that Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah was this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, little did they know that they had triggered global celebrations and policy-related tensions in his country of birth.
Zanzibar-born Gurnah, who has lived in the United Kingdom since 1964 when he fled Zanzibar for political reasons immediately after the East African spice islands merged with Tanganyika to form the United Republic of Tanzania, happens to have UK citizenship. And the fact that he is little-known in his country of origin made local celebrations too mild to notice.
Although he is known to have authored 10 novels and one short story, apparently very few people in Tanzania have read his works. Few have heard of him. So, even when he was announced and Tanzanians were told that one of their own had achieved a prestigious award on a global scale, some of them were still asking, “who is Gurnah?”
Iina Soiri, the immediate former director of the Nordic Africa Institute, happened to be in Tanzania at the time of the announcement, and she was quoted by the SAUTI KUBWA website saying: “I am in Tanzania now and we are celebrating… His books are great. I love his books. They give wonderful historical perspectives to Swahili coast and colonial times. They are not boring but have beautiful narratives and create characters that are believable and rich.”
But Soiri, a Finnish national who serves as a board member of the Uongozi Institute in Tanzania, insisted that “many people here do not know him. This announcement caught me at the right place…I am in Dar and I know Gurnah, but four out of the Tanzanians in my company asked: ‘who?’”
The excitement of Gurnah’s achievement was amplified by the fact that he is the first Tanzanian to clinch the prize, being the second black African since 1986 when Nigerian Wole Soyinka won it. Two previous winners from Africa – John Maxwell Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer were white South Africans.
As Gurnah immediately became a trending literary name everywhere in the world, and as the President of Tanzania, Samia Suluhu Hassan, tweeted to congratulate him, debates had started on social media with some critics wondering how he would be a Tanzanian in the presence of a policy that denies its citizens a right to dual citizenship.
President Samia posted her tweet at 23:07 hours, almost 10 hours after the announcement – probably after having followed the trend of social media discussions on the matter. Translated to English, her Swahili post read: “I congratulate Mr Abdulrazak Gurnah on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature 2021. It is an honour to you, our nation Tanzania and Africa.”
Zanzibar President Hussein Mwinyi posted his tweet much later – the following day at 10:57 hours, saying: “On behalf of Zanzibaris all over the world, I commend Abdulrazak Gurnah’s win of the Nobel Prize Award in Literature. We fondly recognise your writings that are centred on discourses related to colonialism. Such landmarks bring honour not only to us but to all mankind.”
The Tanzania Government Spokesperson tweeted a congratulatory message by the Ministry of Arts, Culture and Sports.
All three posts by the governments of Zanzibar and Tanzania received more negative than positive remarks from the public. Part of an explanation to this negative response would be pointed out by investigative journalist Erick Kebendera:
“One of the reasons Tanzania can’t allow dual citizenship is (the) fear that Abdulrzak Gurnah and his parents, who fled Zanzibar to escape the persecution of Arabs during Zanzibar Revolution, would return and claim their stolen assets. And we are shamelessly celebrating his victory?”
Activist Aikande Kwayu tweeted: “The debate about the Tanzanian identity of Abdulrazak Gurnah should be an awakening call and a trigger to our government to think of the following: justice, dual citizenship, union matters, quality education and teaching. How do we do in writing and literature?”
Later on, seasoned journalist Jenerali Ulimwengu wrote: “The political history of Zanzibar and the profiles of people like Gurnah are intricately intertwined, and can cause embarrassment to those who are paid to tell lies or obfuscate facts of history. The story of Zanzibar cannot be swept under the carpet so easily.”
Former opposition presidential candidate Tundu Lissu, whose party (CHADEMA) advocates for a dual citizenship, has a lengthy response:
“I can almost swear that before yesterday 7th October 2021, not a single Tanzanian, myself included, had read any of Prof. Gurnah’s many books, or knew who he was. He left Tanzania more than half a century ago as a stateless refugee, after Tanzania violently drove him and many of his Arab and Asian community origins out of the country following the Zanzibar Revolution.
“He has never been acknowledged before as one of our own. None of his books are required readings in any of Tanzania’s schools or colleges. In comparison, we all grew up reading Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and other great African writers in our schools and colleges.
“So, as I said in my tweet yesterday, we would at the very least be honest enough and acknowledge the fact that Abdulrazak Gurnah may be of Zanzibari origin, but we’ve never accepted him as one of our own. We would spare ourselves the hypocrisy of pretending that he’s Tanzanian when we’ve never wanted him to be one of us. We would learn to live with the truth – that he is in fact a British citizen of Zanzibari origin. We would, by all means, celebrate his personal achievement and genius. But we would not pretend as if we loved him and cared for him when we in fact didn’t.
“Most importantly, his apparently sudden rise to fame should serve as a wake up call for us as a nation, to start a serious conversation about our dark and poisonous past, in order to come to terms with the violent present.
“It would wake us up to face our own racist attitudes and practices in relation to racial minorities in our midst. A vast majority of us have never really accepted our Asian and Arab minorities as fellow citizens with equal rights. Now that one of them has become world famous, it’d shame us that we drove him out of the country of his birth solely because of his race.
“If we do that we would grow as a nation and we would be worthy of being the nation that gave birth to Abdulrazak Gurnah.”
But Zitto Kabwe, an opposition leader for the Zanzibar-based party (ACT-Wazalendo), says: “It is not a matter of law. Citizenship is not nationality. Citizenship is a passport. Nationality is the origin. Abdulrazak carries a British passport but he is a Zanzibari, a Tanzanian.”
Dr. Azaveli Lwaitama, a retired university don, emphasises the same point. “Since he was born and raised in Zanzibar and his parents are Zanzibari, he qualifies to be a Tanzanian like you and me. It is right that Tanzanians who do not suffer from a mentality of racial discrimination should celebrate and feel proud that a fellow Tanzanian who lives in the diaspora has won such a prestigious prize.
“Since his literary works depict the lives of Zanzibaris at home and in exile, Diaspora Tanzanians should feel good about a slice of their lives finding its way into the consciousness of Literature in English readers all over the world. Maybe it is a lesson to Tanzanian education experts to note that Tanzanians can also make it on the global literature stage when facilitated with quality education and freedom to think and write.”