Tanzania shines as Zanzibar-born Gurnah wins Nobel Prize

TANZANIAN novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah has won the Nobel Prize in Literature (2021). 

He is the first Tanzanian and the latest non-western writer to win the prize following a decision by the Nobel Prize Committee today.

He becomes the second black African and the fourth African to win the award. Others before him were Nigerian author Wole Soyinka, South African John Maxell Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

To many Tanzanians, Gurnah, who lives in the United Kingdom, is a less-known writer. But to Anders Olsson, who chairs the Nobel Prize Committee, “Gurnah is widely recognised as one of the world’s most pre-eminent post-colonial writers.”

He has written 10 novels – Memory of Departure (1987), Pilgrims Way (1988), Dottie (1990), Paradise (1994), Admiring Silence (1996), By the Sea (2001), Desertion (2005), The Last Gift (2011), Gravel Heart (2017),  and Afterlives (2020). He also authored a short story – “My Mother Lived on a Farm in Africa” (2006).

Previous Nobel Prize winners came from western countries, with the USA topping the list with 373 winners. The United Kingdom has 131, German has 108 winners, as France comes a distant fourth with 69 winners. 

The Swedish Academy awarded this year’s prize worth 10 million Swedish krona ($1.14m, Tsh.2.7 bn).

As the announcement was made today afternoon, a good number of Tanzanians and friends of Tanzania went into celebration. 

Gunilla Moshi, a Swedish Church deacon and and human rights defender, said: “This is a great event for Tanzania and the rest of the world. It is a wonderful and great decision. Children will read about him and other Africans will be inspired by his achievement that has been eluding non-western authors for a long time. It’s a revolutionary decision.”

Iina Soiri, a Finnish citizen and board member of the Uongozi Institute, said: “I am in Tanzania now and we are celebrating… His books are great. I love his books. They give wonderful historical perspective to Swahili coast and colonial times. They are not boring but beautiful narrative and create characters that are believable and rich.”

Matinpuro Teemu, the executive director of the Finnish Peace Committee, said: “I think awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Abdulrazak Gurnah emphasizes the importance of understanding the legacy of colonialism that has mainly been overlooked since the 1980s in the so-called western world.”

Absalom Kibanda, author, renowned journalist and former chairman of Tanzania Editors Forum (TEF), said: “Abdulrazak Gurnah has made Tanzania proud. Through his achievement, Tanzania stands high in literary arts and literature as one among giants.”

Juha Rekola, the Emeritus International Ombudsman for the Finnish Union of Journalists, said: “It’s great the prize went to an African novelist. He’s not this far translated in Finnish, so he is not well-known here, but perhaps the Prize will change it.”

Gurnah, a Zanzibar-born Tanzanian (1948), fled to UK in 1964.

Before his retirement, he was Professor of English and Postcolonial Literatures at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

According to Zanzibar-based seasoned journalist Salim Said Salim, Gurnah was among 30 young men who fled Zanzibar out of the 1964 “political frustrations.” That is the year when Tanganyika merged with Zanzibar to form the United Republic of Tanzania.