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book cover of afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah


It was studying English literature at university that animated my interest in postcolonialism. Only in the course of my studies and research in this discipline did I come to learn about German colonialism. Abdulrazak Gurnah’s English-language novel Afterlives is the very first novel I have read that is set in German East Africa. Gurnah is a Tanzanian author and lives in Great Britain. I’ve discovered that some of his earlier works also negotiate the historical context of Tanzania at the beginning of the 20th century. After Afterlives, I am looking forward to reading these as well.

Although Ilyas himself doesn’t make too many appearances, Afterlives ultimately revolves around him. Ilyas speaks German, the language of the colonists, and this opens many doors for him. He learned German through a relatively lucky turn of events: He ran away from the poverty of his family, and met a group of Askari – African soldiers – who were working with the German troops. Instead of enlisting him as a servant of an Askari, a German lieutenant sends him to a coffee plantation, where he has the opportunity of learning German, as well as to read and write, in a mission school. He passes on his skills to his little sister Afiya, who lives with him for a short time. But then war breaks out between the various colonial powers in the region and Ilyas volunteers to join the German forces. He appreciates the Germans and wants to fight for them. As a result, he leaves his sister behind, who waits for him, but never hears from him again.

Hamza has also volunteered to become an Askari. However, he is less impressed by the Germans and their troops than Ilyas. By joining, he hopes to improve his life, despite the hard discipline and brutality of the German soldiers and the equally harsh African Askari. Hamza is called a dreamer and doesn’t quite fit in. All the Germans and Askari are suspicious of the fact that a German general wants to teach him to read Schiller. Only with luck does Hamza survive the armed conflicts and the constant violence the troops face.

All the characters are connected through Khalifa, a Gujarati clerk. They witness regime changes – the British replace the German colonial rulers and finally Tanzania becomes independent – and yet they are mainly concerned with earning a living, with staying healthy and with not letting themselves be defeated by personal and historical setbacks. With an awareness for the gendered dimensions of human experiences, Afterlives conveys how people maintain their dignity and remain steadfast – though in different ways, as it turns out, as the secret of Ilya’s disappearance is revealed. These personal destinies and their close connection to European colonialism open up important perspectives that urgently require more attention.

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