Abdulrazak Gurnah nobel prize

Zanzibari novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah.


Nobel Literature glory comes to Uswahilini but not to Kiswahili

What you need to know:

  • However, I realised on closer reflection that there are quite a few links between Abdulrazak Gurnah and us, beyond our Uswahilini citizenship.
  • I would have been happier if the first Nobel Literature Prize to come to East Africa went to someone who writes in our language, Kiswahili.

A Mswahili, Prof Abdulrazak Gurnah, was awarded the 2021 Nobel Literature Prize last Thursday, October 7. Remember that, for me, a Mswahili is you, every East African and every citizen of a Kiswahili-speaking land. Thus, when surgeon Dr Denis Mukwege of the DRC won the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his work among the victims of sexual violence, I saluted him as a Mswahili.

Uswahilini is our Eastern African homeland, and we have reason to rejoice that, for the first time in its more than 120-year history, the Nobel Prize for Literature has come to our shores. We congratulate Ndugu Abdulrazak, from Zanzibar (Tanzania), on this unique achievement. We say Alhamdulillah!

I have not met Abdulrazak Gurnah in person. Two previous winners of the prize, whom I felt specially proud and privileged to have met, in their pre-laureate days, are Wole Soyinka and the late Sir “V. S.” Naipaul. These are no achievements on my part, merely the perks of a long life in this loquacious field.

That said, however, I realised on closer reflection that there are quite a few links between Abdulrazak Gurnah and us, beyond our Uswahilini citizenship. One of my own offspring, for example, earned his MBA in banking at the University of Kent at Canterbury, where Gurnah studied and is now Emeritus Professor. The University is also the alma mater of our current CS for Foreign Affairs, Ambassador Raychelle Omamo.

Moreover, the Department of English Literature, where Prof Gurnhah teaches, was founded by my former Literature professor in Dar es Salaam, the late Molly Maureen Mahood. Those of you who have been reading me over the years may remember my telling you of this fascinating Anglo-Irish scholar who was a teacher and personal friend to a host of African literati, including Wole Soyinka and – myself.

Writes in our language

After about thirty years divided among teaching posts at Oxford, Ibadan and Dar es Salaam, Molly Mahood returned to England, to head the English Literature Department at the then-new University of Kent at Canterbury. I do not have all the records but I assume that Abdulrazak studied under Molly Mahood there in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The lady Prof probably influenced Gurnah’s doctoral thesis, earned from the University in 1982 and titled “Criteria for the Criticism of West African Fiction”. I have, thus, probably, shared a teacher with two Nobel Literature laureates, Soyinka and Gurnah.

I make no secret of my brazen tactics to “appropriate” the winner of the coveted prize, worth some $1.14 million. Who wouldn’t like to identify with a winner? Do you remember the characters who appear from nowhere to claim a close relationship with an elderly man who has won a lottery prize, in Barbara Kimenye’s “The Winner”? My claim, however, for all of us East Africans, is that Gurnah is in many ways one of our own.

There is, however, a nagging “walakin” (nevertheless) behind my celebration of “our” victory through Abdulrazak Gurnah. I know I would have been happier if the first Nobel Literature Prize to come to East Africa went to someone who writes in our language, Kiswahili. Gurnah writes in English, mostly prose fiction, and he writes very well. So, we say kongole (kudos), Mwalimu.

But it is not necessary to write in English in order to win the Nobel. Writers in Polish, Spanish, Russian, French, Arabic and many other languages have won the prize. There is no reason why the prize cannot or should not go to a writer who publishes in Kiswahili, Luganda or Gikuyu.

Establish our own prizes

The work of several Kiswahili authors is substantial and creative enough to compete for major international awards. Consider, for instance, the work of my friend and former colleague at Bayreuth, Prof Said Ahmed Mohamed. Mohamed needs no introduction to most properly educated East Africans. His versatile and infinitely fertile imagination has given us scores of memorable texts across practically all the genres of Literature, texts on which many of us have built our literary tastes and sensibilities.

Imagine what rejoicing would hit all our East African cities if this author were to be internationally recognized for his lifelong output. Do you remember his verse texts, like ‘Sikate Tamaa (do not despair), Kina cha Maisha (the depth of life) and Jicho la Ndani (the inner eye)? You have also revelled in his novels, like Asali Chungu (bitter honey), Dunia Yao (a world of their own) Nyuso za Mwanamke (faces of the woman) and Wenye Meno (those with teeth). Some of us best love his plays, like Amezidi (over the edge), Kitumbua Kimeingia Mchanga (sand in the pancake) and Posa za Bi Kisiwa (suitors of Ms Island). Few of us in Uswahilini would have to ask who this man from Pemba is.

Anyway, there are always controversies about the Nobel Prizes, especially for Literature. For us Africans, the strategy for international attention is two-pronged. The first is to promote our writers’ work in every possible way. We should read the works, discuss them, teach them and “canonise” them, that is, put them in a public body or canon of publicly respected texts. We should also systematically and consistently translate them and make them available in major languages.

Secondly, note what Achebe said back in the 1980s when we claimed he should have received the Nobel. In his typical laconic style, the immortal ancestor said that the Nobel was “their prize” and it was of little concern to him, as an African, who got it or did not get it. This implies that, if we want real recognition for our writers, we should establish our own prizes and award them using our own criteria.

After all, if we have a Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leaders, why can’t we have an Aliko Dangote Prize for Achievement in African authorship? In Kenya, we have the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. Maybe we could endow it substantially enough to compete with the Nobel.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]


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