A cast of loosely connected individuals in a small, coastal town of German-occupied Tanzania is the centre of the historical novel Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah.
At the 1885 Berlin Conference European powers had divided up Africa amongst themselves, heralding the ‘Scramble for Africa’. Tanzania, at the time Tanganyika, became a German protectorate. The book begins in 1907 when 26-year-old Khalifa, of mixed African and Indian heritage, is a clerk to Indian merchant Amur Biashara in an unnamed coastal town.
After several years of employment, Biashara arranges for Khalifa to marry his recently widowed niece with comes with inherited property. The couple settle into an uneasy marriage, which is never blessed with children.
Then we meet Ilyas, a young easy-going man who was held captive as a child by German forces. By the time he returned to his village, his parents had died and his sister taken away. Eventually Ilyas finds employment at the coast in a sisal firm and becomes friends with Khalifa.
When Ilyas discovers the whereabouts of his sister Afiya, he tracks her down and brings her home to live with him. Not long after, he enlists as a Schutztruppe (colonial soldier) in the First World War. Leaving Afiya in the charge of Khalifa, he goes off to war and is never seen again.
An uncle’s cruelty
Next comes Hamza, a local military askari who regrets joining the war. A gentle personality, he endures a convoluted relationship as the personal servant of a German military officer.
A cruel beating by his masters leaves him badly injured and after long recovery in a German missionary post, he moves to the coast and ends up living in the household of Khalifa.
Here he meets Afiya, now a young woman of resolute character who has resisted several attempts at marriage. Mostly at the instigation of Afiya, the pair become involved in a secret affair before Khalifa prompts the apprehensive Hamza to formalise their relationship.
Afiya names their son after her long-lost brother who rescued her years earlier from the hands of a cruel uncle.
But the young Ilyas has “whispering malaise”, a habit of talking to himself that has got his family and others concerned. When headaches and mental episodes escalate, a spiritual healer directs the family to investigate what happened to the older Ilyas, or else the boy will never be at peace.
Gurnah weaves in battles and incidents from the pre-independence period, when the old caravan routes were still active with merchants bringing goods and slaves from the hinterland to coastal towns.
There is the Al Bushiri uprising of 1888 when the ruling Arab elite revolted against German occupation. The Hehe War (1890s) instigated by raids on lucrative caravan routes. The Maji Maji Rebellion of 1905 where several ethnic groups united to fight German oppression.
Gurnah makes no bones about the atrocities committed in the colonial era, until “the country is littered with skulls and bones and the earth soggy with blood.” We see misplaced morality of Christian missionaries who inadvertently or otherwise supported colonisation of Africans. Islam and the traditional occult intermingle freely in these deeply religious communities.
Interesting personalities give us insider perspective of colonial life from an African viewpoint.
Gurnah takes time to probe the backstories of his main characters but critically, what seems lacking is an anchor person for the tale.
Nonetheless, Ilyas disappears early on yet he haunts the rest of the book like an unfinished hero.
The traumatic childhood of Afiya before being reunited with her brother evokes an emotional tug, yet she never fully supports the story either.
Khalifa is there throughout much of the book, more as a support character. But perhaps the broader motive is to examine the effects of colonisation from different perspectives.
Born in Zanzibar, Gurnah, 73, is based in the UK since 1982 where he is a professor at the University of Kent.
He has written nine other novels, some of which have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.
In 'Afterlives' he writes in a flowing, effortless manner such that the book doesn’t feel like a historical treatise.