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The rest of Africa have ‘eaten’ Nobel Prizes, now it’s EA’s turn



By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Last week Abdulrazak Gurnah won the 2021 Nobel Prize in Literature. Now we must fully reclaim this son of ours. Didn’t the elders say “nothing succeeds like success”?

Born in Zanzibar on December 20, 1948, Gurnah fled to the UK with his family in the 1960s as a refugee in the wake of the Zanzibar Revolution. But Gurnah never really left us.

He taught briefly in Nigeria in the 1980s, and most of his 10 novels, as one scholar noted, “are set either fully or partially on the Eastern African Swahili Coast or in Zanzibar.” Gurnah was honoured, the Swedish Academy that hands out the Nobels said, “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents,” the subjects most of his novels and short stories explore.

Gurnah was the fifth African to win the Literature prize, the others being Nigeria’s Wole Soyinka in 1986; Egypt’s Naguib Mahfouz in 1988; and the South Africa’s Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003.

Gurnah’s Nobel might go some way to heal what East Africans consider a literary injustice. Western Africa, Northern Africa, Southern Africa, had all “eaten” the prize, but the wider East Africa hadn’t.

For many years there have been expectations that Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o would be the one to bring it home. The job instead fell upon Gurnah’s slight frame.


Yet, Gurnah and Ngugi are joined by a very East African experience; exile, flight, of being in while out, of being home but homeless. It is the fate of many of East African leading writers and intellectuals. Imprisoned for his writing and theatre, Ngugi was exiled from Kenya at the end of the 1970s during the rule of Kanu and then president Daniel arap Moi.

He was just one of many Kenyan intellectuals and writers who fled the country at that time.

One of Africa’s most renowned poets, Okot p’Bitek of the Song of Lawino fame, fled Uganda during the rule of military dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s. With him were playwright Robert Serumaga, John Ruganda, and a few artists.

South Sudanese poet and literary critic Taban lo Liyong wandered the breadth of Africa until his country became independent.

Somali writer Nuruddin Farah has been a nomad for over 40 years.

Immaculée Ilibagiza, Yolande Mukagasana and Clemantine Wamariya are a handful of the long list of Rwandan writers who fled the country as survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi or earlier pogroms.

Gurnah’s most popular novel is Paradise, which was nominated for both the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Prize for Fiction.

It’s the story of Yusuf, a lad from the fictional town of Kawa in Tanzania, who is sold by his father to repay a debt. Yusuf eventually joins a caravan as it travels through the Congo Basin, navigating wars and all sorts of chaos, and returning to East Africa to the sight German troops. The First World War had started.

There is a Yusuf in many of these writers. It’s just that they defied the odds and made silk purses out of sows’ ears.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]

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