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The (un)expected controversies in Prof Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win




The announcement that Abdulrazak Gurnah had won the Nobel Prize for Literature coincided with the 4th Edition of the African Writers’ Workshop held in Dar es Salaam this year, a serendipity that puts out a warm glow. One of the questions that was raised for discussion was: What is African literature? It is a knotty problem.

I once asked a bookworm friend what is meant by the term The Great American Novel and he explained to me that it is an unachievable ideal that compels American authors to strive towards a certain “perfection.” In a sense that is what I wish for African literature.

The controversy this has raised on two fronts is worth its million-and-a-half dollar prize money.

First, there are the politics of why Prof Gurnah.

I understand that a number of people who feel that other African authors were more deserving, Ngugi wa Thiong’o in particular. What is more delicious than intra-African disagreements?

Then there is the fact that Prof Gurnah is a relatively unknown author, even in Tanzania, though he is Zanzibari. This has raised a discussion on identity and, most importantly, history.


Big ones

The stories we tell matter; the big ones and the small ones. They form the social facts upon which we build our lives.

This month Tanzania is celebrating Nyerere Day to commemorate the official date of when our first president passed away 23 years ago. You see, right there, I have dropped a hint that what we say and what was is not always strictly accurate, for as another friend and aficionado of African affairs pointed out to me, the narratives of African Big Men’s demises are political affairs where the truth is seldom welcome.

This year, celebrating Nyerere Day hits different. 2021 feels like an interregnum that is dragging on. I have said and will say again: it takes no less than two years, in my opinion, for a Tanzanian head of state to “settle” into the role, forming certainties about their administration before that time is not wise.

Still, it was not encouraging that in a public address lately, my head of state said that her “predecessor’s shoes do not fit” her.

Easy fodder

What prompted this comment remains known unto her, but I was saddened that her detractors were handed such easy fodder for their ruminations.

So in this transitional time things are simultaneously predictably the same and also different. Up for debate right now, for example, is the Union and all the myriad Zanzibar-Tangayinka unresolved issues, which has been given a boost by Prof Gurnah’s win.

Is he Tanzanian? This is up for discussion. The said discussion has allowed for a hinting at the darker aspects of our pre-and post independence period.

At this time of year, as is custom, we sing to ourselves the song of our nation. In textbooks it is clean, with Nyerere and a handful of others presented as uncomplicated heroic figures. By convention we let this slide but this year there is a bit of a dissonance.


Over time the increasing obsession with promoting and defining a basic “Tanzanianness” points not to an emergence but rather to an insecurity about the whole endeavour. Even the use of Nyerereist iconography to reinforce this campaign isn’t working it’s usual magic.

We are living in strange times.

We like to say here that artistes hold up a mirror to society, though to be fair we also like to punish creatives for inconvenient truth-telling.

Nonetheless, their work comes from the realities they have lived, whether they be a Nobel Laureate or a BongoFlava poet or a blogger who barely updates their work.

Creatives are conduits, distillers, recorders of the public and social consciousness and how it interacts with the individual spirit. And yet for decades, mainly because of our stifling National Project, art has been devoid of much of its dangerous propensity for radical truth.

It is in this vein that I am appreciative of Prof Gurnah’s Nobel Prize. The fallout, the unexpected controversies it has raised within Tanzanian society especially at this time of ritual nationalist myth-making is deeply welcome. What better time is there to get philosophical than when thinking about the complex legacies of dead presidents?

Calm down

Going forward, my hope is that we don’t “recover” from this and return to business as usual.

My hope is that we don’t calm down and go back to the same hymn sheet. My hope is that we use this weirdness to progress and not regress. Because if we’re honest about it, Nobel Laureates are lovely it is true but how many of them end up being socially useful?

Perhaps what brings out the best in my society is the perpetual question. For Tanzania may it always remain: Who are we and who do we strive to be? Let the pursuit lead us forever forward, truthfully.

Elsie Eyakuze is a consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report: E-mail: [email protected]

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