"Afterlives" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab
“Afterlives” is a historical novel about German East Africa and the last days of the “scramble for Africa.” The story explores the generational effects of colonialism on communities and families through the interwoven stories of three main characters living in an East African roadside village during the early 1900s.
The Germans fought a proxy war to subdue the natives in the African Great Lakes region where the nations of Rwanda, Burundi, and small sections of Tanzania and Mozambique are today. They recruited a band of Africans, the askari, who tortured villagers and slaughtered local chiefs who demonstrated any resistance to the imperialists. Askari terrorists killed thousands of their own people in the pursuit of the German cause. They “left the land devastated, its people starving and dying in the hundreds of thousands.”
The central character of the novel is Afiya, an East African orphan who is rescued from her abusive guardians by her brother, Ilyas, who had been kidnapped by German colonial troops while still a young boy and indoctrinated in German ways. After years of fighting against his people, he returns home to find his parents gone and Afiya, abandoned into de facto slavery.
The third character, Hamza also returns home from the war, traumatized from his military duty in the colonial army with nothing but the clothes on his back. Hamza meets the beautiful, assertive, and undaunted Afiya and they fall in love. Their love story is poignant as they are both poor and have nothing to contribute to a marriage, but “we'll have nothing together.” They cling to one another at work and home as the shadow of World War I falls over them, threatening once again to disrupt their way of life.
This is a story about colonialism, power, and the lives of East African villagers, those fighting the war and those not directly involved but who felt the effects of it. Gurnah has skillfully crafted the lives of the characters with all of their dreaming, sadness, and resilience. The author helps to complete the reader’s knowledge of details of this era of African history and the sweeping effects of colonialism.
“Afterlives” is an unflinching, but compassionate story. The writing is impeccable; the characters are complex and meticulously developed. The main characters represent the proletariat who usually are not represented in historical accounts, but Gurnah’s narrative insists that the reader pay attention to what they are saying.
The story held my attention throughout as it described a time and place of which I had little knowledge. The capable writing also grabbed my attention and admiration. This is Gurnah’s 10th book but unfortunately, this skilled writer is still not widely read.
About the Author: Abdulrazak Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and is now a Professor Emeritus of English and postcolonial literature at the University of Kent in England. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2021 for his “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugees in the gulf between cultures and continents.” He was the first African to win the award in almost 20 years.