Country Focus: Tanzania
By Abdulrazak Gurnah
Originally published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury, 2005.
My edition: Pantheon, 2005.
Time period: 1899; late 1950s
Two love stories anchor Desertion.
Mombasa, Kenya, 1899. A bedraggled white man collapses on a village street in front of Hassanali, a shopkeeper. Hassanali brings the mysterious mzungu [white man] home and attempts to revive him. Frederick Turner, an Englishman running a nearby colonial estate,* barrels in to save his fellow countryman from people he believes to be vile natives. The invalid, whose name is Martin Pearce, recovers under the care of Turner. Pearce holds a vastly different opinion of the locals than his host, and ventures into town to personally thank Hassanali. He can’t help but be attracted to Hassanali’s divorced sister Rehana.
To my surprise, a narrator breaks in. He admits that he doesn’t know how Martin and Rehana began their affair, only that they did and that their relationship had a profound impact on his own family. Arghh!! I was bummed. Love stories seem to be rarely translated; at least I haven’t come across many for this project and I was dying for at least a steamy kiss out of Martin and Rehana. No dice. Anyway…
Cut to the 1950s and a happy Muslim family living in Zanzibar.** Feisal and Nuru, both teachers, are the parents of Amin, Rashid and Farida. All three children enter adulthood with promise. Amin pleases his parents by attending a teacher’s college. Rashid makes his final preparations to go to university in England. Farida starts an in-home dressmaking business.
Amin arrives home one day to find Farida with one of her clients, a breathtaking woman named Jamila. Jamila’s exotic good looks come from her scandalous pedigree – her mother was the child of an Englishman and a divorced woman from Mombasa (none other than Martin and Rehana). Amin rejects Muslim propriety and he and Jamila begin an illicit love affair. Yes!!!
The third and final section of the book switches focus to Rashid, who faces and forms prejudices of his own while studying in England. He and his fellow black international students are continually baffled and hurt by discrimination. By bizarre coincidence, he meets the granddaughter of Frederick Turner and begins a relationship with her.
Although Amin and Jamila do provide some romance after all, Desertion is primarily about racial and religious prejudices and the impact of colonialism. Not surprisingly, author Abdulrazah Gurnah, an English professor in Canterbury, England, specializes in post-colonial writing. One of the most fascinating (and shameful) parts of his novel describes a typical British 1950s map of Africa – a kind of cartographic paint-by-numbers in which swaths of the continent were smothered in the mocking color-codes of its European colonizers.
Born in Zanzibar, Gurnah is the only contemporary Tanzanian author I could find. He has written several other novels including Paradise and By the Sea.
*Kenya was governed by Great Britain at the time.
**Then on the verge of independence from Great Britain, Zanzibar is now a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania.
I think when we [the international students] talked we simplified the complex sense of hurt and diminishing that we felt, or at least I felt, the sense of injustice and incomprehension at being both misused and despised. What were they [the English] so upset about, when it was they who went overbearing over the world and filled our heads with our unworthiness?
I hope to add some titles here soon, but as of this posting I could not find any other contemporary Tanzanian authors whose work has been translated. Comment if you know of any.