‘After Lives’ by Abdulkazak Gurnah – Standing Up for his People, the East Africans


‘After Lives’ by Abdulkazak Gurnah    (2020) – 309 pages


‘After Lives’ begins early in the 20th century. The European countries (Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy) had Africa divvied up among themselves. ‘After Lives’ takes place in what was then Deutsch-Ostafrika (German East Africa). Most of this area is now Tanzania.

Although all of these European countries were pretty terrible at running or ruining their colonies, the Germans were probably the worst. “There is no one as stern as a German.”

In the thirty years or so that they have occupied this land, the Germans have killed so many people that the country is littered with skulls and bones and the earth is soggy with blood. I’m not exaggerating.”

Hundreds of thousands of Africans were murdered by the German empire’s use of starvation as a technique to quell uprisings in “their” territories.

When World War I started, Germany and Great Britain took their war into German East Africa. As the two countries were fighting, they would shell the African cities indiscriminately, not caring at all about the devastating impact their bombs had on the African people living there.

Great Britain won the war in Africa and took over East Africa from the Germans after World War I. This was a relief for the people living there.

The (British) administration was also expanding its activities in agriculture, public works, and health care. If nothing else, it would show the Germans how to run a colony properly.”

Although the British were far, far from blameless in their African colonization (For the full story read ‘Imperial Reckoning’ by Caroline Elkin), they were a drastic improvement over the Germans.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

‘After Lives’ tells the story of several African people who had to cope and recover from all this European mischief in Africa. One of the main characters is Hamza who was treated well by a German missionary during his childhood and thus volunteered for the askari, the African unit of fighters who fought on the German side. Here is a description of the Feldwebel, Hamza’s commanding German officer, during the African fighting against the British which was part of World WAR I:

His temper was so out of control that he frequently hit askari and porters with whatever was at hand: a cane, a whip, or a piece of firewood. He was even more vicious than he used to be in his hatred and contempt for the local people whose land they plundered. To him they were savages and he spoke about them with greater ferocity than he showed toward the British enemy.”

This Feldwebel nearly killed Hamza when Hamza said he was leaving the askari. After a lengthy recovery Hamza finds work in a port city in Tanzania which is now under control of the British. There, left in peace, Hamza finds redemption, and finds a wife and raises a family.

We have had a lot of literature about Africa written by Europeans where it is depicted as dark, cruel, and savage. But what if it were the Europeans who were the actual savages? Abdulkazak Gurnah is one voice who stands up for his African people.


Grade:    B+





5 responses to this post.

  1. I thought this one was excellent, and I loved the personal touches as when Hamza was teaching Khalifa to read.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      Yes, ‘After Lives’ is a very good read, but I liked ‘Paradise’ by Abdulrazak Gurnah better.



      • I’ve got that one, but haven’t read it yet. What I have read is Admiring Silence, the book that made me hunt out other titles, and also By the Sea. One of the things I like about him is his fairness. Everyone is on Britain’s case about being a coloniser, but the other European powers were in it too, and they were as Gurnak says, much worse. Belgium , from what I’ve read, was the most barbaric of all. Likewise, there’s a sustained campaign about the Elgin Marbles which were actually bought from some enterprising Greek, while there’s no equivalent campaign to make Germany give back the Ichtar Gates, or France to part with its Napoleonic loot.
        The Indonesians say the same: of course they’re glad to see the back of any colonisers, but they acknowledge that things were much better during the brief period of Britain presence there than under the Dutch.

        Liked by 1 person


        • Although I don’t read much non-fiction, I’ve been quite intrigued about the recent book ‘Imperial Reckoning’ which describes the brutal end of the British Empire in Kenya. The British were not much better than the other European countries, but Gurnah believes they were better. He’s been living in England for a long time.



          • Well, one way in which the Brits were ‘better’ (whatever that means) was that they didn’t make newly independent nations pay — literally, with money — for their independence. The Netherlands forced the newly independent and impoverished nation of Indonesia to pay for the staggering Dutch costs of waging their four-year war against independence which the Indonesians declared in 1945. I think there’s a campaign to make the Dutch pay it back. All nations behaved badly under colonisation, and I’m not suggesting that any benefits outweigh the costs, nor that colonised nations are ‘better off’ for having been colonised, but some colonisers were worse than others and Britain was not the worst.

            Liked by 1 person


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