In Tanzania, Gurnah’s Nobel Prize win sparks both joy and debate

The awarding of the Nobel Prize in literature to Zanzibar-born writer Abdulrazak Gurnah has drawn celebration and sparked lively debate over identity in Tanzania.

Many in the country acknowledge the recognition of Gurnah’s work among the handful of African novelists to have won the prestigious prize, but others question whether Tanzanians can truly claim the England-based writer as their own.

Gurnah, whose body of work includes 10 novels, left Tanzania’s archipelago of Zanzibar as a refugee for United Kingdom in late 1967, three years after a revolution which sought to end the political dominance of the minority Arab population over the African majority. The following months and years were dominated by deep division, tensions and vengeance.

Recounting his story, Gurnah said he managed to get only a one-month tourist visa that allowed him to travel to Britain where he enrolled for A-level studies at a technical college in Canterbury, southeast England.

In its announcement on Thursday, the Swedish Academy said the 73-year-old was honoured “for his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents”.

Both the presidents of Tanzania and semi-autonomous Zanzibar were swift in hailing Gurnah’s achievement.

“The prize is an honor to you, our Tanzanian nation and Africa in general,” Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan tweeted. For his part, Zanzibar leader Hussein Ali Mwinyi said, “We fondly recognise your writings that are centred on discourses related to colonialism. Such landmarks, bring honour not only to us but to all humankind.”

Meanwhile Gurnah, in an interview with AFP news agency, stressed his close ties to Tanzania.

“Yes, my family is still alive, my family still lives there,” the retired University of Kent professor said. “I go there when I can. I’m still connected there … I am from there. In my mind I live there.”

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