The reasons chosen by the Nobel Committee to award the prize to Abdulrazak Gurnah could not be more current and in full and effervescent revision: the effects of European colonialism in Africa and the fate of the refugee condemned to live between two worlds. Sixty years after the African independences, numerous initiatives, citizen movements and reflection processes have emerged on the African continent and in the diaspora in an effort to remember that there is still a long way to go to overcome wounds such as slavery, racism or the criminalization of migration. that continue to mark the daily lives of millions of people in the world.
In his novel Afterlives , published last year, Gurnah places the action in Tanganyika at the beginning of the twentieth century, in full German rule of present-day Tanzania. “The Germans have killed so many people that the country is full of skulls and bones and the earth is soaked in blood,” says one of his characters at a point in the plot, whose center is dominated by the most devastating consequences, but also the most subtle, of German colonialism. Precisely last May, the German Government made a historic declaration recognizing its responsibility for the genocide of the Herero and Nama ethnic groups in Namibia and apologizing to the descendants of the victims.
The German gesture is far away of being banal. On 28 November 2017 and pushed by increasing pressure from African governments, French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a speech delivered in Burkina Faso the beginning of a process that would lead to the return of thousands of historical pieces stolen to the continent during the colonization. Although the initiative is still modest and the process has barely begun with a famous sword that is already in Senegal or the Abomey treasure that will have to travel to Benin, the truth is that the issue, controversial because it involves emptying certain African museums in France, It is no longer taboo.
Colonialism and its perennial mark on the relations that the old metropolises maintain with the African continent is under review. The publication in 2016 of the essay Afrotopia, by the Senegalese professor Felwine Sarr, is another turning point in this process: the author raises in his book the need to rethink Africa from a “decolonization of thought” and opens the search for a new interpretation of reality, similar to that envisioned by the Equatorial Guinean philosopher Eugenio Nkogo or the one in which the Cameroonian historian Achille Mbembe traces.
People of African descent throughout the world play a key role in this process. After the civil rights struggle of the 1960s in the United States and the subsequent global fight against apartheid, few movements like the Black Lives Matter, which emerged in 2013 against the police violence of which blacks are victims, have served so much to stir consciences. Riding on the back of social networks, the demonstrations for the acquittal of the murderer of the African-American teenager Trayvon Martin opened a spigot denouncing institutional racism and reached its zenith in 2020 with the riots after the murder of George Floyd and the famous video in which he repeated “I can’t breathe” under the knee of agent Dereck Chauvin.
While black athletes from all over the world The world joins this cause and kneels as the anthem plays or raises their fists in protest, dozens of successful films and series address the complex issue of slavery and its heritage. A curtain is drawn back to expose the shameful slave trade that forged today’s industrialized world. Nicolás Sarkozy’s speech in Dakar in 2007, in which he denied the history of African peoples, and the enslavement of migrants In Libya in the middle of the last decade, waves of indignation awakened that have contributed to bear fruit in a new consciousness.
Gurnah also addresses in her work the life of Tanzanian refugees in Europe, “the abyss between cultures and continents ”that they face, as the Swedish Academy says. With a Europe gripped and unable to respond to the challenge of its southern border, in which thousands of young Africans die every year in search of a better life, the mention could not be more pertinent. The closures of Greece’s border fences to women and children fleeing the war, the expulsions of candidates for asylum to countries such as Turkey or Mauritania or the outsourcing of control and surveillance to African countries such as Niger or Libya are disturbing signs that further deepen this abyss through which Gurnah’s work travels.
The Tanzanian author joins the list of African Nobel Prize winners in Literature that included the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, the South Africans Nadine Gordimer and John Maxwell Coetzee and the Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz. It so happens that the first three write in English, like Gurnah, and the last in Arabic, so that no representative of the rich French-speaking African literature has ever won the award. Meanwhile, the Kenyan writer who has opted for the minority language Gikuyu and denounces the linguistic colonialism of the majority languages, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, remains at the gates of the Nobel for another year.