The following is from Abdulrazak Gurnah's Afterlives. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar in 1948 and teaches at the University of Kent. He is the author of six novels, including Paradise, which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and the Whitbread Award, and By the Sea, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021.
It was early 1907 when Khalifa and Asha married. The Maji Maji uprising was in the final throes of its brutalities, suppressed at a great cost in African lives and livelihoods. The rebellion started in Lindi and spread everywhere in the countryside and towns of the south and west of the country. It lasted for three years. As the widespread extent of the resistance to German rule sank in, so the response of the colonial administration became more relentless and brutal. The German command saw that the revolt could not be defeated by military means alone and proceeded to starve the people into submission. In the regions that had risen, the schutztruppe treated everyone as combatants. They burned villages and trampled fields and plundered food stores. African bodies were left hanging on roadside gibbets in a landscape that was scorched and terrorized. In the part of the country where Khalifa and Asha lived, they only knew of these events from hearsay. To them these were only shocking stories because there was no visible rebellion in their town. There had not been any since the hanging of al Bushiri although threats of German retribution were all around them.
The steadfastness of the refusal of these people to become subjects of the Deutsch-Ostafrika empire had come as a surprise to the Germans, especially after the examples that had been made of the Wahehe in the south and the Wachagga and Wameru people in the mountains of the northeast. The Maji Maji victory left hundreds of thousands dead from starvation and many hundreds more from battlefield wounds or by public execution. To some of the rulers of Deutsch-Ostafrika, this outcome was viewed as unavoidable. Their passing was inevitable sooner or later. In the meantime, the empire had to make the Africans feel the clenched fist of German power in order that they should learn to bear the yoke of their servitude compliantly. With each passing day that German power was pushing that yoke firmly on the necks of its reluctant subjects. The colonial administration was strengthening its hold over the land, growing in numbers and in reach. Good land was taken over as more German settlers arrived. The forced labor regime was extended to build roads and clear roadside gutters and make avenues and gardens for the leisure of the colonists and the good name of the Kaiserreich. The Germans were latecomers to empire building in this part of the world but they were digging in to stay for a long time and wanted to be comfortable while they were about it. Their churches and colonnaded offices and crenellated fortresses were built as much to provide a means for civilized life as to awe their newly conquered subjects and impress their rivals.
The latest uprising made some among the Germans think differently. It was clear to them that violence alone was not enough to subdue the colony and make it productive, so clinics were proposed and campaigns against malaria and cholera initiated. At first these served the health and well-being of the settlers and officials and the schutztruppe, but later were extended to include the native people too. The administration also opened new schools. There was already an advanced school in the town, opened several years before to train Africans as civil servants and teachers, but its intake was small and limited to a subordinate elite. Now schools were opened, intended to offer an elementary education to more of the subject people, and Amur Biashara was one of the first to send his son to one of them. The son, whose name was Nassor, was nine years old when Khalifa came to work for the merchant and fourteen when he started school. It was a little late to be doing so but that did not matter too much because the school he went to was intended to teach pupils trades not algebra, and his age was appropriate for learning how to use a saw or lay a brick or swing a heavy hammer. It was there that the merchant’s son came to learn about working wood. He was in the school for four years, at the end of which he was literate and numerate and a competent carpenter.
During those years Khalifa and Asha had lessons of their own to learn. He learned that she was an energetic and obstinate woman who liked to keep busy and knew what she wanted. At first he marveled at her energy and laughed at her opinionated summaries of their neighbors. They were envious, they were vicious, they were blasphemers, she said. Oh, come on, stop exaggerating, he protested while she frowned in stubborn disagreement. She did not think she was exaggerating, she said. She had lived beside these people all her life. He had taken her invocation of God’s name and her quotations of verses of the Koran to be a manner of speaking some people had, an idiom, but he came to understand that for her it was not just an exhibition of her knowledge and sophistication but of serious piety. He thought she was unhappy and tried to think of ways to make her feel less alone. He tried to make her want him as he wanted her, but she was self-contained and reluctant and he thought s e merely tolerated him and submitted to his ardor and embraces dutifully at best.
She learned that she was stronger than him, although it took her a long time to say it so bluntly to herself. She knew her own mind, often if not every time, and once she did she was firm whereas he was easily swayed by words, sometimes his own. Her memory of her father, about whom she tried to be respectful as her religion commanded, interfered with her judgment of her husband and, increasingly, she struggled to contain her impatience with Khalifa. When she could not, she spoke to him sharply in a manner she did not intend and sometimes regretted.
He was steady but too obedient to her uncle, who was nothing but a thief and an impious hypocrite with his lying saintly manners. Her husband was too easily satisfied and often taken advantage of, but it was as He wished it to be and she would do her best to be content. She found his endless stories tiresome.
Asha miscarried three times in the early years of their marriage. After the third miscarriage in three years she was persuaded by neighbors to consult an herbalist, an mganga. The mganga made her lie down on the floor and covered her from head to toe with a kanga. Then she sat beside her for a long period, humming softly and repeatedly, and speaking words Asha could not make out. Afterward the mganga told her that an invisible had taken her and was refusing to allow a child to grow in her. The invisible could be persuaded to leave but they would have to find out its demands and fulfill them before it would do so. The only way they could know the demands was by allowing the invisible to speak through Asha, and that was most likely to happen when it was allowed to possess her fully.
The mganga brought an assistant with her and made Asha lie down again on the floor. They c vered her with a thick marekani sheet and then both began to hum and sing, their faces close to her head. As time passed and the mganga and her assistant sang, Asha shivered and trembled with increasing intensity until finally she burst out in incomprehensible words and sounds. Her outburst reached a climax with a yell and then she spoke lucidly but in a strange voice, saying: I will leave this woman if her husband makes a promise to take her on the hajj, to go to the mosque regularly and to give up taking snuff. The mganga crowed with triumph and administered an herbal drink, which calmed Asha and sent her into a doze.
When the mganga told Khalifa, in Asha’s presence, about the invisible and its demands, he nodded compliantly and paid her her fee. I will give up taking snuff at once, he said, and I will just now go and perform my ablutions and head for the mosque. On my way back I will start inquiries about making the hajj. Now please get rid of this devil at once.
Khalifa did give up snuff, and he went to the mosque for a day or two but he never mentioned the hajj again. Asha knew that even while he was acting compliant Khalifa was not persuaded, was just laughing at her. It made it all the worse that she had allowed herself to agree to the blasphemous treatments her neighbors suggested. All that humming in her ears had become tiresome but she could not help it, she really did find Khalifa’s lack of prayers irksome and wished for the hajj above all things. She found his quiet mockery of these desires deeply estranging. It made her reluctant to try again for a child and she found ways to discourage his ardor and avoid the disagreeable fuss he made when aroused. His lessons fully learned, Nassor Biashara left the German trade school at the age of eighteen, besotted with the smell of wood. Amur Biashara was indulgent with his son. He did not expect him to help out in the business, for the same reason he did not require Khalifa to know the details of his many transactions. He preferred to work alone. When Nassor asked his father to finance a carpentry workshop so he could go into business for him elf, the merchant was happy to oblige, both because it sounded like a good venture and also because it would keep his son out of his affairs for the moment. There will be time to initiate him into the business later.
The way of the old merchants was lending and borrowing from each other on trust. Some of them only knew each other by letters or through mutual connections. Money passed from hand to hand—a debt sold on in payment for another debt, consignments bought and sold unseen. These connections were as far away as Mogadishu, Aden, Muscat, Bombay, Calcutta and all those other places of legend. The names were like music to many people who lived in the town, perhaps because most of them had not been to any of them. It was not that they could not imagine that they were all probably places of hardship and struggle and poverty, just like everywhere else, but they could not resist the strange beauty of those names.
The old merchants’ business dealings depended on trust but that did not mean they trusted each other. That was why Amur Biashara did his business in his head, only he did not bother to keep his records straight and in the end his cunning failed him. It was bad luck, or fate, or God’s plan, as you will, but he was suddenly taken ill in one of those terrible epidemics that used to occur much more often before the Europeans came with their medicines and their hygiene. Who would have thought how many diseases lurked in the filth people were so used to living with? He fell ill in one of those epidemics, despite the Europeans. When it’s your time, it’s your time. It might have been dirty water or bad meat or a bite from a poisonous pest that was the cause but the outcome was that he woke up in the early hours one morning with fever and vomiting and never rose from his bed again. He was barely conscious and died within five days. In those five days he never regained his presence of mind and all his secrets departed with him. His creditors came along in due course with their paperwork in good order. Those who owed him kept their heads down and the old merchant’s fortune was suddenly a lot smaller than had been rumored. Maybe he had meant to give Asha her house back and never got around to it but he left nothing to her in his will. The house now belonged to Nassor Biashara, as did everything else that was left after his mother and two sisters had taken their share and the creditors had taken theirs.
From Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah. Used with permission of the publisher, Riverhead Books.Copyright 2021 by Abdulrazak Gurnah.