Abdulrazak Gurnah, author and Nobel Prize winner. Photo: GIN

(GIN)—Out of 118 Nobel Prize laureates between 1901 and 2021, only six have gone to African writers with only two to Black Africans.

So, there was a measure of celebration, excitement, and pride when this year’s prize was awarded to Zanzibar-born writer Abdulrazak Gurnah.

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

The Swedish Academy was also generous with praise, calling the book an “uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”


Based in Britain and writing in English, Gurnah’s 10 novels include “Paradise,” set in colonial East Africa during World War I and short-listed for the Booker Prize for Fiction, and “Desertion.” Though Swahili was his first language, English became Gurnah’s literary tool when he began writing at the age of 21.

“I dedicate this Nobel Prize to Africa and Africans and to all my readers,” the 72-year-old Gurnah tweeted after the announcement.

But the award has ignited a vigorous debate in the author’s birthplace, with long and passionate discussions about belonging and identity, observes Sammy Awami in the online edition of Aljazeera. The relationship between Zanzibar and the mainland (Tanzania) has not always been rosy— even though Zanzibar is semi-autonomous, with its own president and parliament, he says.

The contentious union of Zanzibar and Tanganyika in April 1964 was driven by U.S. and UK fears of a Zanzibari Cuba in Africa. Gurnah left Zanzibar as a refugee for the 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. Writes social scientist Aikande Kwayu: “The debate about the ‘Tanzanian’ identity of Abdulrazak Gurnah should be an awakening call & a trigger to our government to think of the following: (i) Justice; (ii) Dual Citizenship; (iii) Union matters; (iv) quality education and teaching—how do we do in writing & literature?”

Till today, the cosmopolitan island remains divided over issues of identity and its political union with Tanzania.

Meanwhile, Ida Hadjivayanis, lecturer of Swahili studies in London and a Zanzibari native, is currently translating his 1994 novel “Paradise” into Swahili. Pointing out that many in Tanzania are yet to read this writer’s books, she called on the government to include his works in the school curriculum.