Ost-Afrika: what the Germans left
Abdulrazak Gurnah has given us a vivid reimagining of the Africans’ experience during and following the German administration and wars in Deutsch-Ost-Afrika, German East Africa, from the 1880s until the defeat of Germany in November 1918, when the victors then divided up the enormous, formerly German African territory to add to their own colonies.
This brutal and consequential episode has been rarely touched in literature, in contrast to the other, longer-lasting African colonies of the British, French, Belgians and Portuguese. Thomas Pynchon’s portrayal in Gravity’s Rainbow of the genocide of the Hereros in German Southwest Africa, now Namibia, Is the only other fictional treatment I know.
Gurnah tells this story from the points of view of several African men and two women of different generations and ethnic backgrounds, beginning with Khalil, a merchant born in the 1880s to an African mother and a Gujarati father—an exceptional union, since the Indian merchants who dominated commerce in the port cities near Zanzibar did not always mix easily with the indigenous Africans. Khalil befriends and tries to protect the younger Ilyas, who has been so impressed by his good treatment by a German missionary and a plantation owner that he eagerly joins the “Schutztruppe” (literally, “protection force”), German euphemism for the brutal army of indigenous troops and German officers designed to destroy any resistance by local tribes to German occupation. When Ilyas disappears with the army, Khalil also becomes the protector of his younger sister Afiya. Another young African, Hamza, also joins the Schutztruppe, in his case to escape the debt bondage inherited from his now deceased father, and there learns to speak and write good German with the encouragement of the Oberleutnant in command of his company.
Through these characters and others, African and German, we get a very clear picture of what this colonization meant and its cultural and economic consequences even after the end of German rule and the recolonization attempt by Germany under Nazi rule. Of the young men like Ilyas and Hamza who joined the Schutztruppe — whether for the pay, the excitement or the prestige of the Germans —,
«they did not know that they were to spend years… slaughtering and being slaughtered by armies of people they knew nothing about: Punjabis and Sikhs, Fantis and Akans and Hausas and Yorubas, Kongo and Luba, all mercenaries who fought the Europeans’ wars for them, …and a crowd of other European volunteers who thought killing was an adventure and were happy to be at the service of the great machinery of conquest and empire. »
The characterizations are believable and the descriptions of settings very vivid, especially the description of the unnamed port city where Hamza returns after his harrowing experiences of war in chapter 8, the beginning of Part III. My only disappointment with the novel was the loss of narrative tension in the final pages, where the terrible end of the Germanophile African in Nazi Germany is related in the emotionless language of a police report.