Yusuf's choice: East African agency during the German colonial period in Abdulrazak Gurnah's novel paradise

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10 Scopus citations


The last four pages of Abdulrazak Gurnah's novel Paradise (1994) describe a scene in which a column of askaris - native soldiers who were recruited by the Germans in East Africa - enters a town on the East African coast in search of recruits for the impending war with the British. As the novel's protagonist Yusuf and his friend Khalil watch from the safety of their boarded-up store, the askaris, who are led by just one German officer, round up young men they have hunted down in different quarters. They organize the captured men into two lines and then march away; as the column begins to disappear, Yusuf suddenly darts off and joins them. Yusuf's choice, which, as we come to understand in the course of the novel, is a deliberate choice, challenges us to consider the reasons motivating the young man to voluntarily join the German army. The novel unfolds in the context of the caravan trade, which was one of the most important institutions structuring the multilayered East African social, political, cultural, and economic space at the time. By drawing on scholarship about the caravan trade, slavery, and the ethnic and religious constitution of East African society, the analysis shows that Gurnah's thoughtful text successfully captures the social space that was disrupted by German colonialism. The discussion also highlights the great extent to which East African conditions and East African agency shaped the structure of colonial rule in the area.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)51-64
Number of pages14
JournalEnglish Studies in Africa
Issue number1
StatePublished - May 1 2013
Externally publishedYes


  • Abdulrazak Gurnah
  • East Africa
  • German colonialism
  • Paradise
  • caravan trade
  • colonial collaboration
  • colonial intermediaries
  • indenture
  • slavery
  • subaltern agency

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Literature and Literary Theory


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