Village in Uhuru

1969 – Gabriel Ruhumbika – Longman

Village in Uhuru is one of the earliest novels written in English by a Tanzanian author, and is a bittersweet tale of a country discovering itself and losing itself at the same time. The book opens in 1946, soon after German East Africa became the British protectorate of Tanganyika, and closes in the mid-1960s, after uhuru (independence) and ujamaa (socialism) have come to Tanzania. The story follows the fortunes of Muslilanga, the mwanangwa (headman) of an isolated village on the island of Wantu in what is now Tanzania, and his son Balinde.

Village in Uhuru
Village in Uhuru

At the heart of the book is this father/son relationship, strained to breaking point as Balinde dreams of moulding a better country through the nationalist movement, while Musilanga is unable to move away from the traditions that are his entire way of life. Benefitting from an extended timeline and dual perspective, the novel portrays both the majesty of the traditional way of life and the great potential of the nationalist movement to build a united country finally independent of the exploitative wazungu (white man).

Throughout, Ruhumbika peppers the prose with Swahili words and phrases. While occasional reference to the glossary at the back is necessary, the meaning is usually clear from the context, and occasionally direct exposition in the text. The technique serves to effectively immerse the reader in the book’s world and later serves a narrative purpose as words are coopted by the nationalist movement.

The novel is a fictionalised view of a factual history, and benefits from a background knowledge of that history. The book is made all the more poignant by knowing that may of the policies Balinde sacrifices so much for will ultimately be a failure, some to be regretted even by their architect, founder-president Julius Nyerere.

Village in Uhuru is well worth a read for anyone interested in the history of Tanzania, African socialism or revolutionary movements. It is a fable on the risks of changing too much, too fast, and is powerfully told.

This review originally opened with “Village in Uhuru is one of the few novels written in English by a Tanzanian author”. This is of course incorrect and has been corrected: the numerous Tanzanian authors writing in English include the Booker Prize winning Abdulrazak Gurnah.