Petina Gappah. Photo credit: Cynthia R. Matonhodze/The New York Times.

Petina Gappah is the author of the short story collections An Elegy for Easterly and Rotten Row, and of the novels The Book of Memory and Out of Darkness, Shining Light. The following is an excerpt from her opening speech at the International Literature Festival in Berlin, delivered on 11 September 2019. 


Across the Sea, a Field of Water

I am grateful to have lived in Berlin as a “Stipendiatin” of the Berliner-Artists-in-Residency Programme of the DAAD. The DAAD calls the fellowship they offer to artists from around the world “the gift of time,” and time is my subject tonight. Time, not as it is represented by hurrying, by urgency, but by the past, by history, by memory, by remembrance. I want to talk about why Europe’s history is still very much Africa’s present, and conclude with how historical fiction can bring empathy to our shared pain, and allow us to enter that painful past in a way that humanizes it.

In four weeks in May and June this year, I took an extraordinary journey. I boarded a French container ship, a working boat with a crew of 30 Philippine men commanded by a French master and his nine officers. It was called the CMA Fort-de-France, named for our destination, the capital of Martinique. I literally ran away to sea to write in tranquility, to escape persistent connectivity, to retreat from my life the better to reflect on it, and to plan my future. On board, I found a crew of 20 men, led by 10 French officers. I was one of three passengers. From the port of Dunkirk, where I boarded, we made our leisurely way around four European ports before striking out across the Atlantic towards the Caribbean.

As we found ourselves surrounded by an endless field of water, and I became inured to the repetitive life on board ship, moving from the officers’ mess to the gym, from my room to the ship’s library, and as I took daily walks on deck, the Atlantic in every view, I began to reflect on the many Africans who had made this trip to the Caribbean, not from Europe as I had done, but from Africa, and who made it too without the tools that I had: a Schengen visa, travel insurance, and a doctor’s certificate testifying that I was fit enough to climb up a ship’s gangway and make a sea journey. Above all, with the freedom and the will to travel.

When we arrived in the Caribbean, in Guadeloupe and Martinique, in what was my second visit to those beautiful, sun-struck islands, it came to me with a visceral shock that just about everyone I met was here because his or her ancestors were brought here as captives. These are people living in what Nathaniel Hawthorne called “unaccustomed earth,” their ancestors were transplanted as cargo from Africa. Almost every black person I saw was the descendant of a slave. Entire nations, whole nations, descended from slaves. There in the Caribbean, it struck me forcibly that the European past is very much the Caribbean present.



The Red-Bottomed Climbers of Trees

First, a brief family history:

I come from Zimbabwe, from a land in which knowledge, information and understanding were transmitted from one generation to the next through the oral tradition. Until colonization, we had unwritten codes on the law and social contracts, on governance and on family and communal living. We had history, but it was an unwritten history, passed down in stories and legends, in song, and most of all in our totems.

Zimbabweans are a totem people. Totems, almost always animals, or parts of animals, were used to mark what Marx and Engels called “degrees of consanguinity”; they were how we identified family relationships before the introduction of surnames; they were a mechanism to avoid inbreeding and to avoid incest. To marry a relative of the same totem meant you had to find and slaughter a pure white cow to appease the ancestors. White cows are extremely rare, so it was an effective taboo against incest.

One of my favorite legends, which comes from the 1500s possibly, from the land of the Mutapa Empire, is of a Portuguese trader who fell ill in the court of the Mutapa, who was then the emperor ruling over what is now Zimbabwe and parts of Mozambique. Expecting the trader to die, his countrymen abandoned him to his fate and returned to Portugal. But he healed and fell in love with his nurse, a maiden called Gambiza who was the daughter of the emperor. They married and had children.

But what troubled the court was the question of totems. Totems come from the father, so what totem were they to give to these strange children born of this union with a “totemless” man, with their light skin and slippery hair. They remembered that the Portuguese men had called each other by the title “Senor.” And so a new totem entered the lexicon of Shona totems: they called the children “Sinyoro,” and that is now the totem of that Portuguese man’s descendants. This may be the only totem named for a person. The Sinyoroare also the rare totem-holders who honor their female ancestor; to this day, the Sinyoro men give the title of Gambiza to any woman they marry, no matter her own totem.

It is in totem poems that we find these legends, giving clues to our unwritten history. I first heard our family totem poem in full flow on the day in 1976 that my father drove his new car, a Peugeot 404, to show it off at his rural home in Gutu. My grandmother and my father’s sisters leapt and ululated as they let flow the full poem:

Hevoi Shoiko



Modzoka makasunika

Vemagaro matsvuku


Vakaera mutupo umwe nashe

Vana VaPfumojena

Vakabva Guruuswa

Shoko Mbire yaSvosve

Vanaisi vemvura

Vakawana ushe neuchenjeri


Zvaitwa mukanya rudzi rusina chiramwa

Mahomuhomu, Shoko Bvudzijena!

Regard, the monkey

You of the white hair

You climb up trees

And come back upside down

You of the red bottoms

You of the Mbire

Of the same totem as kings

The children of Pfumojena, of the white spear,

You who came from Guruuswa, the place of long grass

You of the Mbire, of the Svosve

The bringers of rain

You gained power with your cunning

You walk with a hunched gait

The hunched one, who bears no grudges

These totems tell us where we came from, and of our past exploits. I must say I am yet to hear a totem poem that does not speak to past glories, of lost kingdoms and past chieftainships, and ours is no different.

Most of the Shona totems speak of Guruuswa, which means “the place of long grass.” Historians believe that this “place of long grass” was somewhere in the Great Lakes region, and that our ancestors trekked southwards until they found themselves in the land between the Zambezi and the Limpopo. It was to these lands that colonialism came, lands that had their own lives, with their own histories and traditions expressed in their own rich languages.

In 1890, my father’s father, a Shoko Mukanya who was called Chikwiro, the names of whose own ancestors have receded into unrecorded memory and thus into the mists of time, suddenly found himself living not on his lands, but on those of Cecil John Rhodes’s British South Africa Company, the corporation that, fueled by tales of the gold of Ophir and King Solomon’s mines, conquered Mashonaland and Matabeleland in what is now Zimbabwe. By 1923, his grandson Mureri was a direct subject of Queen Victoria in the Crown Territory of Southern Rhodesia. My father was born in 1942, and became the first Shoko Mukanya since the trek from Guruuswa to deal with modernity; to adopt a surname, which he took from his grandfather, Gapa; to get a Western education; and to move to the city to find a job.



In a Music Room, the Greater and Lesser Powers

The fate of Chikwiro, and his generation, the fates of subsequent generations, down to me and my son, were decided here in Berlin. Almost the first thing I did when I came to Berlin was to look for the building in which my fate as an African was decided, and where it was agreed that my ancestor Chikwiro would be a subject of Queen Victoria. Here in Berlin, it was decreed that I would speak English, not Portuguese like next-door Mozambique, or German as in Namibia, or French as in Senegal. And so I looked for the building in which my ancestors’ fate, and my own, had been decided.

In 1884, facing an extraordinary scramble for territory in Africa, 14 European powers gathered in Berlin. In this city, the history of the modern states of Africa began, based on boundaries drawn by a handful of men in court dress, who, like children playing a game of Risk, sat around a table and divided up a continent. The building they sat in was called the Palais Schulenburg. Before it was purchased for Count Otto von Bismarck, to serve as his Chancellery after the unification of Germany, it had been the residence of Prince Antoni Radziwill.

In his magisterial book, The Scramble for Africa, Thomas Pakenham, a historian who writes with the lyrical beauty of a novelist and the laser sharp detail of a forensic scientist, describes the setting of Bismarck’s Congokonferenz, or West Africa Conference, as follows:

The Conference began on Saturday, 15 November 1884. Winter had come early to Berlin; snow fell every night that week in a rococo blizzard which decorated the grey fluted pilasters and coarse yellow bricks of Bismarck’s house. . . and then reverted to slush each day when the delegates alighted from their carriages. On Saturday afternoon, just before two o’clock, the nineteen plenipotentiaries, with fifteen assistants, representing fourteen great and lesser Powers, climbed the stairs to the large music room and took their seats at the horseshoe table ready for the inaugural session.

I found out that the building, at 77 Wilhelmstrasse, had been turned into Hitler’s first Chancellery and was consequently bombed in the Second World War. I wondered whether this history had also been erased from the history books. I wondered how many German schoolchildren know that in that music room of the old Palais Schulenburg, where Count Radziwill had hosted salons in which was heard the heavenly music of Paganini, Chopin, and Beethoven, the great and lesser powers resolved simmering tensions over African territory and divided up a continent with clinical precision.

In this room, the great and lesser powers applied the “principle of effective occupation”: agreeing to take as theirs those areas already in their control, and extending their control to those territories and neighboring areas within their “spheres of influence.” They resolved quarrels that had arisen as they scrambled for a continent.

In the South, Portugal and Britain had been fighting over what are now Angola, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Malawi. They agreed that Portugal would take Angola and Britain would get the rest. Over in the Nile Basin, and in the basin of Lake Chad, France and Britain had been fighting. The Congress agreed that the border would pass between Ouaddaï, which would be French, and Darfur, which would be British. In between was to be a “no-man’s-land.”

In West Africa, where France and Germany and Britain were fighting, they agreed that Miltou in what is now Chad would be French, the territory south of Miltou would be given to Germany, and a boundary line would be drawn between the territories controlled by Britain and Germany, passing through Yola, on the Benoué River and Dikoa going up to the outer extremity of Lake Chad. Where no natural boundaries existed, they drew precise borders determined by geographical coordinates. Thus, in a dispute between France and Italy, they agreed that Italy was to own the land that “lies north of a line from the intersection of the Tropic of Cancer and the 17th meridian to the intersection of the 15th parallel and 21st meridian.”

They acted as though Africa were one borderless land. They ignored the various city-states, kingdoms and, yes, empires that existed in what they called Darkest Africa. Families and nations were torn asunder, villages divided. Instead came oddities like those straight lines in North Africa and Namibia, the creation of teeming populous states called Nigeria and the Belgian Congo, made up of different nations and city-states, and the insertion into French-speaking Senegal of an English-speaking sliver of land called The Gambia.

At independence, African nations adopted a strategy that would have long term consequences: they doggedly insisted on respect for those colonial borders. We have seen on our television screens some of the aftereffects of that decision: wars of secession in Biafra, Katanga, the Niger Delta, and Darfur, and the breakaway of South Sudan, the only modern African nation to exist in defiance of colonial borders.

Back to Berlin: the Reich Chancellery is no more, it was bombed by the allies in the Second World War. The original building has been erased from Wilhelmstrasse, from living memory. After the First World War, Germany was stripped of its colonial possessions under the Treaty of Versailles, but even now, in Bagamoyo, you find testimony to Germany’s presence in Africa. Overlooking the ocean in their tranquil rest is an old graveyard where you find neat rows of the German dead.

Hier ruht in Gott, der Unterliutenant zu See, Max Schelle

Franz Grouca, Oberlazarethgehilfe, Kaiserliche Schutztruppe

Karl Koetzle, Liutenant, Kaiserliche Schutztruppe

Peter Merkel, Zahlmeister

Germany was in Africa only too briefly, but even that brief encounter left its traces. Your history, Europe’s history, is our African present. For us, for the nations considered to be les Damnés de la Terre, the wretched of the earth, the erasure of that history is not possible. Bismarck’s Reich Chancellery may be gone, but the decisions reached around that table in that music room long ago left their permanent marks. Because Europe’s past is Africa’s present, it is the present of a continent and its wider diaspora.

Colonialism was not something that just ended with the independence of African nations. Like slavery before it, it was a debilitating and dehumanizing process accompanied by conquest. Colonialism’s most damaging effects were not in the physical transformation of African nations, but in the binary opposition it created, of self and other, white and black, good and evil, superior and inferior. This is territory that Fanon has trodden well.

These binary oppositions ultimately led to the racial discrimination that marked relations between the white settlers and the native populations. Europe could enjoy supremacy because it convinced the rest of the world, and the conquered peoples, that it was the responsibility of Europe to carry the “White Man’s Burden,” and that its mission was not an exploitative but a civilizing one. Rudyard Kipling was writing of the United States in the Philippines in his famous poem justifying imperialism, but his words were equally applied to Europe in Africa:

Take up the White Man’s burden —

Send forth the best ye breed —

Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives’ need;

To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild —

Your new-caught, sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child.

And, more satirically, here is Hillaire Belloc:

Whatever happens, we have got

The Maxim gun, and they have not.

There is a joke much enjoyed in Zimbabwe that goes: when the white man came, he had the Bible and we had the land. He said, close your eyes, let us pray, and when we opened them, we had the Bible and he had the land! Like the best jokes, it is a joke that speaks to a truth. Our religions, our oral traditions, our communal life, our languages, our music, our totems, our poetry, and our dances, and yes, our very food, were considered primitive and inferior.  We were alienated from our own lands, and our cultures. The best hope for the “native” was to approximate European civilization in dress, manner, food, and language.

In my country, the white settlers taught that the mighty stone city of Great Zimbabwe that gave my country its name was built by the Phoenicians who presumably travelled down to Zimbabwe, built that great city, and then vanished, leaving nothing else behind, no bits of pottery, not even their bones. A white Rhodesian archaeologist called Peter Garlake, who also contributed to the study of the Yoruba civilization in Ife, Nigeria, lost his job at the University of Rhodesia because he exploded this nonsense theory and insisted that Great Zimbabwe was built by black people.

I agree fully with Ngugi who has written:

Berlin of 1884 was effected through the sword and the bullet. But the night of the sword and the bullet was followed by the morning of the chalk and the blackboard. The physical violence of the battlefield was followed by the psychological violence of the classroom. But where the former was visibly brutal, the latter was visibly gentle.

This psychological violence that was done to the mind is indeed one of the most damaging effects of colonialism, an effect that we still live with today. Europe’s past is Africa’s present: we were taught and came to believe that the only civilizing influence was Europe, and the only civilization European.



Who Built the Seven Gates of Thebes?

I try hard to avoid raising problems without also raising solutions. And that is why I have proposed some solutions. I have spoken about the importance, from the European end, of acknowledging, accepting and teaching this history. And from our own end in Africa, I have spoken of how we can begin to live with the present past without being hostage to its pain. For both Europe and Africa, I have spoken of how to create a more equitable international economic order, and of what we mean by reparations, of matters of governance, and statecraft. I am an international lawyer, and these are questions that I engage with daily. But I am also a writer, and above all, I am a reader. So I want to end by speaking about the power of reading.

I want to posit that beyond these questions of governance and statecraft, reparations and global equity, there is yet more that we can all do. It is to read.  It is to read history, particularly where it is written by the subalterns. And to read fiction, the only real means we have to enter completely the inner life of another. I believe that historical fiction can help us understand the past with empathy and compassion.

I do not mean to say that reading replaces any or all of what is needed to redress this past and make the future equitable, or that fiction can replace history, but reading fiction creates empathy and understanding. Especially if we bring the subaltern to the center so that we read that history in a way that humanizes it, that looks not only at conquests and battles but the people who fought the battles, or who were conquered in those battles.

What is the story of that German man in the Bagamoyo graveyard, Peter Merkel, Zahlmeister? How did he come to die in a far-off land? And who dug his grave, and put earth over his coffin. What were they thinking as they did so?

I believe that we should bring the subaltern to the center of history through learning about the unheralded figures of history, particularly when they feature in historical fiction.

I want to end with the words of Bertolt Brecht. I was going to read this in the original language in which he wrote this magnificent poem, but here in Berlin, I do not want to murder Brecht. Here is an anthem for the foot soldier, for the common man, the mason, the artisan, the slave, the cook. If you can think of Africa in the way he asks us to think of Classical Rome, of Thebes and Lima, China and fabled Atlantis, we will have reached far in our understanding of our shared past.

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?

The books are filled with names of kings.

Was it the kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?

And Babylon, many times destroyed.

Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,

That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?

In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished

Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome

Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom

Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song.

Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend

The night the seas rushed in,

The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.

Young Alexander conquered India.

He alone?

Caesar defeated the Gauls.

Was there not even a cook in his army?

Phillip of Spain wept as his fleet

was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?

Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years War.

Who triumphed with him?

Every page a victory

At whose expense the victory feast?

Every ten years a great man,

Who paid the piper?

So many particulars.

So many questions.

Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for your kind attention.




Achebe, Chinua, The Education of a British-Protected Child (2010).

Belloc, Hillaire, The Modern Traveler (1898).

Brecht, Bertolt, “A Worker Reads History” (1936).

Coates, Ta-Nehisi, “The Case for Reparations (2014).

Fanon, Franz, The Wretched of the Earth (1961).

Knoll, Arthur J and Hiery, Herman, The German Colonial Experience: Select Documents on German Rule in Africa, China, and the Pacific 1884-1914 (2010).

Kipling, Rudyard, “The White Man’s Burden” (1899).

Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).

McNair, Arnold, The Law of Treaties (1936).

Pakenham, Thomas, The Scramble for Africa (1992).

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, Can the Subaltern Speak? (1988).

Suttle, Oisin, Distributive Justice and World Trade Law: A Political Theory of International Trade Regulation (2017).

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, translated by Rex Warner (2000).

wa Thiong’o, Ngũgĩ, Decolonising the Mind (1986).