Friday, 12 September 2014 09:14

Language and Identity in Moyez Vassanji’s The Gunny Sack

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In order to understand the way and the purpose of using languages other than English in, at least, selected works of Moyez Vassanji, it would be reasonable to answer at least two questions. One - how and for which purpose does the author use what I would call 'language-mixing devices' (such as code-switching and code-mixing). Two - what does he write about languages, including English, but mostly African and Indian ones, and which roles, according to the writer, do these languages play in the lives of his characters and societies he describes. I will try to answer these questions using the text of his debut novel The Gunny Sack (1989), since I believe in this book the necessary linguistic material is contained not only in abundance, but is used in the way that allows to fulfil the above-set tasks.

It is quite obvious that Vassanji profoundly uses the local languages in the ways traditional in African literature (as described by Paul Bandia) - to spice up his texts with 'local colour' and to introduce and describe the local cultural phenomena. However, using them for this rather 'conventional' purpose, Vassanji also goes far beyond it, using language-mixing as an important instrument of shaping the novel's message.

Some scholars refer to The Gunny Sack as 'a book that in the most penetrating manner captures the Asian people's search for identity in the sub-region' (Ilieva and Odiemo-Munara, 197). And exactly this search for new identity is reflected in the linguistic 'landscape' of the book.

In colonial times, where everyone was shown a place in hierarchy, Indian immigrants and their descendants seem to start occupying their own niche in East African society. Through the life of the main character of the novel's first part, India-born Dhanji Govindji, and also his relatives and children, the author speaks of the established and strengthening position of the Indians in the region. He stresses that the Indian newcomers managed to establish good relations not only with their neighbours, a 'respectable and prudent Swahili company' (21), - but even with the Germans; for example, when the German soldiers searched all the houses in Matamu looking for three maji maji rebels, Indian houses were spared from search (19-20).

Vassanji does not specify (except in very few cases) the language in which Germans and Indians, or Indian and Africans communicate in colonial Tanganyika. However, it appears that even 'by default' it should be Swahili, for exactly Swahili, according to the historical sources, was the language of communication in German East Africa (see, e.g., Malik 1996).

After British advent, although facing certain difficulties, the descendants of Dhanji Govindji successfully go on in major East African cities, again managing to acquire a niche in the local society. And those days Swahili again seems to enter quite firmly into the everyday life and mentality of the community. Salim and his siblings, growing up against the Swahili background of the immediate neighbourhood (87), acquire the habits of language mixing very quickly, and soon Salim's elder cousin Shamim tells him stories with ' "Once upon a time" in English and then mixed with Cutchi and Swahili' (97).

After Independence, the old colonial world has fallen apart, so Salim and his numerous relatives are again trying to re-acquire a distinct identity, a sense of belonging to the new East African milieu, where the previous hierarchies seem to vanish. 'Salim and his like now have to adopt and adapt to an atmosphere of an unknown, unfamiliar environment that is East Africa after independence' (Makokha 69). And one of the ways of this adaptation is the re-acquisition of the language, namely, Swahili, through which Salim and 'his like' seem to procure for a new Tanganyikan and, later Tanzanian, identity. For Salim it is even more important – his grandmother, Govindji's first wife, was an African slave woman named Taratibu, and this drop of her African blood in his veins is still one of the major concerns of Salim.

Even on the eve of independence, preparing for the elections to Tanganyika's first self-government, the most prescient Indian candidates were using Swahili in their campaigns. In the newly independent Tanganyika the language acquired topmost importance – and especially for the local Indians. This importance is stressed in many episodes. In the march to support the President the men and boys of the Asian community carry slogans and sing songs in Swahili. 'And when we reached State House, Nuru Poni made a speech in Swahili that did us proud' (184). Swahili serves the Indian community's different needs, from begging the African neighbour to return the fallen cricket ball (117-118) to resolving the conflict with the same neighbour if the boys misbehaved. In the end, it looks like Swahili, as a symbol of their new nation and identity, becomes really part of the personality of young Tanzanian (already) Indians, relatives and friends of Salim.

The importance given to the language by the government is also obvious. Amina, Salim's African girlfriend, whom he met at the National Service camp, was asked to give lectures to the cadets in politics and culture. The girl was in no doubt about the language of her lecturers – 'She decided she would read to her class. First she gave them Abdel Latif Kofi (a Swahili poet from Lamu, one of the characters – MG), then Shaban Robert. She translated excerpts from Chinua Achebe' (221). And it is exactly through Amina, through their love relations and spiritual bond, that Salim's serious, self-conscious attempts to acknowledge his current and acquired new identity got their start. Identity, ethnicity, race were already the topics of their very first conversation – and already then the language issues became involved. And later, exactly through the involvement of the language the first major step on the way of two communities towards each other is made. When Salim's old grandmother, Ji Bai, performs a Swahili dance, surprised Amina (later she and Ji Bai become as close as relatives) asks: 'We Mswahili, nini?' To which Ji Bai replies: 'Yes, I am Swahili... and Indian and Arab... and European' (228). It seems that it is not just by chance that Amina tries to manifest her affection to Ji Bai by suggesting the commonality of language. Of course she knows that the old Indian woman is not a 'Mswahili' – but by calling her one, she acknowledges their common belonging to this land, fertilized by the bones and blood of their ancestors, the land which they are now supposed to share on equal grounds (and in Ji Bai's vision it extends over everyone who lives on it – Africans, Indians, Arabs and Europeans). How serious was Amina's determination from now on to treat Indians as her compatriots and equals, and how important, in her opinion, was the role of language in that, is shown in another episode, when matured and sophisticated Amina, back in Tanzania after her overseas studies, at the gathering of her 'comrades-in-thought' again raises the questions of belonging and identity of East African Indians, stating that 'Tanzania is different, its Asians more truly African', and their 'Africanness' is mostly demonstrated in their fluent use of the language and their contribution to it, for Swahili contains so many Indian words. Salim heartily thanks Amina – for in her he met a genuine (even if maybe a sole) attempt, made by a person from 'the other side', to verbalise (and maybe even to formulate) his own hopes and aspirations, to acknowledge his equality. At that, in the same way as people from Salim's community do, Amina does it through language.

Summing up the aforesaid examples, I tend to conclude that the presence of languages other than English, mostly through the use of what I conditionally call 'language-mixing devices', serves in the novel the purposes reaching far beyond the conventional use of such devices for the needs of reproducing the local colour or specific cultural realities. Languages in The Gunny Sack perform multiple functions. Through masterful use of the non-English words and expressions he manages to express the characters' ethnicity, cultural background and social stand. In the long run, it allows him of East Africa, to describe various aspects of social relationships in East African society in various periods of history, to create their specific atmosphere, to draw a panorama of East Africa as a contact zone of various cultures, reflecting its diversity. One of the main functions is expressing and constructing the characters' identity in various times and contexts. Of these, the most prominent role is delegated to the Swahili language, which plays cognate, but slightly different roles in the lives of the novel's main characters. For Salim, it is a way to reconcile with his African ancestry, his African blood inherited from his slave grandmother, with the long and turbulent history of his community and his land.


Bandia, Paul. 1996. Code-Switching and Code-Mixing in African Creative Writing: Some Insights for Translation Studies. TTR : traduction, terminologie, rédaction, 9 (1), 139-153.

Ilieva, Emilia, and Lennox Odiemo-Munara. 2011. 'Negotiating Dislocated Identities in the Space of Post-Colonial Chaos: Goretti Kyomuhendo's Waiting'. Negotiating Afropolitanism: Essays on Borders and Spaces in Contemporary African Literature and Folklore. Wawrzinek, Jennifer and J.K.S.Makokha (eds.). Amsterdam-New York: Rodopi, pp. 183-204.

Malik, Nasor. 1996. 'Extension of Kiswahili during the German colonial administration in continental Tanzania (former Tanganyika), 1885-1917'. Swahili Forum 3, pp.155-159.

Vassanji, Moyez G. 1989. The Gunny Sack. London: Heinemann.


GromovMikhail D Gromov
United States International University – Africa

Mikhail Gromov has a PhD in African Studies from Moscow Lomonosov State University; currently he is an Assistant Professor of Literature at the United States International University, Nairobi, Kenya.

Read 8487 times Last modified on Tuesday, 16 September 2014 12:20