Fiction for Young Adults

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Shafi, Adam

Kuli

Docker


Nairobi, Kenya: Tanzania Publishing House, 1979; Nairobi, Kenya: Longhorn Publishers, 2005. 206 p. ISBN 9966-49-771-4. Ages 12 and up.


Language: Kiswahili


Publisher: Longhorn Publishers


Summary
This interesting novel chronicles the hardships endured by dockworkers during the colonial period on the island of Zanzibar. These workers were persistently dehumanised and humiliated by their European, Indian, and Arab employers. Despite these devastating conditions, they learned to survive, sustained by the hope that their suffering would come to an end one day.

The narrative centres on the protagonist, Rashidi, an only child of a veteran docker, Majaliwa. Born in abject poverty, his life seems destined to be like his father’s – one of want and deprivation. When Majaliwa dies of tuberculosis as a result of the unhealthy conditions he is exposed to while loading and unloading ships, young Rashidi has to assume the daunting task of providing for his elderly mother. Without formal education, the only work he can get is the backbreaking one at the dock. When Rashidi’s mother dies, he realises that he has to single-handedly fend for his survival, especially once he gets married.

Determined to break the myth that the life of a docker is all about drinking, irresponsible sex, and meaningless existence, Rashidi enrols in evening classes organised by friends of the Dock Worker’s Union for the purpose of empowering workers to stand up against oppression. His strong resolve endears him to the veteran Union activists Faraji and Bakari. Ultimately, he also becomes a leader, ready to fight for good working conditions and (as is foreshadowed) for political independence. For their pivotal role in the struggle for the liberation of workers, Faraji and Bakari are killed by the colonial askaris, while Rashidi is jailed after a highly flawed trial. However, the deaths and imprisonment become symbols for the continued resistance by the masses, ultimately paving the way for the liberation of Zanzibar.

Commentary
Kuli is a well-told story. Its major strength rests in this renowned and accomplished author’s skill in intertwining the individual lives of dockworkers with the history of national resistance. This book compares favourably with that other great African novel about workers and liberation, God’s Bits of Wood, by Sembene Ousmane.

 

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