Since I do not know much about formalities – nor do I pretend to know – I greet and thank everyone present equally. It is an honor for me to be here today, in front of so many distinguished people, knowing that the whole world is watching this ceremony. I hope, therefore, not to disappoint anyone with these humble and brief words that I must perforce and pronounce. If I disappoint, I hope it's not too much. And in the worst case, if I disappoint too much, I hope you can forgive me. Finally, the Prize has already been awarded, and that would show that it was a mistake to award it to me, as I really think. I don't know if I really deserve such a high award. Personally, I think not. I even dare to think that it was indeed a mistake. As I have said so many times, I am not a writer; much less, a great writer who deserves this distinction.
I want to begin my speech by apologizing if I cannot express myself with all the ease and beauty that a Nobel Prize for Literature would be expected to do. It so happens that my mother tongue is not English, but Swahili, a language that I have spoken all my life with much greater proficiency, from my native village in the jungle to this day. If I have written in the language of Shakespeare – with all the forgiveness of the British purist classics – that is due to the inheritance that the Queen of the Seas bequeathed on us, from the interference that she had in our continent. Can you imagine the Queen of England or the Speaker of the House of Lords speaking Swahili? I really do not. And why do I have to speak in English? Why today do I have to wear this – forgive me for the epithet – stupid black suit and this – for my taste at least – ridiculous bow? Would the British Prime Minister use our national costumes for any of our ceremonies?
In any case, I do not want to insist on this question of introductions: I speak English, perhaps poorly, and I wear a suit that is uncomfortable for me. But I do not want to dwell on this aspect but to apologize, secondly, for my lack of information. I could not even remotely show off with paraphernalia of data on the history and current situation of my country: Jamhuri ya Muungano wa Tanzania –my race, my continent– as I did in a similar ceremony myself –it makes me a little nervous to pronounce the word–"colleague", referring to García Márquez a Latin American who has also received this award.
On the occasion of receiving his award, right here, years ago, he amazed everyone with an oratory piece so full of data, so rich in information, that I think it could be worth another award for him. No, I do not have all that knowledge. I know that I come from a poor place, one of the poorest places on the planet, with more hunger than anything else, but I will not go into much detail about it. There are the United Nations reports for that.
Believe me: I am not a writer; I do not consider myself as such. In my youth, I was, as another colleague, also a Nobel winner –Saramago, the Portuguese bard– locksmith. If I were a lyricist, an exquisite master of lyrics like he is, I could say that this youthful trade allowed me, years later, to open the locks of the human spirit. But no, I let them down. I think that I am still, at heart, more of a locksmith – and a car mechanic, and a rural teacher, as I have also been – than a writer.
I came to literature almost by chance, I never prepared myself for it. I never formally studied anything related to the fine arts, and I did not attend any literary workshop. Sorry to disappoint you if you were expecting something else. I began to write almost as a visceral necessity: I could not remain silent in the face of the calamities that I saw daily in my country, the misery, the injustice. All this was so horrifying –and it still is, without a doubt– that it seemed necessary to leave a record before the history of so much monstrosity.
Why do we blacks suffer so much? Since I did not have a camera or cellular phone to take pictures, much less since I could not capture it on film, I thought I had to write about that reality. If I had had plastic/aesthetic skills, I assure you, I would have painted; Needless to say, I do not have them.
As you can see, then, I am not inspired by the Muses. Do I keep letting them down? I simply limited myself to putting on paper –I clarify that I have never used a computer to write– what I felt about what I saw on a daily basis. Do you know what it is like to eat every two days... with good luck, of course? I do not intend at all to be melodramatic and tell you the greatest infamies that you can imagine seeking to move you and make you shed a tear. I think that is immoral misery porn. If you want to be moved, visit the places where I come from, and that inspired me to write what you reward me for today.
I insist, that I do not know if I am worthy of this distinguished award. I am not a beautiful writer – I am not talking about "my" beauty; I consider myself rather ugly, really. I am not a stylist, a subtle and delicate rhapsodist, a magician of words. There are many who have understood literature in this way – and I too, ultimately, think that is what literary art is. But I am not one of those. I am rather rustic, clumsy even. I do not paint/describe beauties; I speak, simply, of the suffering life of my people, of my suffering life.
I sense that this award is now conferred to me with a symbolic value: a black man – a black man! – from one of the poorest countries out there. Is it not compensation, a form of compensation? Those who have read my work – which by the way are not many – know that I am not an elegant master of language. Why then this award? I appreciate it, of course, I cannot stop being happy; I think it is important to accept it, precisely because I am a black man from an extremely poor country. But is not this recognition a bit late?
I assure you that I am not resentful against whites, even if you all do not care to know, no one is asking me, but one of my best friends in my country is white. You, those present here, the Queen of Sweden, all these important people who are used to wearing these suits that seem like straitjackets to me, whilst for you, these clothes are something of the most everyday life, all of you are not directly responsible for our infinite hardships, as blacks and poor. Or maybe yes?
Who is to blame then? In what is now Tanzania, it is known that the first human being in history appeared, several million years ago, and from there he moved around the planet. So, let me put it this way, today's whites, blondes, and blue eyes are faded blacks, they are genetic mutations. Why are we so far behind? Why have we had to suffer so many outrages? Can you imagine Europe distributed from a desk, or under a tree, in a meeting of African leaders?
The Berlin Conference was not a joke, an invention, a chimera. There they distributed my continent, my people, my resources, like children who distribute a cake. They knew it right? On February 26, 1885, in Berlin, Germany, 14 men representing as many countries as possible – none of them African of course, it is worth clarifying – and chaired by the Teutonic Chancellor von Bismarck, sitting in front of a map of Africa, played a game of dividing up the continent.
You, I tell you with all my heart, you are not responsible. You inherited that history. You are white, rich, who do not know anything about what hunger is, and today – how good that it is so! – may have a little conscience, of shame, rather, and think of promoting a symbol like what is currently being consumed in this room: recognizing the monstrosity that their ancestors committed by rewarding publicly, perhaps undeservedly a black, with an international prized trophy.
I thank you, very deeply, with all my soul. But I will tell you the same thing again: maybe I am not worthy of this as a writer. Perhaps yes, as black, as poor. Until now I have survived very meagrely, with small informal jobs or with reduced salaries from the State. You can imagine then, how I could have survived. I never lived as a writer. Perhaps now, having become a Nobel Prize winner, my luck will change. I would not dare to say: my next "good luck"; just different luck. Perhaps, as another colleague said –I have lost my fear of this word, I have already begun to like it–, the equally Nobel laureate, a survivor of the concentration camps, and a symbol, the Hungarian Kertész, once he obtained that award, he met the third dictatorship, after the Nazi and the Bolshevik: the dictatorship of money – the least uncomfortable, he hastened to clarify.
Maybe that will happen to me: now the laurels will arrive, the press spotlights, the friends who are like shadows: those who follow you only because there is the sun. Perhaps – I would say that it will almost certainly happen – they will harass and invite me with lectures and public presentations. I, a modest locksmith, and a schoolteacher! Is not this all a bit disproportionate? What could I pass on to them?
You were probably expecting a brilliant intellectual, an expert on literary matters, a deep thinker. Well, no. Let me tell you that I am not that; Even if I wanted to, I could not be – and I keep letting them down. On the other hand –important clarification– I do not want to be either. I now hold a middle position in the Ministry of Education in Tanzania. I do not know whether I really do what I do well or not, but at least I believe a lot in what I do. In my country, around 30 percent of the population cannot read or write – this is seen even more in women. For this reason, I told them, from the Ministry we have so much to do ahead of us. Imagine in a country of illiterates, where reaching secondary school is already very difficult, and the university is almost an unheard-of luxury, who could care about a few stories about daily misery? Their misery is lived day by day, hour by hour, it is not necessary to read it in a book.
For all this, I think it is somewhat excessive to be receiving the Nobel Prize here today. I could not accept it, as Jean-Paul Sartre did at the time. But I do not think it is the best thing to do that way. I accept it, always with the idea that I do not deserve it, that there are better writers than me – and I say it very sincerely; I am a simple popular minstrel who talks about everyday things, about everyday misery. But I accept it precisely because of the symbolic value that I understand it entails. I accept it, on one condition: that those present here all take – I already took it – the genuine commitment to revert the situation that Africa is experiencing a long time ago since colonialism arrived.
Yes, just as you all hear. Do I let you down? Did not you expect this? Well, excuse me, but I do not think I am asking for anything out of place. In the name of what kind of right for my population, my brothers and sisters, we all were converted into slaves? By what historical right the Western power have plundered us, as they have done it? Why are we condemned to be the defeated, the forgotten, the marginal, the miserable? Why do we have to live on the infamous alms of international charity, always deficient, always at the wrong time? By what right do you want us to pay an immoral, unbearable, and disastrous external debt, which no inhabitant of Africa has contracted directly? How can we forget the centuries of exploitation, of ignominy, of degradation that we had to endure, just for being black? Why are we condemned to endure a disease like HIV-AIDS, fratricidal wars that invent us from outside our borders, mercilessly depleting our resources?
What if it were true that we demand that, from now on, the monarch of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and why not her subjects too – be compelled to speak the Swahili language? And why do we have to agree to drink Coca-Cola and eat at McDonald's? Do not we have decent food in our villages? By what right is it considered that "culture" should have a Greek Parthenon as its symbol -as is the representation of UNESCO- and not, for example, one of our huts? who made us believe that whites are more "educated" than blacks? Why are we blacks condemned, even though it suits us, to be professional athletes? –modern gladiators for the contemporary circus. Can we blacks not be more than just criminals when we live in the world of whites? Is that our discriminative destiny? To be illegal immigrants, thieves, slums settlers, and so on?
I accept your white prize, ladies and gentlemen, only on the condition that you acknowledge in public, here, in front of all these television cameras, that with a Nobel Prize given to a black guy, you are not paying anything for the historical infamy, the colossal dispossession and the infinite injustice that has been committed against our people in Africa.
I accept this white prize, which provides corrupted, disgusting, and bloodstained Western banknotes, only on the condition that this is the beginning – somewhat clownish, by the way – of a repair process that must take years or centuries perhaps for all the damage caused. Who is going to give us back the disappeared forests? Who, how, and when, the Western World will apologize for all the destruction and calamity they imposed upon us?
Do you think, by any chance, that this award will remedy anything? No shit! But I accept it anyway. Thank you very much.