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Tanzanian novel wins in Whistler

November 05th, 2017

Often we read of overnight success stories in literature, glowing accounts of  young writers who receive whopping contracts for their first or second books.

For Farida Somjee, getting any recognition at all has been a long road. More often than not in the writing game, it’s long-term determination that wins the day…

Farida Somjee was born in Mbeya, Tanzania, and grew up in the larger town of Arusha and in the teeming, coastal capital of Dar es Salaam. Her grandparents had moved from India to Tanzania (then Tanganyika) in the 1920s.

Both of Somjee’s parents were born in Tanzania so she is a third-generation African who has been exposed to Indian, African and western cultures. Hence, she speaks five languages: her mother tongue Kutchi, English, Kiswahili, Gujarati and Hindi. Later Farida Somjee moved to Canada in her late teens with twenty dollars in her pocket and a dream of becoming a writer.

When she was ten years old, in Dar es Salaam, she watched as a young boy, about eight years old, was begging on a streetcorner with his mother. She couldn’t understand why she was in the comfort of a car, enjoying an ice-cream treat, while the boy was reduced to begging. She went back to the streetcorner to find him, but she never saw him. For years she continued to think him and wondered how he lived, and if he survived. “It took me many years to understand that there was nothing special about me,” she says. “I was just born lucky.”

That childhood encounter was the seed that led to her first novel, The Beggar’s Dance, about a boy she named Juma. Privately published and never distributed to bookstores or libraries, The Beggar’s Dance (Amazon 2015) realistically depicts the struggles of eleven-year-old Juma on the mean streets of an unnamed coastal capital from 1977 to 1992.

To gain his independence, Juma must escape the clutches of a mentor/thief and somehow get a job to get himself off the streets. He holds onto fond memories of a friend from his past, a Hindi shopkeeper’s daughter who taught him how to read. This benefactress told him, “You have to believe in yourself, Juma, break the cycle.” Juma gradually breaks the cycle, chiefly by helping someone else: risking his life in order to sequester a young prostitute from her violent pimp. He gains his dignity but love eludes him.

This is a fine, believable and memorable story, not overly-embellished with drama, depicting a very difficult life fraught with tension. Seemingly intended for an adult audience, it would also be ideal as a young adult novel—not unlike Oliver Twist.

Stella Harvey (director, Whistler Festival) with winners Farida Somjee and Paul Shore.

In 2017, the novel was finally accorded critical attention when she received the 2017 Fiction Award at the 16th Annual Whistler Writers Festival. (Paul Shore was named the non-fiction winner for his memoir, Uncorked: My Year in Provence.) The Whistler Independent Book Awards are described as the only juried awards for self-publishing in Canada, with each nominee being individually assessed by judges from the Canadian Authors Association (Metro Vancouver), and the finalists selected by a distinguished team of judges.

“The Beggar’s Dance is a challenging and captivating novel,” said Gail Anderson-Dargatz, a Giller Prize finalist and judge of the Fiction Award. “The real strength of this novel is in Somjee’s portrayal of the secondary characters’ heartache and joy, and how Juma, unwittingly or with purpose, orchestrates change within his community.”


The Beggar’s Dance (Createspace 2015) $18.34 pb 978-1481892018


16 Responses to “Tanzanian novel wins in Whistler”

  1. Vali I V Jamal, PhD says:

    Congratulations, Farida. Mubaraki even since “our” people are not much into writing and even heartier congrats since you are tackling quite a “daring” theme, given that that we East African Asians (I am Ugandan Asian) saw poverty all around us but never tried to think what the poor people’s lives were like. You went deep into their lives. Warning: Commercial coming! I myself have just finished my self-publish book on us Uganda Asians at 2340 pages, 2m words, after 10.6 years. It’s ORALSTORICAL about our lives in Uganda from 1870 to 1972 and 1972 to now, 1972 being the Uganda Asian expulsion. There are >500 stories in people’s own words, from interviews and submissions. At an academic level in the earlier chapters I do take note of the income inequality and poverty that existed all around us and that in fact was a cause of the expulsion. If I tried doing a novel I’d’ve lots about a parallel African family. Senator Mobina, a family friend to all my sisters, has just today promised that my book will be tabled at the Canadian Senate and even presented to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Of course PET figures in the book for taking us to Canada, as do HH Aga Khan and Prince Sadruddin as head of UNHCR. My book should launch around March in Vancouver. Hope to meet you on the skiing heaven! Of course I will buy your book once I get to those parts and perhaps even review it in IsmailiMail and other serious media.

  2. Nasim Jamal says:

    Great job- I will certainly read this book.Congrats Farida.Somji was my maiden name. I am from Tanga, Tanzania

  3. femida says:

    You are awesome! Hope its not too late to say “congrats bhhabhi!”

  4. Gully poonja says:

    Well done Farida. I am from Mbeya too. I will definitely buy your book for my children and grandkids. Proud of your success Farida.

  5. Shera Noorali Haji says:

    Well done Farida. I am from MBEYA too. Congrats. Will definitely read your book.

  6. Mansoor Ladha says:

    Mubaraki to you Farida. Your achievement is an achievement for all of us former Tanzanian residents and other writers. I am also a a writer whose book about Tanzania – Memoirs of a Muhindi: Fleeing east Africa for the West – has just been published.The book, which has been endorsed by Calgary Mayor Nenshi, has received favourable reviews from media and literary journals. Available Amazon, Chapters and other book stores. Congratulations.

  7. Firoz Ismail says:

    Hello Farida
    If only more privileged individuals realized that their place in life is a mere stroke of luck and not necessarily the result of their perseverance and ability
    However, I do respect the ones who achieved their success through hard work and sel-sacrifice
    Can’t wait to read your book

  8. Laila Kurji says:

    Congratulations Farida in a job well done.

  9. Navin Virani says:

    Congratulations Farida for an amazing book and living a legacy for generations to come! You will inspire young upcoming authors in our community and we are proud that you followed your dream.

  10. Mohamed Jiwa says:

    Well done Farida. I am from Mbeya too. Will get your book.

  11. Mohamed Jiwa says:

    Hi Farida, Well done. I am from Mbeya too.

  12. Nazfre Damji says:

    Congrats to you

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