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Five writers battle it out for AKO Caine Prize for Africa

Friday June 26 2020
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2018 Caine Prize winner Makena Onjerika. PHOTO | COURTESY

By GLORIA MWANIGA

Africa’s largest annual short story prize, the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing, recently announced its shortlisted writers for 2020. The five writers — three Nigerians, one Rwandan and a Tanzanian — were selected from 222 submissions, the largest number of entries since the inception of the prize.

The entries came from 28 African countries, with each shortlisted writer being awarded £500. The winner, who bags a cash prize of £10,000, is usually announced at a dinner held in London every June. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the ceremony has been postponed until further notice.

The shortlisted writers for 2020 are Erica Sugo Anyadike’s (Tanzania) “How to Marry an African President”; Chikodili Emelumadu’s (Nigeria & UK) “What to Do When Your Child Brings Home a Mami Wata”; Jowhor Ile’s (Nigeria) “Fisherman’s Stew”; Rémy Ngamije’s (Rwanda & Namibia) “The Neighbourhood Watch”; and Irenosen Okojie’s (Nigeria & UK) “For Grace Jones”.

Anyadike’s story, “How to Marry an African President”, which was published in adda, the online publishing platform of the Commonwealth Foundation, tells of how a secretary in the office of the president rises to become the first lady of the country. Anyadike smartly infuses political machinations in an African country she does not name, but which is recognisable to any reader conversant with politics in Africa.

Emelumadu’s story, “What to Do When Your Child Brings Home a Mami Wata”, is written in a brilliant experimental form reserved mostly for research papers and academic writing. The story is a sort of manual for those who would have to deal with their children marrying Mami Wata’s or what is known as a mermaid. The sarcasm applied in the story makes it a delightful read.

Ngamije’s “The Neighbourhood Watch” talks about five homeless people who live together and how they navigate poverty. How poverty makes them think of only ‘today’ and how they scavenge for food in dustbins. The five of them, known as The Neighbourhood Watch, live off each other, including sexually by sharing Omagano, the only woman in the group. Ngamije documents the Neighbourhood Watch for the seven days of the week until “the Neighbourhood Watch breaks their one rule. They start thinking of the day that is not today, they say goodbye to the day that is yesterday, and worse, they start thinking of the day that is tomorrow.”

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It is interesting to note that this year’s shortlist is filled with writers with hyphenated places of existence.

Additionally, of the five stories shortlisted for the prize in 2020, only one was published in a literary journal on the continent.

The questions then asks itself.

Could the editorial guidance offered by seasoned editors in western publishing platforms like adda and Wasafiri be the reason most stories on the shortlist are by writers who have lived or been published in the West? If that is the case, what can the online literary spaces that operate within the continent do to ensure that they also offer top-notch editorial guidance that will see the writers they publish compete on the same level as those in the ‘Western’ world?

The 2020 judging panel was chaired by British-Nigerian dance artist Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp. He was joined by Audrey Brown, a South African broadcast journalist; Gabriel Gbadamosi, an Irish-Nigerian poet and playwright; Ebissé Wakjira-Rouw, an Ethiopian-born nonfiction editor; and James Murua, a Kenyan-based journalist and blogger.

In a statement on the AKO Caine Prize website, Mr. Tharp said: “We were energised by the enormous breadth and diversity of the stories we were presented with – all of which collectively did much to challenge the notion of the African and diaspora experience, and its portrayal in fiction, as being one homogeneous whole.”

Although the AKO Caine Prize has come under criticism several times for how it represents African writing, it has also been credited for giving visibility to otherwise unknown African writers who went on to have agents and got published. Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Yvonne Owuor (2003), Okwiri Oduor (2014), and Makena Onjerika (2018) have won the prestigious prize over the years.

In Eastern Africa, Kenya has been dominant on the list, and has thus established itself as a literary powerhouse to contend with.

The chairman of the AKO Caine Prize, Ellah Wakatama, commenting on this year’s submissions, commended the increase in the number of submissions. She said: “Authors across African countries are producing remarkable literary works, and we had a ringside seat to read all 222 of them. To bring in our 21st year with an abundance of stories from so many countries is extraordinary.”

Mr Tharp, further commenting about the stories, said: “These brilliant and surprising stories are beautifully crafted, yet they are all completely different from one another. From satire and biting humour, to fiction based on non-fiction, with themes spanning political shenanigans, outcast communities, superstition and social status, loss, and enduring love. Each of these shortlisted stories speak eloquently to the human condition, and to what it is to be an African, or person of African descent, at the start of the second decade of the 21st century. Together, this year’s shortlisted stories signal that African literature is in robust health, and, as demonstrated by the titles alone, never predictable.”

The AKO Caine Prize for African Writing is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, the former chairman of Booker plc and chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. It recently changed its name from the Caine Prize so as to include its main sponsor- the AKO Foundation, whose primary focus is the making of grants to projects that promote the arts and improve education.

Two African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature - Wole Soyinka and J.M. Coetzee - are patrons of the AKO Caine Prize.

It is hoped that the upsurge of online literary journals on the continent will mean many more stories by African writers living on the continent on the AKO Caine shortlist. Additionally, one is inclined to imagine that these very African online spaces are the places that the AKO Caine will look to when scouting for judges of the prize in the future.

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