The late Ghanaian BBC journalist Komla Dumor, in a TED Talk titled Telling the African Story, asked: "What story should one tell?" While acknowledging the existence of wonderful success stories on the continent at a time when the world was awash with “Africa rising” narratives, Dumor pointed out the obligation that storytellers have, of ensuring a balance of stories and telling tales of suffering as well.
Kenya’s Makena Onjerika, winner of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing, seems to follow Dumor’s advice in her winning short story, “Fanta Blackcurrant”. Makena, who was picked from a shortlist of five – mostly drawn from Nigeria – won for a story that was first published in the 2017 spring issue of the literary journal, “Wasafiri”. The award comes with a 10,000 pound sterling cash prize, translating to about Sh1.32 million.
In an interview with the Saturday Nation, Makena said: “Winning the Caine Prize means that I will be able to write full time. There is a lot of interest in my work from agents and publishers currently which gives me a lot more motivation to write. I will also be able to set up a creative writing class in Nairobi, something I have wanted to do for some time now.”
“Fanta Blackcurrant” is a story laced with a number of themes yet, at its core, sits the heavy issue of homelessness.
Written in first person plural, Makena’s prose sings and is delightfully readable. Her chief success, it seems, lies in the innovativeness with which she uses language. For she directly translates, Kenyanises, moulds and kneads and folds words so wonderfully that one could as well be reading the story in street Kiswahili. It is as if she pulls phrases directly from the mouths of speaking characters before they go cold then encloses them alive and warm on paper.
With such prose, it is easy to see how Makena’s story emerged winner, defeating the trio of Nigerians and the South African authors who were also in the running for one of the most lucrative writing prizes in Africa. Sadly, Meri’s life is not a happy one, and it is quite distressing to follow her through the narrow boulevards as she inhales glue, begs and steals on the dangerous city streets.
Makena’s portrayal of street life brings to mind Meja Mwangi’s novel, Going Down River Road. And Onjerika’s play with prose invokes Noviolet Bulawayo’s Caine Prize-winning short story, ‘Hitting Budapest’. Just like Bulawayo’s protagonist, Darling, who sneaks away from her slum home to go steal guavas in leafy Budapest, it is hunger that gets Meri and the other street children to exchange “innocent” habits like begging for harder ones like prostitution and snatching bags from shoppers in the city.
If Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, in which “Hitting Budapest” is the first chapter, is a lamentation to a nation that has drowned its people, then Onjerika’s short story is a lamentation to a city that has drowned its children.
Yet it is Onjerika’s over-reliance on direct translation and her seemingly lack of synchrony between literary and poetic language that is the window through which criticism enters her otherwise brilliant narrative. For her use of informal language goes on and on, with no visible end in sight. The reader secretly wishes she could have laboured a little to make the prose a little more poetic and to perhaps even, attempt a neat tie-up of the frayed ending.
But then a question arises; in life, do we really get to know the ending of the lives of the “chokora” we see in Nairobi? Or do they, like Meri, simply cross the Nairobi River never to be seen or heard from again?
Onjerika’s win is undoubtedly a win for Kenyan writers in general. For she bags an international prize at a time when literary critics seem worried about the low literary output coming out of Kenya. Moreover, if the three previous Kenyan winners of the Caine are to be considered, then it is to be expected that Makena will, in the near future, also produce a work of repute.
Binyavanga Wainaina won it in 2002 with his short story, “Discovering Home”, and went on to start the publishing house Kwani? In 2003, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor won the prize, then went ahead to give us “Dust”, a book that many consider her magnum opus. “Dust” went on to win the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2015.
On winning the Caine Prize in 2014, Okwiri Oduor got representation from the reputable Wylie Literary Agency and word on the wire is that her historical novel is forthcoming from Scribner’s and Sons.
Besides the Kenyans, other authors who have won the prize include Sudan’s Leila Aboulela (2000); Nigeria’s Helon Habila (2001), Zimbabwe’s Brian Chikwava (2004); Nigeria’s Segun Afolabi (2005); South Africa’s Mary Watson (2006) and Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007). South African Henrietta Rose-Innes won the award in 2008 while Nigeria’s EC Osondu emerged the winner in 2009. The 2010 winner was Olufemi Terry from Sierra Leone.
Interestingly, Onjerika’s win might just have saved the face of the Caine Prize awarding committee and its administrators. For it comes at a period during which the credibility and popularity of the prize has been on a downward spiral. The past few years have seen African literary heavyweights like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and even Binyavanga criticise the prize for its patronising attitude towards the African story.
The Caine Prize has been accused of perpetuating stereotypes and selling poverty porn so much so that African writers have been forced to skew their writing in favour of popular Western stereotypes in the hope of bagging the prize. This has especially been taken in bad taste because the young writers were seen to be going against the very thing that Chinua Achebe’s generation of writers had been working so hard to counter, the stereotypical portrayal of Africa in fictional writing, especially by Western writers.
After the shortlist was announced some weeks back, some writers and literary blogs complained bitterly about the poor quality of the stories that appeared in the shortlist this year. Heated discussions then ensued on social media about how poorly edited stories with glaring grammatical and punctuation errors could be termed “best stories out of Africa”. In the end, the critics were of the opinion that it is in fact Short Story Day Africa - a relatively new prize - and not the Caine prize which is the home to good quality African stories.
In light of the above sentiments, it is then possible to imagine that Onjerika’s story, one of the strongest on the 2018 shortlist, is the redemption song that the Caine Prize needed to sing to save face.
Besides the cash prize, the award will see Makena take home a number of goodies among them a residency at Georgetown University at the Lannan Centre for Poetics and Social Practice and a chance to take part in literary festivals around the world.
In an interview on BBC, Onjerika, the prize’s 19th winner and graduate of the MFA Creative Writing programme from the New York University, said she will donate half of her prize money to help rehabilitate street children.
Gloria Mwaniga teaches in Baringo County. [email protected]
WHAT WINNING PIECE IS ALL ABOUT
Set in Nairobi, the story follows the sad yet familiar story of Meri, a light-skinned street girl, as she and her friends try to navigate the daily grind of city life in an effort to make ends meet.
To an outsider, Meri’s childhood dream of having a huge Fanta Blackcurrant to drink every day might seem mundane and rather simplistic, yet upon a closer reading, one may come to the realisation that the soda might have simply been a craving for the good life.
As the chief judge of the 2018 prize Dinaw Mengistu said, Onjerika’s story “presides over a grammar and architecture of its own making, one that eschews any trace of sentimentality in favour of a narrative that is haunting in its humour, sorrow and intimacy.”