This past Saturday, while attending a book club meeting in Nairobi, I found myself smack in the middle of a rather interesting discussion of Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu.
Towards the end of the conversation, we attendees were placed into groups and asked to write down what we deemed the three major issues that ail us as a nation.
As is the case whenever national issues are discussed in Kenya, land, the four letter word which seems to carry a generational curse as far back dated as the one unleashed by Kintu Kidda upon his family in Makumbi’s book, was widely mentioned.
Interestingly, Kenya’s Mbogo Ireri, 2018 winner of the Kampala-based Writivism Short Story Prize, seems to deem land an important matter, too, for it is the theme of his winning story Hopes and Dreams which beat those by Zambia’s Mali Kambandu and Nigeria’s Obinna Jones to emerge winner of the prize.
Hopes and Dreams tells the story of a civil servant who ends up hanging himself when he can no longer deal with the pressure and public humiliation that stems from his prosecution for land related crimes.
SHARP AND EXCELLENT OBSERVER
The young narrator, a sharp and excellent observer with a keen eye for detail of village life, takes us through the particulars of her father’s life and death.
Through flashback, we are taken back to his days at the ministry of Lands and shown his unscrupulous dealings which involved transferring title deeds to wrong hands and asking for bribes.
The civil servant, a city man who carries the problems of his village mates in a briefcase, is unable to manipulate the system when a new government, serious about fighting corruption, carries out an anti-corruption survey that puts him in the spotlight.
An easy and rather straightforward read, the story is enjoyable, save for some bits which read like reported newspaper articles.
Moreover, the reader sometimes wishes that the writer could have, perhaps, employed a little bit of the sort of the delightfully biting sarcastic tone one finds in Achebe’s descriptions of corrupt civil servants.
Quite frankly, though, one might ever so mildly, wish the fate of the narrator’s father upon the myriads of corrupt and corruptible leaders and civil servants in this country.
Writivism is a Kampala-based continent-wide literary festival organised by the Centre for African Cultural Excellence. It aims at identifying, mentoring and promoting emerging African writers.
Writivism was founded in 2012 by Kyomuhendo A. Ateenyi, Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire and Naseemah Mohamed. Now in its sixth year, the festival has expanded to include an online mentorship program, and a non-fiction prize.
It has also continued to publish anthologies containing collected stories from its long list. Previous winners of the prize include Ugandan Anthea Paelo (2013), South African Saahela Idrees Bamjee (2014), Nigeria’s Pemi Aguda (2015), Ugandan Acan Innocent Immaculate (2016) and Nigerian Munachim Amah (2017).
Critics have praised continent-based literary competitions like Writivism and Short Story Day Africa because they are seen as safe spaces which allow African writers to submit stories that have been written without a western audience in mind. Writivism prize administrators do not give out themes for the competition in order to allow for diverse interests of writer.
The prize has steered clear of poverty porn literature and war stories and has, instead, picked winners whose themes range from speculative fiction to sexuality questions.
The 2018 Short Story Prize was judged by Shedrack Chikoti, a writer from Malawi, together with Uganda’s Beatrice Lamwaka and Zimbabwean Emmanuel Sigauke.
As 2018 winner, Ireri, a hotelier by training, will receive a cash prize of $400 and a chance to attend a one month writing residency at Stellenbosch University in South Africa where he will be expected to work with a mentor to develop his craft. Ireri’s win, which comes during a year when two other Kenyan writers — Khadija Abdalla Bajaber and Makena Ojerika — have bagged the Graywolf Press International Prize and Caine Prize, respectively, is seen by many literary enthusiasts as a sign that, perhaps, Kenyan writers have finally broken the jinx that has been keeping them from winning literary prizes for years.
The writer is a teacher in Baringo County. [email protected]