By Anote Ajeluorou
ON Sunday, at The Marquee, Federal Palace Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos, Elnathan John’s wish for African writers came through. As a shortlisted writer in The Caine Prize for African Writing, John had voiced his frustration for making African literatry laureates outside.
So last Sunday, it was in Lagos, and not London or Paris or New York that a winner for the maiden edition of Etisalat Prize for Literature for first fiction book emerged on African soil. She is the petit Zimbabwean novelist, NoViolet Bulawayo; she won with her critically acclaimed book, We Need New Names. She had won The Caine Prize in 2011, with ‘Hitting Budapest’, a modified short story excerpt from her current book, a few years ago.
It wasn’t a surprise win as such. We Need New Names was in the longlist in The Booker Prize in 2013, England’s famous prize contest, as the first African woman to be so appraised.
An elated Bulawayo specially thanked the judges, patrons, and Etisalat Nigeria for the award and for the opportunity the Etisalat Prize for Literature afforded her, saying, "I am thankful to the organizers of this event, Etisalat Nigeria for this most excellent and necessary prize. We are all aware of the shortage of literary prizes and it is heart-warming to know that Etisalat Nigeria sees and values the significance of such literary works in Africa".
She was also presented with an engraved Montblanc Meisterstück pen, a Samsung Galaxy Note. As part of the prize’s pecks, Bulawayo will attend the Etisalat Fellowship at the prestigious University of East Anglia and be mentored by Giles Foden, author of The Last King of Scotland. She will also have book tours in three African cities and get the chance to start work on her second book.
But the prize award went farther than merely announcing the winner from a shortlist of three. In celebrating new and additional authors to the pantheon of African literary canvas, it gave due recognition to pioneering literary icons in the continent, past and present. In a section tagged ‘Write of Passage’, with soft music in the background, the pioneer writers were given credit for their immense roles in lighting the way for those coming behind to see to the future nurturing of a continent’s creative imagination.
Joseph Ephraim Casely Hayford (first Ghanaian novelist), Naquib Mahfouz (Egypt and first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize), DO Fagunwa (Nigeria and pioneer Yoruba writer), Sol T. Plaatje (first South African novelist), Camara Laye (Guinea) and Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. Other living pioneers given credit included Nadine Gordimer (South African and only African female Nobel Prize winner), Ngugu wa Thiong’o (Kenyan) and Nurudeen Farah (Somalia).
Sadly, black Africa’s first Nobel Prize winner, Wole Soyinka wasn’t included in the line-up of writers for recognition. This also goes for an important group that was jumped over for a much younger generation. The Odia Ofeimun, Femi Osofisan, Niyi Osundare, Kole Omotoso, Tanure Ojaide group didn’t feature before focus was shifted to the Ben Okri (Nigeria), Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria), Tstsi Dangarembga (Zimbabwe) and Alain Mabanckou’s (DR Congo) group.
The two runners-up, all females, were Nigeria’s Yewande Omotoso (Bom Boy) and South Africa’s Kareen Jenning (Southbek). This prize has also thrown up the women as being masters of the literary craft at the continental level. For a debut prize to have an all-female shortlist cast is salute to women’s creative ingenuity and a significant shift in the literary power equation. Omotosho and Jenning were also presented with Samsung Galaxy notes. They will also go on book tour of two African cities.
Bulawayo’s win and the dominance of women in this prize is continuation of the literary trend in the last few years both in Nigeria and Africa-wise. In 2012, South Africa’s Sifiso Mzobe squeezed past two other women –Nigeria’s Prof. Akachi Ezeigbo (Roses and Bullets) and another South African, Bridget Pitt (The Unseen Leopard) to win the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa. That same year, Chika Unigwe won The Nigerian Prize for Literature with On Black Sisters Street. Only last year, Dr. Ogochukwu Promise was in the shortlist of three as she contested keenly against Amu Nnadi and the eventual winner, Tade Ipadeola in the same prize. Nigeria’s Chenelo Okparanta (‘America’) vied against three other Nigerians and one Sierra Leonean in The Caine Prize in which Tope Folarin won with ‘Miracle’.
This is how far Africa’s female writers have come, and the future looks bright for them, as they continue to push their creative vision to the front row.
Also, another female writer, Uche Okonkwo won with ‘Neverland’ in the Flash Fiction Prize category and went away with 1000 British Pounds plus other valuable items.
Earlier, Acting Chief Executive Officer, Etisalat Nigeria, Mr. Matthew Willsher reaffirmed his company’s commitment to arts and their capacity of the arts to affect society positively. He noted that the Etisalat Prize for Literature was designed “to recognize and reward debut writers of fiction in Africa, with the objective of discovering new creative talents from Africa and promoting the bludgeoning publishing industry in Africa.
"As a rite of passage, published and unpublished literary works of art have been passed down from generation to generation in Africa. Etisalat Nigeria is indeed pleased to celebrate all authors in the African literary spectrum. As such, Etisalat Nigeria is proud to use its maiden pan-African Prize for Literature to recognize and celebrate the amazing work done by these unique individuals”.
Renowned Ghanaian author, Prof. Ama Ata Aidoo, awarded the Flash Fiction prize to Okonkwo and commented on the growing significance of the genre in world literature on account of the popularity of the internet.
Senegalese music star and former tourism and culture minister capped a remarkable event with a sterling performance.