By Anote Ajeluorou
LAST week new Pan African literary prize entrant for first time authors, Etisalat Prize for Literature worth £15,000, unveiled this year’s jury members to the media in Lagos, with jury member for last year, Dr. Sarah Ladipo Manyika, as chair of judges. Manyika teaches Literature at San Francisco State University, U.S., and will be assisted by award-winning British-Sudanese writer, Jamal Mahjoub, Francophone writer, Alain Mabanckou and Zimbabwean writer and filmmaker, Tsitsi Dangarembga.
But of immense significance from Etisalat was the invitation to other Nigerian companies to join in supporting the country’s vibrant art and culture sector, which currently suffers dire neglect in terms of sponsorship. This crucial call was made by Head, Corporate Communications, High Value Events and Sponsorship, Ebi Atawodi, who commended the efforts of two other companies currently supporting the other two literary prizes originating from the country – Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa and The Nigeria Prize for Literature.
Atawodi said while the other two prizes were sponsored by the respective gas and telecommunication companies, the Etisalat prize originates from within the company as part of Etisalat’s corporate vision to give Nigeria’s arts and culture a handle to flourish, especially in an environment that has become increasingly philistinic and harsh to ideas of the mind that art and culture represent. She noted, “We applaud other companies supporting arts and culture and we hope other companies will join in supporting Nigeria’s arts and culture. While those other companies sponsor those prizes, we own and initiated this prize as part of our corporate philosophy”.
Her boss and Managing Director, Mr. Matthew Wilsher, also said though a company’s sponsorship is usually based on the visibility and market share value of such effort, supporting a prize like this wasn’t based on such consideration, but basically as a way of showing that “Etisalat cares about people’s lives. Supporting literacy is important to us and Nigeria. The prize differentiates the Etisalat brand from others”.
Wilsher said he was proud of the maiden edition of the prize last year that Noviolet Bulawayo won with her book, We Need New Names, adding, “The whole contest was a tremendous journey. We have a long-term commitment of building an unrivalled prize for African writers. We’re grateful to the judges, who are renowned writers the world over”.
He felt grateful also for the giant leaps his company has made since its incorporation to some 19 million customers and Etisalat being a billion dollar company. According to him, “We’re supporting culture like literature with this prize. Young writers can enhance the flame behind African literature by giving it more publicity and focus”.
Although August 8 is deadline for submission of entries for this year’s prize, the original date, May 12 for the announcement, didn’t hold, as it came a clear two months after. No reason was advanced for this lateness. However, the longlist will be out on November 3 and shortlist on December 8 while the prize will be given early next year.
The prize has a board of patrons, which include some of Africa’s finest intellectuals – Ellah Wakatama Allfrey (OBE), Dele Olojede, Ama Ata-Aidoo, Margaret Busby (OBE), Prof. Kole Omotoso and Zakes Mda.
At the unveiling, Manyika expressed delight at being invited to take up the jury chair, saying how satisfying it was to have been a part of the inaugural edition of prize in 2013. She said, “I’m delighted to be asked to chair a group of judges. This is a huge prize for literature, not only in Africa but the world. We want it to continue and get even better. The prize is very unique, very thoughtfully put together. It’s Africa’s most prestigious prize. Having to purchase 1000 copies of shortlisted author’s books and go on tour are unique features of the prize; it’s very exciting for the writers and their readers.
“The 2013 longlist was uniquely different; it had six women, five Nigerians and three international publishers. So, there was a lot of diversity. I’m hoping for more diversity this year”.
Although Mahjoub and Mabanckou were absent, Zimbabwe’s Dangarembga (author of Nervous Condition and The Book of Not) made it and praised the prize as a “wonderful and amazing initiative” and expressed how honoured she was to be invited to be a judge. She equally expressed her excitement at the prize, saying, “I’m excited we have the prize; it shows we haven’t been put out of context. We want to see the prize progress”.
Dangarembga also said, “We need to consume our own literature; we need to know ourselves. I hope writers will feel challenged by the prize, make them feel bold, to present new voices and characters and to encourage publishers to take on new writers. I look forward to it”.
Explaining away the non-inclusion of Nobel laureate Prof. Wole Soyinka in the profiling of African writers at the award ceremony last year, Omotoso said it was clearly an omission. He, however, said amend was made when the three writers visited Soyinka with signed copies of their books to him to apologise.
Olojede, publisher of rested NEXT newspaper, dashed hopes of the prize money possibly being raised higher from its current £15,000 for now. He said, almost as if begrudging writers such would-be fortune, that a prize shouldn’t be a money-guzzling affair but purely as a means of recognition.
Already, the promised book tour for the authors has started, with Nairobi, Kenya, being the starting point. Other cities will soon follow suit to experience the authors, the prize sponsor said.