The Caine Prize -just who is it good for? Africa?

Of the 15 winning stories since the founding of the prize, a good many are set in refugee camps, villages, or slums

THE Caine prize, a literary award established in the UK in 2000 to bring international fame and recognition to African writers, has been both lauded and lambasted for the type of narratives it rewards. Since 2007, along with £10,000, the prize comes with a one month residency at a United States university and thus unfairly seems to bear the burden of representing African talent abroad. 

In 2011, Nigerian writer Ikhide R. Ikheloa called the shortlisted stories a “riot of exhausted clichés,” noting the prevalence of “huts, moons, rapes, wars and poverty.” Is he wrong for equating the Caine prize to a data bank of African literary poverty porn? Not entirely.

Of the 15 winning stories since the founding of the prize, a good many are set in refugee camps, villages, or slums. In the 2004 winning story Seventh Street Alchemy, Zimbabwe’s Brian Chikwava describes a place where poverty is the trendsetter: “Like a colony of hungry ants, it crawls over the multitudes of faces scattered along the city roads, ravaging all etches of dignity that only a few years back stood resilient.” 

Perhaps this vexed relationship between dignity and poverty is what has largely middle class critics of the prize fatigued with this enduring narrative of the continent. Or perhaps the fact that almost all of the winners have lived abroad as they publish their tales of a gritty Africa, makes the evident nostalgia for a romanticised pre-colonial past feel out of touch with a contemporary African readership. Are these stories meant to explain Africa to foreigners? Or are they stories by Africans written for the Africans that actually read them?

Other popular motifs throughout the winning works include gods that have long ago abandoned their flock. The lie of the uber religious is something South Africa’s Mary Watson deals with in her 2006 winning Jungfrau and Nigeria’s Tope Folarin’s 2013 winning Miracle. 

There is a pitiful naiveté amongst several of the protagonists who look to Europe or the United States for liberation from an African misery. Yet most of the writers still underscore the futility of neoliberal western “relief”, and strongly critique it. Four of the 14 winning tales– Jungfrau, Waiting, Stickfighting Days and Hitting Budapest—are told from the perspective of a young child.

Despite the repetitious themes, one can still find truly unique stories in the group, including Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko’s 2007 winning Jambula Tree, which explores lyrically and subtly the forbidden lesbian love of two young Ugandan girls. 

Taking the crown for creativity, the 2012 winner Bombay’s Republic by Babatunde Rotimi is like no other story on the list. Rotimi tells the story of a Nigerian soldier who fights in Burma on behalf of colonial masters in World War II, only to return to his African world and reinvent it captivatingly.

Booker prize winning African writers, who include Ben Okri, Nadine Gordimer, and J. M. Coetzee joined forces with the Caine prize winning writers to publish an anthology on the tenth anniversary of the prize. Such affiliation, and the achievement of winning the prize bolsters the careers of the African writers as many go on to gain the favour of mainstream publishers and literary agents. 

Full length novels and fame thereafter are precisely what happened to the Egypt-born Sudanese Leila Aboulela who was the first ever Caine prize winner. Her books, which include Minaret, The Translator and Lyrics Alley have all gone on to win a host of other prizes not solely focused on African writers.

Nigerians are the big winners when it comes to Caine, with five winners hailing from this nation. Kenyans follow their lead with three winning stories; Zimbabwe and South Africa have both produced two winners; and Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda have each had one. Though open to the entire continent, North Africa is underrepresented and understandably; a reward for stories written in English, no historically Francophone or Lusophone countries have ever won the prize.

Today, African literary giants, including the shortlisted Chimamanda Adichie and 2002 winner Binyavanga Wainaina justifiably lament the hype around the prize. It is a well-supported African literary prize, which was born in the United Kingdom and has been bred by numerous European and American foundations. 

Though a potential career-maker, as Wainaina points out, “Caine prize can’t do what we all have to, centralise our vision for ourselves to ourselves and the world.”

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