Sunday, 17 May 2015

2015 Shortlist: Segun Afolabi for “The Folded Leaf” (Nigeria)

The five writer shortlist for the 2015 Caine Prize for African Writing has been announced by Chair of judges, award-winning South African writer Zoë Wicomb. “For all the variety of themes and approaches, the shortlist has in common a rootedness in socio-economic worlds that are pervaded with affect, as well as keen awareness of the ways in which the ethical is bound up with aesthetics. Unforgettable characters, drawn with insight and humour inhabit works ranging from classical story structures to a haunting, enigmatic narrative that challenges the conventions of the genre.”

A previous winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2005 for ‘Monday Morning’, Segun
Afolabi (Nigeria) has been shortlisted again for “The Folded Leaf” in Wasafiri (London,

Bio: Segun Afolabi was born in Nigeria and brought up in the Congo, Canada and Japan. He
lives and works in London. He is the author of A Life Elsewhere, a short story collection, and a
novel, Goodbye Lucille. He is currently working on a new novel and collection of short stories.

What 'The Folded Leaf' is about: A young girl travels with her father and a group of sick children to Lagos to pray to one of Nigeria’s infamous celebrity pastors for healing.

Read it for: an expertly guided awareness of the narrator’s experience, a delicate allusion to
homosexual love, and the rise and fall of a desperate hope.


Silence. Noise. Silence again. The sounds slipping away, returning — a seashell back and forth
against my ear. I am both giddy and fearful. I have always been afraid, I know, of the night, of
silence, of losing Mama or Papa, of Bola running away, never hearing from him again. More than anything, I am afraid the pastor will see right through me to my sin, my doubt, my disbelief.

I am frightened because, in spite of myself, I want so much for something to happen. ‘Tunde, Mrs Kekere — take this,’ Papa says. ‘Sam, Bola — one one for each of you.’ He must be distributing the funds we’ve raised in church, months of donations sealed in envelopes, used partly to pay for the driver and the minibus and today’s collection.

‘Stop trying to stand,’ Tunde says. ‘He wasn’t talking to you.’
‘But I can feel something,’ Sam says.

‘Give all you can!’ a voice booms, though not Pastor Fayemi’s. ‘He sees into your hearts. Don’t cheat Him, oh!’

Read The Folded Leaf

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Caine Prize 2015 Writers Workshop by Nkiacha Atemnkeng

Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a young Cameroonian writer based in Douala who was one of twelve selected participants of the 2015 Caine Prize Writers Workshop.  In a recent blogpost, Nkiacha shared his experience of the workshop held in Elmina, a picturesque coastal town in Ghana from April 6th to 19th.

(Left to Right) Diane Awerbuck (South Africa), Dalle Abraham (Kenya), Jonathan Dotse (Ghana), Facilitator Zukiswa Wanner (South Africa), Jonathan Mbuna (Malawi), Nana Nyarko Boateng (Ghana), Jemila Abdulai (Ghana), Akwaeke Emezi (Nigeria), Efemia Chela (Ghana, Zambia), Kiprop Kimutai (Kenya), Aisha Nelson (Ghana), Onipede Hollist (Sierra Leone), Nkiacha Atemnkeng (Cameroon), Facilitator Leila Aboulela (Sudan).

Arriving in Accra

An immigration officer looked at me and said,
“You’re a nice guy!” I was taken aback. Immigration officers in my country don’t lavish such beautiful compliments on anyone. They are either non-committal to you or they scold you. So I asked him,
“Why do you say that?”
“There are some people that when you see them, you begin to shiver. But you! I don’t think so. Where are you from?”
“Cameroon,” I answered.
“It doesn’t matter where you are from, you’re a nice guy.” I felt flattered. Being airport staff myself, I knew he said that from his profiling of me, with respect to fake documents or illegalities.

The second officer who stamped my Visa pronounced my town of birth with a certain familiarity that something told me that he knew the place,
“Nkiacha, born in Kumba!” I halted, trying not to think of the exaggerated infamous stories of my birth place. But as he returned my passport, he added,
“I attended CPC Bali.”
“Oh! Really! Good to know.”
(CPC Bali is one of the first Secondary schools in Anglophone Cameroon.) We spoke French briefly after that. The “nice guy” one warmed up to my chat so much he even gave me his phone number.

I left for the arrival hall. A gentleman gave me a cart, placed my bags on it and told me,
“Welcome to Ghana”. It was another commendable act of gallantry. So off I went thinking about first impressions. “Ghanaians are generally hospitable, friendly people, birthplace of pan-Africanism really.” Then a voice boomed,
“This way sir, Customs.” (Damn it.)
“Anything to declare? Currency? Goods?” the man asked, his eyes on my bags.
“Nothing. Only clothing.”
“So where are you from?” he asked, spotting my foreign accent.
He sighed.  “You people came here in 2008 and eliminated Ghana in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations,” he snapped and flung his hand away dismissively. The unexpected reproach made me laugh, as I remembered the 1-0 defeat. An eight year grudge! Does he know our team has suddenly become the dead lions?
“I’m sorry about that.”   
Okay, first impressions. “Hospitable, gentle Ghanaians, customs officer exclusive.

Accra looked like the better behaved twin of my city, Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. The commercial hustle and bustle was palpable. There were throngs of people in every street corner and avenue. I saw a multitude of impressive buildings and neat wide roads, garnished by lots of traffic lights and a glut of cars and taxis plying them. The names of the businesses were entertainment; Downhill Virgins, Shalom fast food, Glee Oil etc. We drove past the state house and I was puzzled that it is along the road. Ours is a swanky mansion safely tucked away from public view in Yaoundé. The Accra presidency looks more statehouse like, with its pentagon like, slightly circular frame and greyish compartments and floors, surrounded by high flying Ghanaian flags. Accra is also a city with better architectural symmetry than Douala. Traffic lights at almost every junction guide movement, especially during hold ups.

Driving to Elmina
After lunch, we all hopped onto two buses and began our long drive to Elmina, the coastal town in the Central region where we were based. Brainy conversations trickled on all subjects in our bus and I was impressed by the intellect of young Efemia Chela who sat next to me, telling me about Ghanaian life.
“Oh look,” she quickly pointed at a boy selling West African garden snails in a bowl and I gasped at their gigantic size as we drove past. I was asked about writing in English and not French, since I am from a “Francophone country”. I explained that I write in English which I am more versed in and some French which I studied in school. But I am Anglophone Cameroonian, though living and working in a Francophone city. Little correction, Cameroon is a bilingual country, though predominantly Francophone.

Our conversation sort of paused when we drove past a car accident scene. Pede Hollist finally broke the silence a few minutes later,
“I noticed we were all quiet. So what inference can we draw from that?”
“It was heart breaking. But it seemed nobody died, only injuries. I saw a lady with some blood on her body,” someone answered. That was the only sad moment in our bus trip. Nature consoled us with scenic views of lagoons, fresh foliage and beautiful villages like Winneba and Anomabo, where we saw a clown who had disguised like a woman at a small beach party. We drove along the coastline, where hundreds of wild coconut trees lined the seashore and its waters breathed fresh breeze on us. The bluish green sea was quite a sight, as its gruff water currents splashed noisily against the shores, leaving behind a meshwork of brown seaweeds. After three and a half hours, we finally arrived at the eye catching, Coconut Grove Beach Resort Elmina, a plush seaside hotel built in a grove of wild coconut trees. It has entertained guests such as Kofi Annan, Serena Williams and Bono.  After checking into our rooms, we later had dinner and chatted at length, to know ourselves better.

The Workshop

There was a lot of entertainment the next day; delicious food and wine, swimming in the beautiful ocean, table tennis, crocodile viewing in the pond and horse riding. I rode a horse for my first time and saw my first donkey too. We all assembled in the conference hall at 5pm and our facilitator, wonderful Sudanese novelist and first winner of the Caine Prize, Leila Aboulela, gave us a guided imagery writing exercise to do, to send us into writing gear. We wrote and read the short pieces. From the readings and discussion of the short stories we intended writing, it was already evident how different and unique we all were. Our second facilitator, South African novelist, Zukiswa Wanner joined us two days later and she was another amazing and funny writer to complete the very panafrican group of fictioneers.

So it was on. We wrote and wrote and then wrote some more. Each evening, there were readings of work in progress by three writers. The facilitators gave feedback, suggestions and positive criticisms to make the stories better. The other writers did too. Each reader had the option to either accept, modify or reject the suggestions. I worked on one short story and stuck with it all along. I judged most of the feedback to my story helpful. Apart from the facilitators, I also profited from the knowledge of writers/teachers like Diane Awerbuck and Pede Hollist. The workshop was also an opportunity for me to network with other writers and understand their different creative processes. By the time our stories were concluded, it was no surprise that the range was so wide; from realist fiction to science fiction, tragedy to comedy, stories set in the earth’s water bodies to high up in the air, aboard a plane, to be published along with the 5 shortlisted stories this year in the Caine anthology in July by New Internationalist.

We also visited some secondary schools in groups, to talk about writing and reading and to encourage the students to do so. I visited the Catholic Girls Junior Secondary School, Elmina with Zukiswa, Dotse and Akwaeke. I read to the students from my children’s short story illustrations book, “The Golden Baobab Tree” and they enjoyed it. The girls showed so much interest in the book, relishing the cartoon illustrations and passing it on, so I gifted my copy to the school. We asked if they had written any short stories that they could share with us. They were initially shy but soon warmed up to Zukiswa’s arresting presence and produced three stories, read by three different authors. We were impressed by their writing skills. Akwaeke never forgot a beautiful line from one of the girls’ stories about a promiscuous female character,
“She was a rolling stone in the hands of men.” Wow! But there was a scene where a character received a “wonderful slap” and I gasped. 

Before we left, we informed the headmaster about some children’s short story competitions and urged the girls to submit their stories online.

As I embarked the bus to the airport, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, after participating in one of the prestigious creative writing workshops in Africa, in that hospitable land of Kwame Nkrumah, where many people and even the signposts tell you “Akwaaba” (welcome) and the people are always ready to make you their “Charle” (friend).

Read Nkiacha’s full post on his blog here.
Find out more about the Caine Prize workshops

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

TEDxEuston 2014 by Jinaka Ugochukwu

I'd spent most of the autumn looking forward to volunteering at TEDxEuston on Saturday 6th December. It was, in my mind, a big deal to be part of an event; inspiring new ideas about Africa.  So on many occasions, leading up to it, I’d animatedly tell friends and family about how I’d be part of the bookstore team on the day.  It transpired that many people didn’t know the TED brand and fewer still knew specifically about TEDxEuston.

So I explained many times. And eventually I condensed my spiel to this tightly crafted paragraph:
TEDxEuston's focus is Africa. It is a local and independent TED-like event; a conference platform for spreading ideas worth sharing. It encourages its speakers and audience to engage with the continent's challenges and embrace their passion and commitment to direct its future. 

It is a day when the spotlight is on Africa and it shows a balance of its landscape and not a myopic show reel.

This year’s conference gathered speakers including Zain Asher (CNN news anchor), Frances Mensah Williams (founder, Sunday Oliseh (Nigerian former footballer and coach); Binyavanga Wainaina (Kenyan writer), Chude Jideonwo (Managing Partner of Red Media Africa, Y!Africa and and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (Kenyan writer)

The theme for the speakers on the day was ‘Facing Forward’; the ideal counterbalance to the recent regression of the global media’s perspectives on Africa.  Catalyzed by the backdrop of the Ebola outbreak, Africa had once again shrunk to a single homogenous country of helpless inhabitants.  So I was excited to be at TEDxEuston and I was excited to be ‘engaging responsibly about Africa’ by promoting books which reflected some of its various voices and experiences.

The Gonjon Pin and A Memory This Size, The Caine Prize Anthologies for 2014 and 2013 were two of the books on the stand that day.  It was a pleasure to introduce so many people to these stories and their authors and the work of the Prize.

The Prize has done much to ‘foster writing in Africa and to bring new writers to the attention of a wider audience’.

Two former winners of the prize Binyavanga Wainaina (2002) and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2003) were amongst the speakers on the day. 

Wainaina of course is well known for throwing down the gauntlet at the Africa stereotype with his ‘mischievous and scathing’ 2005 essay How to Write about Africa

Over the last decade Wainaina ‘has sought, worked with, published, mentored and promoted some of Africa’s most exciting new literary talent. He is the founding editor of one of Africa’s leading literary institutions Kwani? ( In 2014, he was named by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential people in the world.'

His powerful discursive storytelling was evident throughout his TEDxEuston contribution, Conversations with Baba.  Through the winding path of his father’s illness and death, coming out as gay and various life events he proclaims that ‘the simple acceptance of our right to be and be diverse, is the biggest and strongest thing to defend’.

Watch Conversations with Baba here.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor pondered the Competing narratives of a beautiful continent.  She too observes the media’s shrinkage of the second largest continent to ‘[a virus], a single country of mute sacrificial victims in need of self-appointed messiahs’.  She proposes that we think about what Africa means to Africa before we think about what Africa means for the world; looking forward is to look within. 

Watch ‘Competing narratives of a beautiful continent’ here.

Dust Owuor’s debut novel was available on the bookstand and she was graciously available to sign copies.  ‘It is a novel about a splintered family in Kenya—a story of power and deceit, unrequited love, survival and sacrifice’.  It was a popular purchase; it was the first book to sell out.

The UK launch of the book had taken place on December 4th at Marlborough House hosted by Granta and Commonwealth Writers and in collaboration with Kwani Trust, The Caine Prize, TEDxEuston, Numbi and the Royal African Society.  The book has since be shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize.  See review here

In total the bookstand carried over 14 titles.  Including two by Frances Mensah Williams (also a speaker on the day).  Her debut novel is being published by Jacaranda in 2015.  Jacaranda and Africa Writes also had stands on the day.

There was a wide range of literature available at TEDxEuston; the enthusiasm for purchasing it was at times palpable as too was the disappointment when titles had sold out.

Working on the bookstand was a transformative way to experience the conference.  My interaction with the customers was literally an education in some instances, pure entertainment in others and overall a great source of pride in the veracity of the ‘Africa rising narrative’.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Berlin by Yvonne Owuor

To venture into the interstices of implanted memory through the vehicle of literature and a festival. The site is the Berlin Literature Festival. Truth be told, I am not there for the festival, my heart pounds at the thought of encountering the corporeal notion of Berlin. Some words take on the texture of emotion. Berlin is one of them. The substance of history, the crossroads of human strangeness, mythic tangible and intangible war frontier. I had always meant to learn German one day. When I was a child, I discovered the word ‘Schadenfreude’. I thought that a language that can encapsulate this sensation was worth knowing. Has not happened yet. But it also seems everyone here speaks English.

Brandenburg Gate

There is the Reichstag. There is the Brandenburg Gate. There are the traces of the wall that fell twenty-five years ago. Here are the Berliners, a people set apart, even in Germany. Here is the bus showing up on time. Here are more Berliners. I like them, for no other reason than that they are Berliners, but maybe because they are now real faces to people my pre-imagined Berlin. The author of ‘A Woman in Berlin’ walked these streets. Here where birds now sing, are echoes of old screams, the traces of bad ghosts, the site of furious fires, here is where hope rose and was murdered and emerged again, here again are memory labyrinths, here are where thousands and thousands died.

Yvonne with her 'guardian angel' Barbara

The festival has assigned me a guardian angel. Her name is Barbara. A gentle, self-deprecating lover of literature, who cooks the food that the books she reads offer. She will share her Berlin with me. We will traverse the city on foot, by bus and the metro. We shall sit together in the blue cathedral, and stop and stare at the signals from history’s books. We will dash into gorgeous clothes shops and exclaim over silhouettes—in Berlin. She will have to drag me out of bookshops where I go insane. She will also arrange a surprise—a visit to another bookshop where she has commanded the gleeful bookshop owner to display my book, Dust.

Yvonne's debut novel

Ah, yes, the festival.
Refined, elegant, tastefully disarrayed, intense, the universe of books, writers, readers, words. Drinking in deeply, a sense of ‘home’, allowing that other being, writer, to be, to become, to engage, to listen, explore and speak. Turn left. In this sea of faces, a deep nod and special grin for the ones you remember by reputation and name. My first international outing with the book Dust unfolds here. The festival has appointed an actor to read a German translation. I read the English. I listen to the German telling and discern the feeling from the voice of the actor. I wish I could touch the book’s words in German. In the audience are friends made in Kenya. Anna, and beautiful Paul, fellow Middle-Earther, who flew in from Moscow. There are those who will become new friends, Africans living in Berlin who come to show their support. It is a gentle, loving, curious audience, the delightful kind who engage with story and story worlds. The facilitator with a synaesthesia secret, Susanne, is incisive, brilliant, and her questions prod, dig, and cause an honest sputtering. She has read the book. Many times my answer is, “Amazing, I hadn't thought of it that way.” I am not sure it helps her cause. I find that some stories are no respecter of their author medium. They reveal their meaning to others and then lurk in shadows to ambush their writer.
It is a most delicious evening. After the event, we gather around a table basking in the afterglow (I fall into an ultra-campy red chaise longue— why not?) and share good red wine in the writers’ tent. We talk about the world and Kenya and laugh about nothing and everything under a balmy evening in Berlin. We laugh until we must leave. It is a little past midnight. A day later, destiny and the organisers will fling Tope Folarin, Ismael Beah and I together. We have been invited to speak about those themes that writers connected to Africa are often expected to address with competence—Death and Disaster and Disease; War and Woe. Inner struggle.

Relaxing on the chaise longue after a busy day at the Festival

I would rather perch on a crag and howl at the metaphorical moon but my parents, aka The Royal Owuors, raised my siblings and me with a strict code of manners. We know how to be exemplary guests: Do not embarrass your host. Be polite. Allow them their foibles. Do not judge. Be grateful for small gestures. Above all, do not embarrass your host. But see, I am neither a virologist nor a security specialist. I would prefer to explore humanity’s sacrificial predilections and its contemporary manifestation, and the language of value used to obscure this. I wish to debate the application of semi-colons. I want to ask Berliners what they think about JRR Tolkien, whose works obsess over love more than I ought to.
A television crew gallops in our direction. Word is out that there are three African writers in town. It is urgent that they interview us about . . . Ebola. We agree to answer their questions, Tope, Ismael and I. The Ebola strain we talk about is the Spooky Africa European Hysteria one. I do not think they will air our views.
It sets the stage.
I suspect we may have been a little too hard on our audience this was the ‘Africa Fundamentalism and Ebola’ session. Ah well. However, in the end, I think we all understood one another. A tow-haired audience member finally asked, suddenly struck by exasperated realisation, “Why are we asking you writers to talk about Ebola? You aren't medical specialists.”
Sigh. Exactly.
Later, struck by the absurdity of demands inflicted upon most writers of African linkage when abroad, Tope, Ismael and I exchange ‘war’ stories. We laugh and laugh. Not sure if it is relief or resignation.
This is my last night.

In some places, my soul throws a moaning, “Why must we go” tantrum when it is time to depart. It results in a horrible, lingering ache in the heart--Brisbane, Gaborone, Maputo, Moscow, Dublin, Salvador de Bahia, New York, Santa Fe, Rome and UngujaI almost scoff (it was inevitable) when Berlin enters the list. I have already told Berlin’s September sunset that I shall return.       

Yvonne Owuor was the 2003 winner of the Caine Prize for her story "Weight of Whispers" published by Kwani? Her highly acclaimed debut novel "Dust," published last year is one of eight books shortlisted for the 2015 Folio Prize; the winner will be announced on 23rd March 2015.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

A snapshot of the Ake Festival 2014 in Nigeria by James Murua

The Ake Arts & Books Festival was hosted in Abeokuta, Ogun State, Nigeria from 18-22 November.
The festival was organised by Lola Shoneyin and her team and if this list is anything to go by they successfully gathered a large crowd of very cool artists at the literary festival.

L-R Lola Shoneyin, Governor Ibikunle Amosu, First Lady of Ogun State and Ogun State Commissioner of Culture and Tourism 

And I couldn't find a single complaint from the guests which for a bloggeratti like myself was a bit disconcerting, as controversy is my lifeblood; drama and mishaps are the things that drive traffic. None seemed to be forthcoming and for this I (reluctantly) salute the team.
The festival, supported by the governor of Abeokuta State Ibikunle Amosu and his administration, hosted many events:

There were films and plays galore for those who wanted to experience the written word acted by thespians who knew their craft. There was no Nollywood type fare, of ghosts looking left and right before crossing the road or mermaids with brooms for the tails, on offer.

Nollywood mermaid fare

The films and documentaries were from the likes of Yeepa a filmed play by Tunde Kelani and October 1 by Kunle Afolayan and The Art of Ama Ato Aido by Yaba Badoe. Then there were plays like Qudus: My Exile is in my Head and a musical Call Mr. Robeson.
This blog is not dedicated to all the arts but rather it focuses on literature from the continent and there was a lot on offer in this respect for those lucky folks in Abeokuta State.

There were book chats with authors like Okey Ndibe, Nnedi Okorafor, Zukiswa Wanner, Nike Campbell-Fatoki, Yejide Kilanko, Barnaby Philips, Chude Jideonwo. And Olusegun Obasanjo, President of Nigeria (1999-2007) who has several memoir type books to his name.
There was the launch of Beverly Nambozo's poetry anthology A Thousand Voices Rising. And also in the house was Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka who we are all celebrating as he goes through Soyinka @ 80.

There were many panel discussions where authors of prose and poetry discussed such topics as Mutation and Mutilation: Feminism in Africa, What are publishers looking for in fiction, Poisonous Gas: The Crude Oil Politics in West Africa and many more.
There were also important announcements.

The Caine Prize for African writing, of which Lizzy Attree is Director, unveiled their 2015 judging panel to the public and they are Zoë Wicomb, Zeinab Badawi, Neel Mukherjee, Cóilín Parsons and Brian Chikwava.

The Writivism team (Dami Ajayi, Zukiswa Wanner, Lizzy Attree and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire) announced the list of ladies and gentlemen who could be the new faces of African writing. They will be attending workshops in different African cities run by Dilman Dila (Kampala), Zukiswa Wanner and Anne Ayeta Wangusa (Dar es Salaam), Yewande Omotoso and Saaleha Idrees Bamjee (Johannesburg), Dami Ajayi (Lagos), Donald Molosi and Lauri Kubuitsile (Gaborone).
As an East African the announcement closest to my heart was that of the new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili prize for African Writing, a brainchild of Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree. The new award promotes writing in African languages and encourages translation from, between and into African languages.  Prizes will be awarded for the best entry of an unpublished book or manuscript, prose or poetry in the Kiswahili language.  Very cool.

After the whole conference, without any drama to tout I sadly add, the evening ended on Saturday with a shebang that was so loud (maybe the neighbours complained hopefully?) we could hear the stomping of feet to Dorrobucci from Nairobi where we were mourning the “mauling” of Arsenal by Man United. And some other more national matters.

Here's a link to James Murua's original blogpost:
Here are a few other views from the people who were actually there:
Here are some images from the festival events, courtesy of the artists and the organisers:

Beverley Nambozo launches the anthology A Thousand Voices Rising

(right) Nnedi Okarofor

(left) Okey Ndibe

L-R Lola Shoneyin and First Lady of Abeokuta State Mrs Folusho Amosun

Olisakwe Ukamaka

L-R Eghosa Imasuen, Zukiswa Wanner and Jekwu Ozoemene

(left) Mukoma Wa Ngugi