Tuesday 12 March 2013

"The Africa I recognise and love" by Augustus Casely-Hayford, Chair of Judges 2013.

When earlier this year Ansar Dine fled Timbuktu pursued by the French contingent of the African-led International Support Mission, it seemed like UN Security Council Resolution 2085 had been fulfilled.

The bad guys were in the retreat, aid and support was forthcoming, and the ancient libraries of Timbuktu and the adobe shrines had been saved with barely a shot fired.

But then came the reports of a traumatised populous, of seemingly ransacked libraries and the abandoned carcasses of empty archive boxes. The unthinkable nightmare had occurred - retreating Ansar Dine had meted out an ideological scorched earth strategy, destroying or stealing some of the most valuable contents of the great libraries of Timbuktu.

They knew the significance of stories, of how libraries can be repositories of identity. If we needed reminding, it showed us again what we had learned from previous conflicts across the continent; the importance of narrative, of stories that can be used like weapons to bind peoples together more powerfully than any contract, as ideological rallying points and totems. It is as true today as when Timbuktu was home to one of the great medieval universities of the world.

In the wake of the liberation of Timbuktu, there are renewed hopes that the stories of archives emptied in the fog of war might not have been wholly accurate. They have been counteracted by new stories of salvaged manuscripts being secreted south, or even carried north to be buried in the desert. The only thing that is clear is the importance of words, the power of ancient stories, the potency of new narratives and the way in which they are charged.

Gus visited Timbuktu when he presented the "Lost Kingdoms of Africa" series for BBC 4. 

For Africans, fighting for the right to tell their stories is something that has been hard won – whether in the form of the establishment of ancient libraries, or the challenging of colonial regimes or repressive governments, words have been our allies.

It is one of the reasons why I have been a long-term Caine Prize groupie.

Over the last decade, I have read the short-listed stories, speculated on who the winners might be and, after the announcement, I have followed the subsequent writing of contributors over the years.

The true impact of this prize is difficult to calculate.

Over its lifetime there have been seismic shifts in publishing economics, distribution mechanics and international book-culture – and African and diasporic authors have been profoundly impacted - but the Caine Prize has stood as one of the few positive constants.

Looking back, the direct benefit to many of the shortlisted authors and eventual winners is clear to see, but I would imagine that Sir Michael Caine (after whom the prize was posthumously named) would have been equally proud of the more ineffable by-product, of simply reminding us of the important and particular contribution of African and diasporic writing to contemporary literature.

As I have begun to read this year’s submissions, I am once again made vividly aware of that particular voice. This is not just cutting edge writing of real quality, but at its best it offers a unique window onto Africa as it confronts the stresses and profound changes that the 21st century has bestowed upon the Continent. Caine writing does not describe the Africa of 24 Hour News, but it somehow captures that little heard voice of the loving, laughing, crying, complex Africa that I recognize and love.

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