The Triumphal Failings of West Africa: A Review of the Caine Prize 2013 Shortlist

By Sola Njoku on December 1, 2016 in Articles

The 2013 Caine Prize shortlist in making up for what it lacks in diversity (all five stories are by writers from West Africa), features remarkably relatable and topical themes: faith and disappointment, emigration and homecoming, religion and politics.

While I was at school in Nigeria, a televangelist came to town and the rumour spread that a disabled classmate, Bunmi, would be attending his crusade to seek a miracle. With naïve certainty, the rest of us waited expectantly for the miracle that would breathe life into Bunmi’s limbs ravaged by polio and make her walk. She returned to school a few days later, still in her creaky wheelchair. Deflated, we returned to class and never spoke of ‘The Miracle’ again. Tope Folarin’s shortlisted entry to the Caine Prize entitled ‘Miracle’ brought back this memory. Folarin’s story speaks about the experiences of African Pentecostal Christians. His writing is fluid and, with abundant use of anthropomorphism and metaphors, extremely visual. The reader is transported into that spiritual moment, pushed forward by eager hands and forced down by the pastor, expecting monumental change only to be left bereft — yet oddly consoled. Though not a new theme or treatment, ‘Miracle’ manages to inject a light-heartedness into what is for both the religious Pentecostal and the sneering agnostic a sore subject. Questions are asked about why Pentecostal Christianity is so attractive to Africa’s poor and in ‘Miracle’ Folarin offers a rationalisation and some truth: ‘A community is made up of truths and lies. Both must be cultivated in order for the community to survive’.

Elnathan John’s ‘Bayan Layi’ is a gloomy tale of street urchins in Northern Nigeria. Written in a style that mimics Olufemi Terry’s 2010 Caine Prize winning entry ‘Stickfighting Days’, John’s story chronicles events in the lives of Dantala (the narrator), Banda and Gobedanisa — teenage boys who are exploited to kill, maim and rig elections. These characters are victims as much as those they harm for a political agenda they little understand. Their fatalistic attitude to the hopelessness that surrounds them – ‘Allah wills’ – makes their suffering particularly poignant. That Dantala flees, after a particularly gory climax, is not reassuring — the reader senses that he won’t get far and, like his friends and victims, his fate is irrevocably sealed.

Written in a simple first person narrative, that reads just a smidgen forced, the story’s strength lies in its topicality. These young characters exist in their millions – uneducated and unsocialised – in Nigeria, Mali, Somalia and many other places where extreme political and religious ideologies persist, and communities continue to be terrorised by youths enslaved to the ambitions of those with more opportunities and wealth. I have anticipated the time when African literature would end its preoccupation with the past and focus on the present, and for this I applaud Elnathan John.

Chinelo Okparanta’s story, ‘America’ is an ambitious take on the themes of emigration, resource control and homosexuality. It tells of the protagonist Nnenna’s repeated trips to the American embassy in Lagos, Nigeria, seeking a visa to join her female lover in America. Her journeys to and fro and her life leading up to this point are recounted against the imposing backdrop of the Niger Delta, its crude oil and the ravages of the former due to the latter. The prose is ripe with indignation that interrupts the flow of the story and sounds rather propagandist:

‘Birds flew and sang in the skies above the creek, and there were plenty of fish and crab and shrimp in the waters below. Now the mangroves are dead, and there is no birdsong at all … Instead, oil shoots up in the air, like a fountain of black water, and fishermen lament that rather than coming out of the water with fish, they are instead harvesting Shell oil’

Perhaps the themes in ‘America’ would have been better explored in a longer work — as a short story its characters seem stifled by the weight of their dissatisfaction with the world. The best parts of ‘America’ are those that straddle the fine line between love and the disappointments borne from it.

Abubakar Ibrahim’s ‘The Whispering Trees’ employs lyrical symbolism in a story about a young man, Salim, who is blinded in a road accident and his journey to comes to terms with his lack of vision. This diary-like narrative is treated with delicacy and perspective — from small peeves like jeering neighbours to the major disappointment of being jilted by his fiancé. The reader sympathises with this surly protagonist and tolerates his anger and railing until he is able, finally, to accept his irrevocably altered life and the new vista it brings. Elements of mysticism and contemplations of the ethereal heighten the sense of fleetingness of nature and life, and even the joy of their passing.

‘Foreign Aid’ by Pede Hollist, combines elements from two stories from last year’s shortlist. Like Mellissa Myambo’s ‘La Salle de Depart’, it tells of the homecoming of an émigré but unlike Myambo’s protagonist, Hollist’s Logan does not disdain his family and upbringing. The clash between American and Sierra Leonan cultures is conveyed as a benign interference rather than expressed as scorn. ‘Foreign Aid’ also recalls Rotimi Babatunde’s ‘Bombay’s Republic’ through a certain formality of narrative that, replete with imaginative similes, exudes a certain witticism that elevates it above the simplicity of its plot. Although an oft-told story, the treatment of ‘Foreign Aid’ is nuanced in its treatment of the dilemma of the West’s financial aid to Africa — eventually both donor and recipient must realise the futility of the exchange.

Although converging in one geographic region, the themes and plots that make up the shortlist are readily consistent with the pan-African experience. And the Caine Prize shortlist offers yet another contribution to the literary repertoire that serves to demystify African life and deconstruct stereotypes.