Monday, March 8, 2021

African Literary Awards and the Case for an ‘African Nobel Prize’

by Alexander Nderitu

Guadeloupean novelist Maryse Condé, winner of the 2018 ‘Alternative Nobel Literature Prize’ (Photo: Jacques Torregano)

 ‘My wife thought I deserved it, but I always thought the Nobel a Western prize.’ - Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)

 ‘Cultural revolutions, unlike military revolutions, cannot be successfully imposed but must grow from the soil of shared experience.’ – From Outline of American Literature by Kathryn VanSpankeren

 In 2016, the secrecy-shrouded Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to American folk/rock singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. This created a storm of controversy that blew across the entire literary world. Jaws dropped in Africa after Ngũgi wa Thiong’o (highly favoured to win over the previous few years) was once again overlooked. In an article for, titled ‘ “Greatest living poet” Bob Dylan Wins Nobel Literature Prize’(13 Oct 2016), Johan Sennero and Alistair Scrutton relayed the news thus:

Bob Dylan, regarded as the voice of a generation for his influential songs from the 1960s onwards, has won the Nobel Prize for Literature in a surprise decision that made him the only singer-songwriter to win the award.

The 75-year-old Dylan - who won the prize for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’ - now finds himself in the company of Winston Churchill, Thomas Mann and Rudyard Kipling as Nobel laureates.

The announcement was met with gasps in Stockholm's stately Royal Academy hall, followed - unusually - by some laughter...

 Awarding the 8 million Swedish crown ($930,000) prize, the Swedish Academy said: ‘Dylan has the status of an icon. His influence on contemporary music is profound.’

 Swedish Academy member Per Wastberg said: ‘He is probably the greatest living poet.’...

Over the years, not everyone has agreed that Dylan was a poet of the first order. Novelist Norman Mailer countered: ‘If Dylan's a poet, I'm a basketball player.’

 Sara Danius, Permanent Secretary of the Nobel Academy, told a news conference there was ‘great unity’ in the panel's decision to give Dylan the prize...

 Literature was the last of this year's Nobel prizes to be awarded. The prize is named after dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel and has been awarded since 1901 for achievements in science, literature and peace in accordance with his will.

To be fair, Robert Zimmerman (aka Bob Dylan[1]) has a very poetic/literary style of writing songs. The lyrics of such tunes such as Romance in Durango, The King of Hearts, Subterranean Homesick Blues, Twitter and the Monkey Man, Tangled Up in Blue, and – one of my absolute favourites – Shelter From the Storm would serve well as published poems, and Dylan did once author a book titled Tarantula. Barry Fey, a concert promoter who was involved in over 5,000 shows during his legendary music career, once made the following statement in regard to the Grammy-Award-winning artiste:

I never wanted Bob to come out (in public). When I started (decades ago), he was a myth. He was a poet. The greatest writer. I wish he would have just stayed and never come out.

True to his mysterious nature, Dylan took a long time to accept the Nobel win, fuelling speculation that he might reject it and thus leave the Academy with egg on their face. Detractors’ chief problem with the win was that Dylan’s literature was considered a ‘by-product’ of his musical journey and many people felt that there was no way his ‘by-product’ could be better or more influential than the life-long efforts of all living writers on the globe.  An excerpt from a Quartz Africa online article titled ‘Africans Will Spur Creativity And Innovation By Celebrating Their Own Excellence’, written by Abdi Latif Dahir (6 Nov 2016):

This week, Wole Soyinka, the first African to win the Nobel Prize in literature, said he wanted another award: The Grammy. Speaking at Oxford University, Soyinka was responding to Bob Dylan’s recent crowning as the winner of the prestigious literature prize, when he said: ‘Since I’ve written quite a number of songs for my plays, I would like to be nominated for a Grammy.’

To be fair to Soyinka, our attention shouldn’t be drawn so much to his flippant remark than on the choice of the award he stated. Africa, a continent of over 1.2 billion people, barely registers globally when it comes to honoring excellence and merit or even acknowledging the role of awards in social, scientific and cultural advancement.

There are currently numerous awards that recognize distinction across the continent. Yet few if any are based within the continent, or work to provide spaces or incentives on a daily basis, rather than reward excellence in general. The most prominent awards directed at the continent are funded from abroad, whether in engineering and medicine (Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation or the Hideyo Noguchi Africa Prize), writing and translation (Caine Prize or the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize), poetry and adult fiction (Brunel and the Burt award), besides the Mo Ibrahim prize in African governance. There are also some local awards, some of which are country-specific (Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature or the Nigeria Prize for Science), while others are awarded to a few countries or a specific region (South African Independent Publishers Award).

(It should, however,  be noted that the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize does not belong in the ‘funded from abroad’ category as most of its funding comes from The Safal Group[2] which includes Mabati Rolling Mills Limited of Kenya and ALAF Limited of Tanzania.)

In 2018, the Nobel Prize for Literature was not awarded at all, following a scandal at the Swedish Academy.  Interestingly, another Swedish group calling itself ‘The New Academy’ took up the mantle, announcing an ‘alternative Nobel Literature Prize’ dubbed ‘The New Academy Prize in Literature’.  Described by an article on news website (posted on 12 October 2018) as ‘self-organized group of 100 or so volunteers’, they invited nominations from Swedish libraries and then put them to a public vote. They came up with a list of 47 nominees which included Kim Thúy (Vietnam/Canada), Neil Gaiman (UK), Harukami (Japan), Maryse Condé (Guadeloupe), Ngũgi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Chimamanda Adichie (Nigeria) and Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria/USA). Based on more than 32,000 responses from the public, the award eventually went to Maryse Condé ‘whose novels explore slavery and exploitation.’

African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature

  • Wole Soyinka (Nigeria) - A playwright, poet, critic and political activist. Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. He also holds an honorary doctorate of letters from Yale University, USA. 
  • Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) - Awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘works rich in nuance – now clear-sightedly realistic, now evocatively ambiguous’ that have ‘formed an Arabian narrative art that applies to all mankind’.
  • Nadine Gordimer (SA) - Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991 for her literary work that ‘has been of very great benefit to humanity’.
  • J. M. Coetzee (SA) – Awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. Described as a writer ‘who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider’. Has also won the Booker Prize for Fiction two times.

Major African literary prizes

The issue with international institutions is that there is a crisis of legitimacy. Trust in these institutions is a serious problem.’ - Mo Ibrahim, billionaire philanthropist (Sudan)

 Despite the controversies around it, especially in recent years, the UK-based Caine Prize is arguably the greatest African literary prize going, especially in the Anglophone countries. The institution’s model of working with ‘co-publishers’ is one that some other award schemes are now emulating, which makes it a trend-setter. Some information about Caine Prize, from official sources:

The Caine Prize, awarded annually for African creative writing, is named after the late Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years. The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer, published in English (whether in Africa or elsewhere), with an indicative length of 3,000 to 15,000 words. An ‘African writer’ will normally be taken to mean someone who was born in Africa, or who is a national of an African country, or whose parents are African, and whose work has reflected that cultural background.

The four African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Wole Soyinka, Naguib Mahfouz, Nadine Gordimer and J. M. Coetzee, are Patrons of The Caine Prize. Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne is President of the Council and Jonathan Taylor is the Chairman. [3]

The stakes:

 Winning and short-listed authors will be invited to participate in writers’ workshops in Africa, London and elsewhere as resources permit. There is a cash prize of £10,000 for the winning author and a travel award for each of the short-listed candidates (up to five in all). The shortlisted candidates will also receive a Prize of £500. The winner is also invited to go to three literature festivals in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria. ( )

Ikhide R. Ikheloa is a writer I recently discovered and whose writing I really enjoy. His online articles often articulate something I had either thought about, discussed with other literati or was planning to write about! Below are some snatches from an article on his blog titled, ‘The 2011 Caine Prize: How Not to Write About Africa’[4]:

The Caine Prize for African Writing has been great for African literature by showcasing some truly good works by African writers. The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year….

The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. They are a riot of exhausted clichés even as ancient conflicts and anxieties fade into the past tense: Huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty…

Medalie may not get the Caine Prize. His story is not African enough. No rapists, no murderers, no poverty. Why, there is a cell phone in the story. Shame on Medalie. Besides Medalie, Bulawayo would be my pick for the prize. She sure can write, unfortunately her muse insists on sniffing around Africa’s sewers. The tragedy is that these are good writers showcasing good prose and great dialogue.  But to the extent that literature documents the lived life, they are stuck in the fog of stereotypes. The stories are so ancient, it is a wonder they did not feature smoke signals and slide rules. Except for Medalie’s The Mistress’s Dog, there is not a single mention of the Internet and cell phones, not once…

From ‘The Decline of the Caine Prize’, an article by Gugu Simmons:

There was a time when the Caine Prize was relevant. That time was in the early 2000s when the prize had only begun. Leila Aboulela, Helon Habila, Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Brian Chikwava won it from 2000 to 2004. Mia Couto, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chika Unigwe were shortlisted. This was the prize’s first life. It was the Kingmaker of African Writing...

Readers began to complain about a certain ‘trend’, a certain subject matter that always won. This was the Era of Poverty Porn, when the first three stories had children narrators living in abject poverty or as refugees in the face of violence every day...his was the time that Nick Elam, the prize administrator, was replaced by Lizzy Attree. This was the time that Adichie published The Thing Around Your Neck which contained the story, ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’, about a writing workshop led by a sexist white man that everybody suspected was the Caine workshop...

The Caine tried to make amends with the 2014 shortlist. Tendai Huchu, Efemia Chela, Okwiri Oduor, Diane Awerbuck and Billy Kahora made it; Okwiri Oduor won...

 The nice thing about the Caine is that they sometimes appear to listen. So for 2017, they came up with a diverse shortlist of Bushra al Fadil, Arinze Ifeakandu, Lesley Arimah again, Chikodili Emelumadu and Magogodi Makhene. A translated story, a same-sex love story, an all-female story, a horror story, a sci-fi story...

 ...the stories are seldom great and usually average. Is it that the judges have questionable tastes? No one knows! Another problem has to do with branding. Aaron Bady wrote an essay about it. Is it for emerging writers or for the best short story? (Well, the leading fiction prize in Africa has to be Short Story Day Africa and nobody is reviewing the stories!)

Conventional wisdom is that Binyavanga Wainana (Kenya) should be the last person to criticize the Caine Prize (as he surprisingly did via social media) because he was one of the first beneficiaries (in terms of cash, exposure, foreign travel etc). He (along with most other beneficiaries like Helon Habila of Nigeria became literary stars only after they scooped the prize). And it was only after Caine that Binyavanga co-founded the now-famous Kwani Trust. From a blog post by Obinna Udenwe, titled ‘Slamming Binyavanga for Slamming the Caine Prize’ (16 Sept 2014):

I am reminded of the Nza lore (about an ungrateful mythical bird) because of two incidents that are just as nagging as they are insulting: last year, when my friends, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim were shortlisted alongside two other Nigerians for the Caine Prize, our own Chimamanda Adichie insulted not just the prize but those four Nigerian writers shortlisted for it. Adichie’s comment on the Caine Prize didn’t injure people’s sensibilities because of its derogatory nature; it did because she was once shortlisted for the prize. We wondered if she would have made the statement if she had won the prize.

In a related incident, her friend, the Kenyan writer, Binyavanga Wainaina who clinched international recognition after winning the Caine Prize and setting up Kwani? a literary journal based in Nairobi, while riding high on the popularity and recognition provided by the platform of the Prize, in a recent interview with Mazi Chiagozie Nwonwu lambasted the Prize for what he referred to as riding on the legitimacy provided it by the Nigerian media.

 In Mr. Wainaina’s words ‘it (Caine Prize) just isn’t our institution… what is happening is you people are allowing the Caine Prize to receive funding and build itself as a brand and make money and people’s career there in London.’ Binyavanga’s argument is that; ‘…all these young people who are ending up in that place (Caine Prize) were built up by many people’s work. If there was no Saraba, if there was no Farafina workshop, if there was no Cassava Republic…. There will be no Okwiri, there will be no Elnathan etc.‘

Wainana argues that amidst the local and international buzz created around the winning writer, the media and the literary community often forget the efforts of the other platforms that gave them the push to grow and enter for the prize in the first place – platforms like literary workshops, magazines, editors and publishers, etcetera.

Mr. Wainaina’s argument may be logical; but it is, to me, quite pointless. Literary prizes give validation to the work of the writer. In fact, every prize and award that has existed since creation recognises the recipient and validates the works of this individual…

Past Caine Prize winners include: Lidudumalingani Mqombothi (SA), Yvonne Awuor (Kenya), Bushra al-Fadil (Sudan), Rotimi Babatunde (Nigeria), Olufemi Terry (Sierra Leone), Heinritta Rose-Innes (SA), Mary Watson (SA), Brian Chikwava (Zimbabwe), Leila Aboulela (Sudan), Namwali Serpell (Zambia), NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe), Monica Arac de Nyeko (Uganda) and Makena Onjerika (Kenya).

An introduction to the Miles Morland Foundation (MMF), from the horse’s mouth, as it were:

Miles Morland set up the foundation which bears his name in 2013, after a career investing in Africa via two companies he created, Blakeney Management and DPI (Development Partners International). Based in London, the Miles Morland Foundation (MMF) is a UK registered charity which makes grants in areas reflecting its founder’s interests.

The Foundation’s main aim is to support entities in Africa which allow Africans to get their voices better heard. It is particularly interested in supporting African writing and African literature.

The Miles Morland Writing Scholarship comes with a monetary stipend that rivals the Caine Prize booty. In an article for What’s On Africa blog, upcoming writer Immaculata Abba expounded on the appeal of the MMF Scholarship: 

However, what makes this perhaps one of the the most enviable literary prize on the African continent. It comes from the Miles Morland Foundation which is dedicated to supporting entities in Africa which allow Africans to get their voices better heard especially in literature. The three fiction winners, Mqombothi, Ike-Njoku and Adan will each receive a grant of £18,000 to allow them to take a year off to write a book while the non-fiction winner, Attah will receive a grant of £25,000 to cover extra research costs. Competition this year came from a record 500 submissions, compared to 345 from last year, from over thirty countries and Miles Morland enthused that the chosen scholars made proposals with ‘the potential to command global attention.’ [5]

The MMF has also facilitated workshops in which upcoming writers, who may never win the ultimate prize, receive professional training/advice. More from the MMF website:

Over the past two years the MMF has supported literary festivals in Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Somaliland, cultural initiatives in east, west, central and southern Africa, London’s Film Africa festival, the Caine Prize for African Writing, several African educational initiatives and the new Rhodes scholarships for Africans.

Past MMF Scholars include Doreen Baingana (Uganda), Tony Mochama (Kenya), Yewande Omotoso (SA/Barbados), Ahmed Khalifa (Egypt), Noo Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria), Fatin Abbas (Sudan), Abdul Adan (Somalia), Ayesha Harruna Attah (Ghana), Bryony Rheam (Zimbabwe), Elnathan John (Nigeria), Alemseged Tesfai (Ethiopia) and Eloghosa Osunde (Nigeria).

 Although relatively new, the Burt Award for African Literature is a well established, coveted and prestigious award, partly due to the sizeable prize money at stake and the sponsor’s commitment to purchase a large number of copies of the winning books.  Like most other cash-rich prizes, it has a foreign backer: Canadian Bill Burt, after whom it is named. Some information from the official website:

The Burt Award for African Literature is a literary prize that recognizes excellence in young adult fiction from Africa. Sponsored by CODE through the generous contributions of Canadian patron Bill Burt, the award addresses an ongoing absence of relevant, quality books for young people while at the same time promotes a love of reading and learning in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Ghana. The award consists of up to three cash prizes totaling $21,000 CAD and a publishing contract for winning submissions. Winning titles will be distributed to schools and libraries throughout these three countries.

 The Brunel International African Poetry Prize was founded in 2012 by British-Nigerian writer Bernardine Evaristo, a Professor of Creative Writing at Brunel University in London. The official website describes the award thus:

The Brunel International African Poetry Prize is a major annual poetry prize of UK £3000, aimed at the development, celebration and promotion of poetry from Africa. Now in its sixth year, the Prize is sponsored by Brunel University London and supported by the African Poetry Book Fund…

The Prize works closely with the African Poetry Book Fund (APBF) and since its inception, most of the poets who have been nominated and/or won this award have published chapbooks with the African Poetry Book Fund series of ‘New Generation Chapbook Box Sets’. 

The Prize is open to poets who were born in Africa, or who are nationals of an African country, or whose parents are African. It is for ten poems exactly in order to encourage serious poets. These poems may, however, have already been published. Only poets who have not yet had a full-length poetry book published are eligible. Poets who have self-published poetry books or had chapbooks and pamphlets published are allowed to submit for this prize.

Past Brunel Poetry Prize winners include: Warsan Shire, Liyou Libsekal, Safia Elhillo, Nick Makoha, Chekwube O. Danladi and Romeo Oriogun.

The Commonwealth Short Story Prize accepts unpublished short fiction from the 53 member states of the Commonwealth of Nations (formerly the British Empire). Entries may be in English, Bengali, Chinese, Greek, Kiswahili, Malay, Portugese, Samoan, Tamil and Turkish.  According to their website,, regional winners receive UK £2,500 and the overall winner receives UK £5,000. Past Commonwealth Prize winners include: Efua Traoré, Ellen Banda-Aaku, Philip Nash, Shachi Kaul and Jennifer Moore.

The African Literature Prize is a special award worth USD $20,000. It is administrated by Achievers Media[6] in order ‘to honour African poets/writers’. Only one African is eligible to receive this prize per year.

The Golden Baobab Prize is best known in the Children’s Literature segment of African publishing. Some background information, from a callout on the Kwani Trust website (dated 25 Sept 2009):

The Baobab Prize annually invites entries of unpublished African short stories written for audiences either 8-11 years or 12-15 years. This year the prize will award $1,000 to the best story in each category and $800 to the most promising young writer (18 years and below). Also all shortlisted stories will be considered for possible publishing. The Baobab Prize is open to African citizens of all ages... The Baobab Prize is here to shake up African literature as we know it.

Past winners of the Golden Baobab Children Literature Prize include Lori-Ann Preston and Vennessa Scholtz.

 From ‘ANA Literary Prizes 2017: Titan Games and a Reunion of Sorts’[7] by Sueddie Vershima:

The Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA) literary prize in any category is a notable prize looked forward to by almost every Nigerian writer. While there have been quarrels over quality, judgments and things of the like – as with other prizes, it has remained one of the most prestigious prizes in the country…

The Nigerian Prize for Literature (NLNG) is a lucrative award divided into four categories: Prose Fiction, Children’s Literature, Poetry, and Drama. Past winners include Abubakar Adam Ibrahim.

 The Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature is awarded annually for literary works in the Kiswahili language ‘across the categories of fiction, poetry, memoir and graphic novels’.  It comes with sizeable cash prizes (about USD $5,000 per winner) and is primarily backed by The Safal Group (Kenya/Tanzania/Mauritius), the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs at Cornell University (USA), and the Africana Studies Center at Cornell University. Other affiliates include Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, East African Educational Publishers, and The Africa Poetry Fund. According to the official web presence:

The prize, founded in 2014 by Dr. Lizzy Attree (Richmond/Goldsmith’s) and Dr. Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Cornell University), has the express goal of recognizing writing in African languages and encouraging translation from, between and into African languages.

 The website goes on to say:

The Prize sets a historical precedent for African philanthropy by Africans and shows that African philanthropy can and should be at the center of African cultural production.

 Over 140 million people speak Kiswahili in Eastern and Southern Africa. Kiswahili is also one of the official languages in Kenya and Tanzania. Through some of the most prolific African writers and poets writing in Kiswahili, such as Shaban Roberts and Ebrahim Hussein there is a large body of work in Kiswahili that has long been a staple language in leading research universities e.g. Nairobi University, Boston University and University of Wisconsin – Madison. In other words, Kiswahili is an established world language and should be considered as such.

Past Mabati-Cornell prize winners include: Zainab Alwi Baharoon and Jacob Ngumbau Julius (2018), and Dotto Rangimoto and Ali Hilal Ali (2017). The winning manuscripts by the latter two have been published as books by Mkuki na Nyota in Tanzania. The inaugural winners, in 2015, were A.S. Manyanza and Enock Maregesi whose novels, Penzi la Damu and Kolonia Santita, were published by EAEP.  Other early winners include Ghassani Mohammed and Christopher Bundala Budebah who scooped prizes in the poetry category.

The Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa is worth USD $20,000 and is awarded ‘every other year’ to the best book written by an African in any literary genre. Past winners include Akin Bello, Sifiso Mzobe, Kopano Matiwa, Nnedi Okorafor, Sefi Atta, Professor Tanure Ojaide and Harriet Anena.

Worth roughly UK £15,000, the Etisalat/9mobile Prize for Literature is a higly desirable award that celebrates a notable ‘first fiction book’ by a writer ‘of African citizenship’. Past winners include Fiston Mwanza Mujila (DRC), Jowhor Ile (Nigeria), NoViolet Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) and Songeziwe Mahlangu (SA).

 Below is a list of some other notable awards and respective winners:

  • Short Story Day Africa: Sibongile Fisher
  • Writivism Award: Acan Immaculate
  • South Africa Literary Awards: Nuruddin Farah, Panashe Chigumadzi and Gcina Mhlophe
  • Sunday Times Literary Awards (SA): Pumla Dineo Gqola and Nkosinathi Sithole
  • Ghana Writers Awards: Dr Michael Osei Agyapong and Bawa Sadique Anyame

 Unlike with indigenous prizes, there have been complaints that rather than reward literary merit, superior writing skill or bestselling potential, foreign judges expect African writers to ‘perform their Africanness’ ie. they expect one to perpetuate the usual unromantic stereotypes of Africa (war, disease, hunger, tribalism, poverty, rampant corruption, reverse economics, dictatorial regimes, funny-sounding languages, deep Coming-to-America-movie accents etc). If one writes about prosperous Africans - so the argument runs – the submission is not considered ‘African enough’ ie. that’s not the Africa the judges want/expect.

From ‘African Books for Western Eyes’, an article by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani:

In the past decade, all sorts of marvelous things have happened for African literature. African writers have won or been shortlisted for some of the most prestigious literary prizes and accorded prominent display in leading bookshops. Contemporary African voices are finally telling African stories.

But we are telling only the stories that foreigners allow us to tell. Publishers in New York and London decide which of us to offer contracts, which of our stories to present to the world. American and British judges decide which of us to award accolades, and subsequent sales and fame. Apart from South Africa, where some of the Big Five publishers have local branches, the few traditional publishers in Africa tend to prefer buying rights to books that have already sold in the West, instead of risking their meager funds by investing in unknown local talents.

 As a result, in Nigeria, most writers are self-published. The responsibility for the printing, marketing and publicity of their books rests solely on their individual pockets…

According to the highly esteemed Nigerian writer and publisher, Chuma Nwokolo (How to Spell Naija in 100 Short Stories), what we need are not awards but ‘education’ and ‘publishing structures’ that can nurture and promote the many writing talents we have on the continent. These thoughtful words from Chuma were widely circulated by African writers online, which means that the sentiments struck a cord with many of them:

Well, my opinion should always be taken with a pinch of salt because I haven’t won any prizes. I don’t submit to prizes. I used to when I was much younger but now I don’t submit my work to prizes. So you should always take my opinion with a pinch of salt. As that of a frustrated writer who is speaking with some sour grapes. 

Having said that, I think that a literary prize is a gift. It doesn’t have to be given. When it is given, you accept it with grace. If you don’t want it, walk away with grace. Nobody compels you to take it. So that’s one given. Having said that, the reality in our market place is that a prize can make a difference in a writer’s life. For example, to win $100,000 in the NLNG can transform a writer’s life. Because of that, such a prize has an impact in the writing of their generation. It is idle to say that people will not be enticed to compete for it. 

Now, once you begin to compete for such prizes, something happens to the literature. It can have a transformative impact on the literature of that generation because everybody writing, who is enticed by the prize will have his eyes on what will fit into the prize. For instance, Caine Prize has a 3000-word limit. And I had a conversation with a writer whose work was, I think, about 2800 words. The question was how to extend the work to fit to qualify the prize. How to pat that story. Now, for any reader who is going to read that story later, he is going to feel that the story is a bit too stretched. And that’s at the basic level. More fundamentally, we talk about tone, subject matter, material, shock treatment. All these are things you can look at the last winners and decide, this is a story that can win this kind of prize. And then all of a sudden you find that even though only ten people are on the shortlist and only person wins, you could have one hundred thousand stories sounding the same. Published by the best writers in their generation. This has a damaging effect on our literature. Not damaging in the sense that it spoils the literature but damaging in the sense that it reduces the natural variety and the natural adventurousness in our literature. 

So, it is very liberating for a writer to say for instance, ‘I am not writing for a prize or writing for an audience, I am writing for my people. I am writing for myself. I am writing for my inspiration.’ It is liberating. What it does for that writer is to give him a sudden freedom to do what comes naturally to the inspiration and without having anybody looking over their shoulder. For instance, like a shy child who is writing and his parents are alive and he knows that anything he publishes will be read by his parents. There is a kind of self-censor that goes to work and you are suddenly checking everything you write to make sure it fits within the prism of what your parents would like to see. That is the impact of prize-writing. Prize-writing, you may not it know when you are doing it, but because you are hoping to win a prize you’d naturally do the things that your ‘prize parents’ would want to see on the book; would approve. Even your publisher might say, ‘Well, I have seen your three submissions, I will only take this one because I think it would win a prize.’ All these are impacts of powerful prizes on the writer. 

 So, I would go back to what I said at the beginning of this answer, that prizes are wonderful things. They are gifts. They are not compulsory and they help the winners but if you look at the volume of writing in a good writing country, you find out that prizes are like lotteries. One, there is no objective way of getting the best absolutely (you will get a good winner) but there is no objective way of getting the best winner. It’s not possible. When you have like thirty excellent stories, one person will win. Then you see that obviously it’s a kind of lottery among the best. So, it’s a little bit unfair but that’s what it is. That’s why you have the longlist which gives some prominence to as many people as possible. Then of course you have the winner who walks away with the prize. 

 But, having said that, we have to always concede that because of the impact, people who want to benefit our literature should not focus on prizes. I’m now talking from the point of view of benefactors. It may be glamorous to set up a prize and to endow it with a million pounds and all that – wonderful. But, that on its own does not help literature as much as, for instance, the impact of education. Because, I’ve ever edited submissions and I know that there is a lot of talent on the continent but the failure of craft, the failure of training. It’s not just about going to do MFAs but it’s more about the basics. Which comes back to good governance. I’m not saying that we should start giving money to schools but we should focus on good governance. That’s one. So, education, publishing structures, like publishing, distribution, retail. These all have a greater impact on writing than just the prizes. Because a lot of the prize winners, if you ask them a year after the prize, ‘Have you sold up to five thousand copies?’ the answer would be, ‘No.’ 

In an advanced country, if you win a prize you could sell a hundred thousand on the strength of that prize. It’s not so in Africa because the distribution, the publishing, the marketing, the chain is not there. So, it’s better to look at those structures that would actually improve our literature by helping people who have simply gotten on the longlist to get better distribution and to make a living from their work as opposed to just this lottery that goes to the winner at the end of the day.

 Chuma’s sentiments are similar to those of the iconic German writer Heinrich Boll who once said: Medals don't suit me. I'm not that kind of guy.’ 

 A lament from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, from his famous book Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms in African Literature (1993):

I wanted to write, to tell freedom, and by the time I came to Arthur Ravenscroft's class in Leeds in 1965, I had already written two novels, The River Between and Weep Not Child, a three-act play, The Black Hermit, two one-act plays, and nine short stories. My third novel, A Grain of Wheat, was to be written in Leeds but even the first two carry memories associated with Leeds. The River Between, the first novel to be written but the second to be published, came in 1965 and the launch was held in Leeds with Austicks bookshop across the road flattering the author's ego with a fine display of the new book. Weep Not Child, the second novel but the first to be published by Heinemann in 1964, won a UNESCO First Prize in the first Black and African Writers and Artists Festival in Dakar. I heard the news while in Leeds. I got congratulations from all over the world. A UNESCO prize for literature? My financial worries in Leeds were over and I voiced my hopes to my fellow students who were not a little impressed by the fortune befalling one in their midst. You can imagine my disappointment when later I learnt that the prize was honorary after all. An honorary first prize. I have never talked about this prize or cited it as one of my accomplishments. Fortunately I heard the honorary news after I was already in the middle of my third novel, A Grain of Wheat, and I hoped that it would not win any honorary first prize. Not while I was a British Council Scholar in Leeds anyway.

But for the most part, African scribes don’t have a problem with the existence of award schemes, as long as they are relevant, transparent and fairly judged.

 Louise Umutoni is the founder and director of Rwandan-based publishing company Huza Press. In 2006, she won the award for Best Arts and Culture Journalist at the Rwanda Golden Pen Awards. In 2015, she launched the Huza Press Award for Fiction. In an article titled ‘Establishing a New Literary Prize: The Huza Press Award for Fiction’ (a guest post for ‘Africa in Words’ blog), Umutoni wrote:

We set up the Huza Press short story competition (the first of its kind in Rwanda) to find out what stories Rwandans were interested in telling. We received stories from across the country and were pleasantly surprised to read stories that addressed all manner of topics…In 2016 we now have the capacity to open up the prize to submissions in both English and French…I suppose our biggest takeaway from this process has been realising the complexity of managing a literary prize. We encountered issues of language, canon-creation and our role in this, as well as inescapable issues of financing and sustainability. We also realised that our writers still needed quite a lot of support to improve their writing….We want this prize to not only recognize the work of writers, but encourage them to continue creating…The Huza Press Award for Fiction is a literary prize targeted at emerging writers; we are excited about reading this year’s stories and finding new Rwandan literary talent.

At the unveiling of the 2017 winners of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, one of the speakers mentioned several ‘foundations’ run by ‘Big Men’ in Africa and asked what those NGOs do; how they impact their societies. He was of the view that a proper use of their funds would be sponsoring local prizes/awards. Incidentally, the Mabati-Cornell Prize is co-sponsored by Mabati Rolling Mills, a manufacturing concern associated with Kenyan billionaire industrialist and philanthropist Manu Chandaria. Another well known billionaire philanthropist in Africa is telecoms supremo Mo Ibrahim (Sudan) whose NGO – the Mo Ibrahim Foundation – gifts USD$ 5 million to retired African presidents deemed to have practiced good governance during their terms. (The most recent award went to Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.) Some reflections from a speech by Mo Ibrahim:

When you say ‘Africa is rising’ or ‘Africa is a basket case’, are you looking at the top performer or the bottom performer? There should be more nuance in the way we talk about Africa. There are 54 countries and therefore 54 stories.

Apart from the USD$ 5 million that Mo Ibrahim Foundation’s ‘Achievement in African Leadership Award’ offers to former leaders who have promoted good governance, there is a USD$ 200,000 per year stipend for the rest of their lives. Mo Ibrahim speaks:

We need to celebrate success. All the time we talk about failures. We wanted to reward great achievers.

A snippet from NoViolet Bulawayo’s acceptance speech in Nigeria, when she won ‘the maiden pan-African Etisalat Prize for Literature’ for We Need New Names:

We are all aware of the shortage of literary prizes on the continent. Even as African writers have always and consistently produced compelling literature. So I think it is very significant and important that we have our own prize to speak to the work that is being produced.

Zukiswa Wanner (Hardly Working) is a South African journalist, novelist, memoirist and publisher who has also lived in Kenya. Her works have been shortlisted for various awards, including the South African Literary Awards and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize. In 2015, she scooped the K Sello Duiker Memorial Literary Award for her novel London Cape Town Joburg. In 2014, Wanner was listed among 39 Sub-Saharan African writers aged under 40 deemed to have ‘potential and talent to define trends in African literature.’ In a Daily Nation newspaper article titled ‘Lesson On Literary Festivals And Where Writers Get Inspired’ (28 Nov  2015), Zukiswa Wanner posited the creation of a local alternative to the Nobel Prize:

These are things that cannot be taught to anyone and certainly not at any literary festival. Most of all, though, literary festivals are a chance for readers to interact with writers they respect and have their copies of those authors’ books signed.

The last reason is why I will be attending the Kwani Litfest from the December 1 to 6 next week. You see, I have six unsigned copies of different novels by Nuruddin Farah. I have not fully given up on the possibility that we will set up an African equivalent of the Nobel, call it a Dangote, and when that happens, Farah will hopefully be a winner and my library will be something to behold...

The ‘Dangote’ referenced above is a Nigerian industrialist widely believed to be the richest Black man. Forbes magazine speaks:

The richest African, for the seventh year in a row, is Nigerian cement and commodities tycoon Aliko Dangote, with a net worth that Forbes pegs at $12.2 billion. That's up $100 million from a year ago. Dangote is looking beyond cement – his most valuable asset – and has been investing in a fertilizer production company and a large oil refinery. Dangote Fertilizer is expected to start operations in the second quarter this year.

 In a Daily Nation (Kenya) article titled ‘CITY GIRL: It Is Time Africa Gets Its Own Version Of Nobel Prize’ (14 Oct 2016), sassy columnist Njoki Chege also proposed the creation of an African alternative to the controversial Nobel. An excerpt:

 ...Ngũgi stopped writing in English in 1977. He has since written his novels in the Gikuyu language. His books, of course have been translated into different languages, but the original language remains his mother tongue.

His reason for this unique decision was simple. He wanted to fulfil every writer’s duty to their audiences; to write in an accessible language anyone could understand...

 It is time we realised we do not need white folks to reassure us and tell us how brilliant and intelligent we are to feel good about ourselves. The first step is to come up with the African version of the Nobel Prize

 I love Bob Dylan but he has not done more for global literature than Margaret Atwood (Canada), Ngũgi wa Thiong’o (Kenya), Haruki Murakami (Japan) or Assia Djebar (Algeria). Judging from the shocked reactions of African scribes after the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature announcement, the general vibe is that ‘the world’s most famous literary prize’ has lost its relevance, especially where Africa is concerned. As non-partisan as I try to be, in the name of Pan-Africanism and in the service of both my ancestors and future African generations, I endorse my fellow Africans’ clarion call for a major literary prize of our own. Bye bye, Mr. Nobel!


Alexander Nderitu is a Kenyan writer, poet, playwright and critic. He is the Deputy Secretary-General of PEN Kenya Centre and a Regional Managing Editor for the global news portal He has authored four e-books: When the Whirlwind Passes (novel), The Moon is Made of Green Cheese (poetry); Kiss, Commander, Promise (short stories); and Africa on my Mind (YA novel). In 2017, Business Daily newspaper named him one of Kenya’s ‘Top 40 Under 40 Men’.  In 2020, he was a finalist for the Collins Elesiro Literary Prize.

[1] The ‘Dylan’ was adapted from poet Dylan Thomas

[2] The Safal Group is the largest producer of Steel Roofing on the African continent with 36 operations in 12 countries.

[3] For further information, contact: Pernille Goodall Nick Elam, Raitt Orr & Associates Ltd. The Caine Prize for African Writing, Tel: 020 7222 5479 / 020 7376 0440. E-mail: or


[4]  First published in NEXT Newspaper in May 2011

[5]Meet The Winners Of The 2016 Miles Morland Scholarship For African Writing’ by Immaculata Abba. Posted on December 15, 2016. is an initiative of the Royal African Society.

[6] South Africa Office: 114 Erasmus Ave, Raslouw, Centurion, 0157 PO Box 1915, Rooihuiskraal,                         Centurion, 015, South Africa. Nigeria Liaison Office: 7, Parakou Crescent, Wuse 2, Abuja-Nigeria.

[7] ANA Magazine, an annual publication of Association of Nigerian Authors (October 2017 issue)