The Caine Prize and Unintended Consequences

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Note: Reprinted for archival purposes; first published May 28, 2011

I am still fuming over the wretchedness of almost all the offerings on the shortlist of the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing. Aided by some needy “African” writers, Africa is being portrayed as an issues-laden continent that is best viewed on a fly-infested canvas. Memo to the Caine Prize folks: It doesn’t have to be all about issues. Just tell me a story, any story.

The Caine Prize is beginning to behave like much of the aid that is funneled towards Africa and black nations. The wrong people are benefitting from the West’s fascination with all things impoverished and African. Let me observe that aid (without accompanying accountability) is threatening to cripple black Africa’s ability to breathe on her own. An army of ne’er do well NGOs tramples through black Africa, armed with dollars and drunken liberal opinions, “eradicating” poverty, disease, illiteracy and saving trees and chimps from those “Africans” who love roasting bushmeat with bush twigs. These issues remain precisely because it is not in the interest of these termite stakeholders to eradicate these issues. They would be out of a paycheck. These poverty pimps are mostly self-serving intellectuals wailing all the way to the bank. The West and her liberal purveyors of snake-oil remedies for fixing “Africa” ignore unintended consequences. We were felling trees before the “explorers” came with demands for “resources.” Right after Nigeria’s civil war ended, the West decided to help all of us who survived that war. I was in my first year of secondary school. Someone must have determined that I was suffering from rank malnutrition. I was poorly fed, not because of the war; the Catholic priests who ran my school were mean cheapskates. The do-gooders supplied us tons of stockfish, wheat, and powdered milk. We were several hundred boys in this Boarding school. The rock-hard stockfish ruined all our teeth; each time we drank the milk, we all sprinted for the latrine, all six hundred of us. We were lactose intolerant.

Helped with lots of dollars, the West is now busily forcing our stories into a particularly obnoxious trajectory. The allure of fame is overwhelming and our writers are trying way too hard to be “African” writers. They seek a vision that eludes them because it is wrong. Perhaps the term African writer is too limiting. I say screw boundaries and prizes, just write. Contemporary African writing is suffering from a serious hangover, the deleterious effect of overdosing on the legacy of Africa’s misery and the over-documentation of it by the previous generation of writers. The older writers for the most part genuinely wrote what they felt in their hearts and bones – the prejudice of colonialism, racism, anxieties about postcolonial life, and the painful alienation of exile. Suffering and anxieties united the writers, and forged a bond that in many instances sharpened the focus of their minds and pens. You don’t get the sense that the stories were contrived to fit a market.  Similarly, read the poetry of that era and you feel that a historian could piece together the issues of the times quite coherently.

Today, contemporary African writing as defined by what one reads in books is struggling to find a personality. I think I understand why: Whereas the previous generation of writers had only the book and traditional publishing as the avenue for expression, today’s generation has an avalanche of avenues. And they are exploring all of them. Unfortunately, the yardstick for judging African writing continues to be what is in print. The Caine Prize will not accept short stories that do not come from publishers (although they do accept offerings from online journals). The contemporary representation of our writing is becoming offensive at a time when today’s writers are putting out some pretty muscular stuff in the new media. In fact, it is at once an exciting and a frustrating time to be reading African literature because technology forces too much of it on the reader. There is an overwhelming abundance of stellar prose and poetry in places where judges of African writing are not looking. They should look harder.

I like the Caine Prize. I love that the Prize has done writers’ workshops in various parts. I hope that the organizers spend time to reflect on its vision and purpose. They should review the short-lists and winners since its inception, and put structures in place that ensure a more rounded set of offerings each year. I am not particularly sure why the stories’ settings are physically in Africa. Is this a requirement? They may wish to explore if that is part of the reason why the range of the output is so narrow. It is not always about issues; I know many African writers who simply write to delight. Many African writers happily dominate writing genres that do not define what the world knows and expects of African writing. I have come to believe that in the age of Facebook, the term “African writing” is as useful and empowering as the term “African. I am being sarcastic of course.