Tag Archives: African language literature

A Win for Translation: Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s novel Tram 83 wins Etisalat Prize for African Literature. (And I archive my articles of 2013 critiquing lack of translation)

The Etisalat Prize for Literature just announced its 2015 prize for African Literature at a ceremony in Victoria Island, Lagos. The winner of the £15,000 prize is Congolese novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila for his novel Tram 83, originally written in French and published by Éditions Métailié, Paris in 2014, and translated  from French to English by Roland Glasser for Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas.  I have not yet read the novel, but I picked it up at the most recent Modern Language Association Conference on the recommendation of Aaron Bady. So, it is going onto the top of my reading list.

Let’s use this space to celebrate, also, the translator Roland Glasser, who writes here about the process of translating the novel. Glasser watched the ceremony via live webcast (Etisalat, couldn’t you have brought the translator to the event as well? This makes me also wonder if the prize money will be split at all?)

Tram 83‘s  win is exciting on multiple levels, but I am the most excited about the reversal of Etisalat’s 2013 policy that the prize would only be given to works written originally in English. See the twitter conversation I had with the organization in June 2013.

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I criticized the policy in my column in Weekly Trust, part of a two-week critique of African literary prizes inspired by my time at the 2013 Africa Writes event in London. Rather bizarrely the South African literary website Books Live, picked up on my critique of the Etisalat Prize and gave it a headline.

Since the time I wrote my critique, there have been many changes for the better. In 2015, Mukoma wa Ngugi and Lizzy Atree founded the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, In October 2013 Words Without Borders published a special issue on African women writing in indigenous languages, Abuja-based Cassava Republic/Ankara Press published a special Valentine’s Day anthology in 2015 featuring stories written in African languages translated by well-known authors, and Nairobi-based Jalada published a special language issue in 2015. Since 2015, Praxis Magazine has also been making an effort to publish creative work in African languages and in translation. There has been an upsurge of interest in Hausa literature, brought about by both the 2012 publication of Aliyu Kamal’s English language translation of Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s novel Sin is a Puppy that Follows You Home by Indian publisher Blaft, and Glenna Gordon’s 2015 book of photography Diagram of the Heart that features gorgeous images of Hausa novelists. And now the Etisalat Prize for African Literature has become truly pan-African in awarding a Francophone novel translated into English, not from London but from Lagos. (The prize is in pounds rather than naira, but I suppose we have to take one thing at a time.) I hope the next big news will be that a pan-African prize is awarded to a novel translated from an African language.

In the meantime, I have realized I have not archived either one of my 2013 articles on the Africa Writes event or the Etisalat prize on this blog, so I will copy them below here:

Defining the “African story” in London: a preliminary response to the African Writes Festival at the British Library

It was around 10:20pm on 8 July in London. Just as I was handing my boarding pass to the ticket agent at Heathrow airport, I refreshed my phone screen and saw the news that Nigerian-American Tope Folarin had won the Caine Prize for African Writing for his story “Miracle,” a subtle well-crafted story set in a Nigerian church in the American state of Texas.

I had spent the weekend at the Africa Writes Festival hosted at the British Library in London, hanging out with the lovely Tope Folarin, as well as my two friends Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, who had also been shortlisted for the prize. After finding my window seat and chatting a moment with my seatmate in Hausa, I asked her “have you followed the Caine Prize at all?” “Not really,” she said. “I’ve been so upset about the killing of these school children in Yobe.”
My heart dropped. As I kept refreshing the twitter homepage on my phone, waiting for the winner of the Caine Prize to be announced, I had seen some chatter on twitter about a school attack. I suddenly remembered the Facebook message my cousin had sent me a few days before condoling me on the school attack and saying she was praying for Nigeria. I hadn’t known what she was talking about, and I didn’t google the news. I was too busy going to the festival and seeing London-based friends, too sleep deprived from late nights of gadding about with writers. I did not read the full story of the attacks in which, according to Leadership, forty-two students and teachers at a Yobe boarding school were shot in their beds Saturday morning by invaders, until I arrived back in Nigeria on Tuesday morning.

The juxtaposition of the two news items made me think about the ongoing debate about the Caine Prize and “stereotypes” about Africa. Last year in my article “The Caine Prize, the Tragic Continent, and the Politics of the Happy African Story,” I questioned the rhetoric of last year’s chair of the prize, British-Nigerian novelist Bernadine Evaristo, who said it is time “to move on” past stories of suffering in Africa. At the Africa Writes festival on a panel “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” on 6 July, Evaristo continued in this vein, speaking about how during her tenure with the prize, “I was absolutely determined that we were not going to have any traumatized children winning this prize.” She described her “battle” to make sure one particular story, “which ticked all the boxes … a boy living in a terrible situation, prey to gangs, brutalized etc” did not make the shortlist. In her defense, she brought up U.S.-based author Helon Habila’s recent review of Zimbabwean novelist NoViolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need New Names, in which he commented that it seems Bulawayo “had a checklist made from the morning’s news on Africa.” Habila, himself a recipient of the 2001 Caine prize for his story about the suffering of a journalist in a Nigerian prison, worried that a certain “Caine Prize aesthetic” was developing that valued sensational stories of Africa—what he called “poverty porn.”

Ironically, Evaristo was expressing her impatience with stories about “traumatized children” only hours after the attacks on the school in Yobe. When I arrived back in Nigeria, a friend described to me a story he/she wanted to publish about terrorism in a Nigerian newspaper but was afraid of becoming a target. As I wrote in my article last year, “To say we must ‘move on’ past stories of hardship suggests to those who are suffering that their stories don’t matter—that such stories are no longer fashionable. Writers who live amidst suffering are in the unfortunate position of inhabiting an inconvenient stereotype. They are silenced by threats of terrorists inside the country and by the disapproval of cosmopolitan sophisticates outside.”

Later that night after Evaristo’s panel, Kenyan writer Mukoma wa Ngugi on the platform with his father, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, spoke of his concern about “this push for what I call Afro-Optimist writing … wanting to show an Africa that is very Hakuna Matata…. In Kenya you have a very, very wealthy estate and next to it you have poverty…. I think it is our job as writers to explore this contradiction.” In response to Habila’s essay he cautioned, “we have to be very, very careful. It’s too easy to say there is a Caine Prize aesthetic… it’s as if we want to paint happy colours over the poverty and all those complications.” Caine Prize nominee Chinelo Okparanta further argued that “many people who jump on the poverty porn thing don’t even understand the context of what is being said…. These are superficial discussions.”

When I asked Evaristo about these contradictions, she hurriedly assured me that she was not in the position to tell people what stories to write, but that it was time to “start talking about different kinds of stories coming out of Africa, and I think this is happening especially with Taiye Selasi’s new book, and Chimamanda’s new book…” Ironically, the two novels she cites as more exciting new African stories are about relatively privileged Africans living in Diaspora—stories more like her own than the stories of traumatized children she is so determined to squelch.

As I point out these contradictions, I do so self-consciously, because I recognize myself in Evaristo’s impatience, in my own tendencies to review books published abroad before those published at home. I too am implicated because in London, I too did not make the effort to follow up on my cousin’s mention of the school attack. Another shooting? I thought. It has become too common. I don’t want to know about it right now. I just want to enjoy all of these great debates about African literature.

It is perhaps for this reason precisely why it is so problematic to have the “gatekeepers” of what stories are heard centred in London or New York. Because even a writer like Helon Habila, who has written such beautiful novels about the humanity of Nigerians who laugh and love and write amidst  conflict and poverty, now, from his professorial position in the West, jumps on the band wagon of complaining about how Africa is perceived in the rest of the world. But should not the focus, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o has long stressed in books like Moving the Centre, be instead on one’s immediate audience, expanding beyond that only when the story has been first heard at home?
Satirist and Caine Prize nominee, Elnathan John mentioned on several occasions during various interviews that he was still trying to get used to this talk of the “African writer” or the “African story.” He was writing, he explained, about northern Nigeria. His nominated story “Bayan Layi” was a northern Nigerian story, which he wrote shortly after the election violence of 2011, in which he was thinking about how to explain the nuance and complexity of the event to a Nigerian audience.  Author of The Spider King’s Daughter, Chibundu Onuzo touched the heart of the problem when she challenged Evaristo’s assumption that such stories were meant for publication in Britain. “Why do African writers need to be published here?” Shouldn’t the focus, she asked, be on building up publishing institutions in Africa, so that editors and publishers on the continent make the decisions on what kinds of stories are the most important and export them, rather than always having the most famous African writers be those first recognized in the West?

This, indeed, is one of the most central problems in discussions of African literature based in the capitals of what literary critic Pascale Casanova calls the “World republic of Letters.” Only rarely was there mention of the irony of such a festival being held at the centre of the former colonial empire, and there was more talk of “development” of African writers by Diaspora-based writers than I was comfortable with. However, I did think it was encouraging that Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees,” from his short story collection of that name, made the Caine Prize list.  The Whispering Trees was the first title published by exciting new Nigerian publisher Parresia, and the story selected by the Africa-based “Writivism” Facebook group as their Caine Prize winner. As Africans continue to tweet, blog, sell books through homegrown digital distribution like the phone-based okada books, and develop their own prizes, there is hope that the “centre” will move south to the continent itself.

 

African Literary Prizes: Where are the translations?

Last week, in my discussion of the Africa Writes Festival, which was held on the 5-7 July in London at the British library, I followed Kenyan author and language activist Ngugi wa Thiong’o in calling for “moving the centre” of the discussion about African literature to Africa itself.

As fantastic an initiative as the festival in London is and as impressive as the Caine Prize, the Commonwealth prize, the Brunel Prize for Poetry, the recently announced Moreland Writing Scholarship, and other such initiatives to reward African literature are (may they flourish), the healthiest state of African literature will be when the infrastructure to support African literature is developed and hosted on the continent itself.  As Caine Prize shortlisted writer Elnathan John pointed out at one of the first Caine Prize events in London on 4 July, “I think it is a shame that we are in London having this. I think all of us should be in Nairobi or Ghana or Lagos… Is the Caine Prize useful? Of course. It is among the best things that has helped African writing. But could the interaction be more equal? Yes. You don’t want us to just sit down be getting. We also want to interact and add value to the entire process, and I hope that as time goes by we are able to contribute more to that process.”

There are changes in this direction. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Helon Habila both regularly hold workshops in Nigeria funded by Nigerian banks. The Kenya-based (albeit with European and American sponsors) Kwani Manuscript Project just awarded its first three authors and plans to publish other submissions from its short and long list. The Ghanaian-based Golden Baobab prize, founded in 2008, awards and helps publish African children’s book manuscripts. The Nigeria-based Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature, founded in 2006, is awarded every two years to a work of African literature, cycling through a different genre each time. The NLNG Prize, though open only to Nigerians, similarly cycles through different genres and at a whopping $100,000 is one of the most financially rewarding African literary awards. The most recent Africa-based prize is the £15,000 Etisalat Prize for African literature that was founded in June 2013 to award first novels. Similar to the Wole Soyinka Prize in its pan-African scope, the Etisalat prize, which has its first submission deadline 30 August 2013, seems to go beyond some of the other prizes in infrastructure building. Its website mentions that “Entries by non-African based publishers will require a co-publisher partnership with an African based publisher should any entries be shortlisted,” and Etisalat commits to purchasing “1000 copies of all shortlisted books which will be donated to various schools, book clubs and libraries across the African continent.” Although the prize still looks north in offering the winner a U.K.-based fellowship at the University of East Anglia (and mentorship by British author Giles Foden) (why not a residency in an African location with an African writer?), the infrastructure building for African publishers is important. The most glaring deficiency to the prize, however, is this: Although the United Arab Emirates-based company Etisalat also gives a prize for Arabic children’s literature, the criteria for entry in the African Literature prize specifies that books are only eligible if they have FIRST been published in English. Now, the other prizes I’ve mentioned also specify English-language submissions but most also accept translations into English from other languages. Yet when I tweeted the Etisalat Prize’s twitter handle asking them if they were indeed excluding translations, they confirmed, “At this time we are only accepting books originally published in English.” Ironically in the photos of the Lagos gala event opening the prize, there were photos of steps honouring African writers Naguib Mahfouz, who wrote in Arabic, Okot p’Bitek who wrote in Acholi, Assia Djebar who writes in French, and Mia Cuoto who writes in Portuguese, all of whom are accessible to English-speakers only through translation.

This dismissal of translation, particularly from African languages, by those who desire to promote African literature is a shame, considering that translation has been the major way “world literature” is transmitted and studied between cultures. In Germany, the “International Literary Prize” awards the best German-translation of an international work, which was won this year by Christine Richter-Nilssons translation of Teju Cole’s novel Open City. The Nobel Prize has been given to writers of dozens of different languages including small ones like Danish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Japanese, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Swedish, and Turkish. Yet translations from and between African languages are rarely rewarded or recognized even by Africa-based prizes.

It was this sort of exclusion that Ngugi wa Thiong’o challenged at the “Africa Writes festival” in London two weeks ago. During the 6 July panel discussion “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” he asked rhetorically, “Can you seriously think about giving a prize to promote a French writer but you put a condition that they write in Gikuyu?”  He was concerned that “the abnormal has become normalized” when African languages, incredibly still called “tribal” languages by some festival attendees, become almost invisible in discussions of African literature.

Obviously, as Bernadine Evaristo, founder of the Brunel Prize for African poetry pointed out, there are logistical problems with prizes that accept entries in multiple languages, such as finding jury members who can adequately judge in submissions. While there are fewer such logistical problems with translations, Billy Kahora of Kwani and Caine Prize administrator Lizzy Attree pointed out that submissions in translation are rare.

In a later appearance, Ngugi spoke passionately of his “deep concern at what we are doing to the continent and this generation.”  “It pains me, in a personal kind of way to see the entire intellectual production of Africa—the one that is visible—in European languages” as if “Africa can only know itself—be visible—in English.” While qualifying that he did not begrudge anyone their prizes, he repeated his call for translation, not just between African and European languages, but between African languages themselves.  He pointed out that people should focus on whatever language they inherited and then learn others. “Why don’t we secure our base economically, politically, linguistically and then CONNECT with others. […] If you know the language of your community and then add all the languages of the world to it, that is empowerment.”

It is not as if literature in African languages does not exist or even flourish. The day before, Ghirmai Negash, Mohammed Bakari, and Wangui wa Goro spoke of translating into English, Gikuyu, and Swahili Gebreyesus Hailu’s Tigrinya-language novel The Conscript written in 1927 about the experiences of Eritrean men conscripted by Italy to fight in Libya. In Nigeria, there have been novels and poetry written in Efik, Hausa, Igbo, Tiv, Yoruba, and other languages. In Hausa alone, there are thousands of published novels and a voracious reading public. Though it seems to have been stagnant for a few years, there have been three editions of the Engineer Mohammed Bashir Karaye Prize for Hausa Writing, which awards Hausa prose and drama. Yet, as far as I know, not one of these award-winning or nominated works has been translated into any other language, and judging from the lack of interest in translation at the level of “African literature” it is unlikely that they will be without the intervention of bodies interested in supporting translation.

Fortunately, there are some venues interested in publishing translated work. Last year, the Indian publisher Blaft published Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Hausa novel Alhaki Kuykuyo Ne translated into English as Sin is a Puppy… by Aliyu Kamal and are interested in other such translations. The translation journal Words without Borders recently contacted me looking for African women’s writing translated from African languages. The problem is that there are few literary translators, and even fewer financial incentives within the continent.

Now, one solution is to protest this purposeful exclusion of translation by the Etisalat Prize, which you can do by tweeting them at @etisalatreads or emailing them at contact@etisalatprize.com. But judging from the experience of prizes like the Caine, even if Etisalat changed the rules, would there actually be any translations submitted? Another, perhaps more practical solution is to work on building up resources and training for translators through existing structures, like the Ebedi Writers Residency or to start new residencies to for writers and translators to come together to work on projects. Another incentive would be to start a prize for African literature in translation to focus on making the wealth of literature in Africa languages available to the world. Any lovers of literature out there who want to help make this happen?

As Ngugi said, this is his challenge to the next generation, “Connect. Let us choose the path of empowerment.”

 

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In response to Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse” an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (c) Sunmi Smart-Cole via African-Writing Online

When I first began to read Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s op-ed piece “In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse,” published in on 12 December 2010 in the New York Times, I thought I would enjoy the piece. [If you have trouble finding the full text of the article without signing into the New York Times site, you can find it copied over onto the USA/Africa Dialogues blog and now also on the NEXT website.] She argues that it may be a blessing that Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o did not win a Nobel Prize this year, reasoning that such a prize would encourage young African writers to aim to be the “next Ngugi.” New African writers should pursue their own style, Nwaubani contends, rather than slavishly imitating the elders of African literature.  Although it does not necessarily follow that honouring a writer for a lifetime of work must necessarily create slavish imitations, I am sympathetic to arguments about pursuing new styles and themes, especially coming from a new Nigerian author who in I Do Not Come to You by Chance has given us one of the freshest and funniest novels I’ve read in years. Nwaubani has been the Nigerian author you are most likely to hear me recommending as a good read this year.

However, my first eyebrow began to rise when I read her statement. “Ngugi, Achebe and Soyinka are certainly masters, but of an earnest and sober style.” This is a fair generalization. A Grain of Wheat, Arrow of God, and The Interpreters do make for studies in high seriousness. But has Nwaubani read the complete works of each of these authors? Sure, Ngugi’s English language work does tend to be quite sober and earnest, as do Achebe’s early novels. But Ngugi’s satirical fable Devil on the Cross(translated from Gikuyu) is one of the most simultaneously hilarious and ideological works of African literature I’ve read–and much of its richness, I think, comes from it’s original composition in Gikuyu. Soyinka’s fiction is, granted, famously obtuse, but performances of the Brother Jero plays are some of the funniest and most thought-provoking things my family has seen on stage. Achebe has similar humorous moments in Anthills of the Savannah.

Even if I were inclined to agree with her in general about the serious nature of the “old masters,” I nearly fell out of my chair when I read this statement:

“Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.”

I don’t greatly care if Ngugi wa Thiong’o wins the Nobel or not. I think it would be good prestige for African literature around the globe, and I think he certainly deserves it. Ngugi’s Devil on the Cross almost always makes my “favourite books” list, and I would be delighted if he received the Nobel in the future. But were I trying to make a point about the blessings of Ngugi not receiving the prize this year, as Nwaubani does, my argument would be that the value of Ngugi’s work and of other African literature does not depend on the judgment of some prize committee in Scandanavia, which has made quite conservative selections in the past, but rather on the importance it holds first in the eyes of its “home” audience in Africa.

Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 15 October 2006 (c) CM

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 15 October 2006 (c) CM

I was, to put it bluntly, horrified by the assumptions with which Nwaubani draws her over-easy conclusions in this short piece. Whether or not Ngugi ever wins the prize, I wish there would be many more African writers who would copy, not him, or his style, but his commitment to writing in the language he grew up speaking. Why is great literature in Igbo, Yoruba, or Hausa (or Tiv, Itsikeri, or Nupe) a shudder-worthy accomplishment? Nwaubani seems to be implying that the mere fact that people speak and laugh and love and dare even to write in different languages is furthering “tribal differences”  She says “This is not the variety we need.” On the contrary, I would argue this is exactly the variety we need.

Of course, we also need translation. Translation, as I have heard Professor Ngugi say on multiple occasions, is the only equal relationship between languages. Why should we not translate works of Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo into English or even into each other, in the same way that Norwegian or Japanese (smaller languages than many African languages) works are translated into other languages? Why is “the Nigerian reader,” by default, defined as an English speaker. This sort of thinking merely furthers the distinction between the elite and the masses in Nigeria. To my mind, it is not African language literature that furthers divisions between Nigerian peoples, but rather this sort of thinking that sees African languages the enemy rather than a source of creativity and celebration–promoting monolingualism in English rather than the multilingualism that has long been a strength of the continent.

Why is there a dearth of reading culture of African literature in Nigeria? Much of it probably is that there is not enough of the funny, light-reading novels like Nwaubani’s available. But much of it may also have to do  with how “reading culture” in the Nigerian context is almost always defined as reading culture in English. Does Nwaubani know that there is a flourishing market of Hausa language literature in Northern Nigeria that crosses borders into Niger, Cameroon, Ghana, and even further flung places like Saudi Arabia and Malaysia where there are Hausa speakers? Does she know that one of the richest sources of women’s writing and women’s voices in Nigeria is being written in Hausa, where hundreds of well-known and beloved female authors write about love, marriage and their everyday experiences, or that Hausa novelists have long dealt with the national experience of being Nigerian? The bestselling Hausa novel, thus far, In da So da Kauna self-published in two parts in 1991 and 1992 by Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino sold over 100,000 copies (200,000 if you count both parts), which although hardly a New York Times bestseller is a good selling book even for Western publishers like Penguin or Random House. Is that literature (and what I hear is also a rather flourishing Yoruba literary scene) doomed to be trampled and denounced by Nigerian intellectuals and English-language writers because it is not written in the “language of unity,” which because of the history of colonialism happens to be English? Is it doomed to be trampled and denounced because, since no one has translated it, it has not been read by those large corporate publishers in America and the UK, who have made the careers of so many recent Nigerian authors writing in English?

I intend no disrespect for African literature in English here. It has its beauties and its advantages, such as a more immediate global and, yes, national audience. But we NEED literature in African languages because embedded within their etymology is history and a rich cultural heritage that we will lose if they die. These languages should be given the chance to develop same way that English language literature has developed, through literature. And this English language literature would never have developed had not rebels like Chaucer or Shakespeare insisted in writing in the vernacular rather than the more elite Latin that was the universal language of the educated elite in Europe at that time. We need such literature in the same way that we need literature in Danish, Mandarin, or Tamil. We need such literature because it is often in that literature you can capture exactly the kind of light-hearted banter, the vast reading audience, and the stories of ordinary working class Nigerians that Nwaubani is seeking. Perhaps, more people across the country would read if more Nigerian language literature were translated. Rather than calling for the death of African language literature, I would rather call for the investment in scholarship in and publication of this literature and the commitment of writers willing to translate it. Maybe then, Nwaubani will recognize her fellow “literary groundbreakers,” not in the old sober masters of the English language, but in those of her contemporaries who capture millions of readers in the language they speak every day.

UPDATE 19 December 2010. Since my response to Nwaubani’s article shortly after I read it last Sunday, a number of brilliant responses from African writers and intellectuals have popped up around the internet. Here are some of them:

“In Africa, The Laureate’s Curse” by Chielozona Eze on Africa Literature News and Reviews, December 12

“Not so, Adaobi” by Chuma Nwokolo on AfricanWriting.com, on December 12

“The Laureates Curse? I think not” on Kinna Reads, December 14

“The Nobel and Ngugi’s Cause–a short response to Tricia Adaobi’s article, In Africa the Laureate’s Curse” by Nana Fredua-Agyeman on ImageNations, December 14

“Why Nwaubani was Wrong” on Nigerians Talk, on December 15

“Nwaubani, Ngugi, and the Nobel” on Molara Wood’s Wordsbody, December 18

And for a piece arguing the opposite of what Nwaubani wrote, see Zoe Norridge’s piece in the Guardian, “Why Ngugi wa Thiong’o should have won the Nobel Prize for Literature.”

[UPDATE 13 February 2011. I am currently uploading photos and links to some my column in the Weekly Trust. I used this essay, slightly edited, as one of my columns on 18 December 2011: “Regarding Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s ‘In Africa, the Laureate’s Curse.’” To read the piece in the original version, click on the photo below which will take you to a photo large enough to read.

A Hausa Literary Expedition to Damagaram, Zinder, Niger

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Hausa writers Maryam Ali, Zainab Auta, Hafsat M.A. Abdulwahid, and Rabi’a Talle in Damagaram, Niger, 10 December 2009 (c) Carmen McCain

Last week I attended a conference on “The Importance of Indigenous Languages to Economic, Social, and Cultural Development (a rough translation of the conference name in French “Interet et Importance des Langues Nationales dans le Processus du Developpement Economique Social Culturel et Politique” and Hausa “Mahimmancin Harsunan Gida ta Hanyar Rubutu Don Ci Gaban Tattalin Arziki Al’Adu da Kyautata Rayuwa da Siyasa”), held in Damagaram, Niger, from 8-10 December 2009. From the papers presented, (all of which were in Hausa on matters related to Hausa language, literature, and culture) and the participants, involved, it mostly turned out to be a conference on the importance of Hausa, with the significant exception of the participation of Alhassane Hamed-Ittyoube, a Nigerien writer, translator, and illustrator of Tuareg heritage, with some beautiful looking books in the Tamajaq language using the Tifinar script he passed around for us to look at. Although his primary languages are Tamajaq and French, he speaks some Hausa and interacted well with the mostly Hausa literary crowd that arrived from Nigeria and other parts of Niger. Unfortunately, for some reason I can’t quite understand, he was stopped from reading an excerpt from one of his rewritings of Tamajaq oral literature at one of the open-mic events. He was reading a translation in French, which another Nigerien writer was translating into Hausa. He was about two minutes into his reading, and we were all enjoying the piece, when there was some discussion I couldn’t hear, and he was not able to finish. I was sorry about that because his involvement in the conference seemed very important in providing a voice for minority-language literatures in a conference that was ostensibly about indigenous language[S] rather than just Hausa. I will try to write a separate post on his work and the interaction we had during the conference.

With that aside, it was very enjoyable to be on an expedition with so many Hausa writers (including novelists, poets, journalists, and academics), and to be able to be a part of the two evenings of open-mic events, in which authors read poems/short stories/excerpts of novels and received much critical feedback from fellow writers. The atmosphere was relaxed, friendly, and full of jokes, especially when novelist/screenwriter/poet Nazir Adam Salih sang a love-song, with a full sing-along chorus, to an unknown lady and was mercilessly teased with spur-of-the-moment response songs for the rest of the trip.

Hausa novelists Nazir Adam Salih and Ado Ahmad Gidan Dabino at a reading in Damagaram, Zinder, Niger, 8 December 2009 (c) Carmen McCain

There is much to say about the week, and I will likely split this post up into several smaller ones on specific themes. So watch out for further posts throughout the week.

The events of the week included arrival on Monday evening; an opening ceremony on Tuesday and an open-mic Tuesday night; paper presentations on Wednesday morning and afternoon and another open-mic Wednesday evening, a closing ceremony Thursday afternoon with visits to the museum and the Emir’s palace (or the Sultanate of Damagaram). About six of us women also took a trip to the market on Thursday evening.

Tamajaq writer Alhassane Hamed Ittyoube and Hausa writers at the museum in Damagaram, Zinder, Niger 10 December 2009 (c) Carmen McCain

Friday morning, about seven of those of us who were heading back to Kano trekked, dragging rolling suitcases, laptop cases, and market bags of tapioca, to the Damagaram public transport depot. There was much haggling over pricing and space. We nearly left in a small bus, but when the driver attempted to cram more passengers in, though we had settled on a price for a certain number of seats, we disembarked and left the park to arrange for a vehicle elsewhere. I will tell the story of our rather dramatic border crossing in another post.

The most personally disconcerting part of the trip (other than the dramatic border crossing that I will write about later!) was being in Niger with no money!! I went to Niger in public transport with several writers from Kano. At the border, we decided to wait to change money until we got to Damagaram, assuming there would be a better rate there, but once there we were met at the public transport depot by one of our Nigerien hosts and never actually got to a place to change our naira to CFAs. So, many of us went for about three days without having any money. Fortunately, our hosts were generous enough to feed and house us, so it wasn’t a major hardship, but it was a little disorienting to not even have the money to buy a sachet of pure water or a bundle of tissue. On the last evening, some of us women took a trip to the market and were able to find a trader to change a little naira. I immediately went in search of pure water having not had anything to drink since early in the morning! That said, it is amazing that we were taken care of so well that we were not too pinched without our cash!

Overall, it was an excellent experience. There were a few grumblings about accommodations and organization, but that seems typical of most conferences. I did feel badly that Hajiya Hafsat M.A. Abdulwahid, an important writer, the first female novelist in Hausa and winner of the 1979 NNPC writing competition for her novel So Aljannar Duniya, was not given better accommodations. She graciously shared a room with me, but a person of her status should have been given something a little better.

More details later.