Tag Archives: Caine Prize for African Writing

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 anticipation of tonight’s announcement by the Caine Prize for African Writing

Caine Prize Nominees Elnathan John, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Chinelo Okparanta and Pede Hollist gather around the platform after an event (c) CM

I have been absent from this blog for a long time, mostly because I am trying to focus on writing my dissertation and many of “my thoughts exactly” appear in my column with Weekly Trust. But I miss blogging, and I feel like there are many things I have missed out on addressing. So, I was determined to post on the Caine Prize for African Writing before tonight’s winner is announced. (Please note that I posted this running for a plane. I will update it with more photos by tomorrow.)

I am writing from London, where I was able to arrange a long layover in between trips, to attend the Africa Writes Festival and the Caine Prize events. I will write later in my column or on this blog about the festival as a whole and you can view my photos of the event here, but in this post I will focus on the Caine Prize. I have been interested in the Caine Prize for a long time, first because it was this prize that in 2001 propelled Helon Habila, on whose novel Waiting for an Angel I wrote my (very flawed) MA thesis, to international fame and more recently because of all the discourse on social media surrounding it. Last year, I was troubled by the statement made by last year’s Caine Prize chair Nigerian-British writer Bernadine Evaristo that it was time to “move past” depictions of suffering in Africa (this is the same year bombs had started going off all over northern Nigeria), a sentiment she repeated in this year’s Africa Writes panel  “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” in which she indicated that she made sure a story that “checked all the boxes” of African stereotypes did not make it onto the shortlist last year. (I will discuss this panel in another post)  I responded to her 2012 essay in my column and on my blog here and also in a comment on Saturday’s panel, arguing that such rhetoric  risks silencing those writers living in Africa, who are writing about their own experiences.

2012 Chair of the Caine Prize, Bernadine Evaristo speaks on the panel “African Literature Prizes and the Economy of Prestige,” 6 July 2013 (c) CM

This year, I was particularly excited when the Caine Prize shortlist was announced in May. Not only were four out of the five nominees Nigerians, but also my two good friends, Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim were nominated for the prize for stories I had read in manuscript form!Their nomination felt like poetic justice, as last year their attempts to attend the 2012 Caine Prize workshop in South Africa, to which they had been invited and had tickets, were truncated (my respects to Elnathan

Elnathan and Abubakar at the Caine Prize workshop in Uganda, April 2013

Elnathan and Abubakar at the Caine Prize workshop in Uganda, April 2013. Courtesy Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Facebook page

who has popularized this term) by South African bureaucracy. Elnathan’s visa was delayed until it was too late to attend, while Abubakar was unfortunate enough to fly into Johannesburg in the middle of the scuffle between South Africa and Nigeria over yellow-fever vaccination cards and was sent back to Lagos without ever making it to the workshop. (See my long post from March of last year for more details.)  Fortunately, the Caine Prize  re-invited them again this year, and they were able to attend the workshop held in Entebbe, Uganda. 

That means that in this year’s Caine Prize anthology, A Memory this Size and other Stories, Elnathan and Abubakar both have two stories, Elnathan’s “Bayan Layi” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination and “A Memory this Size,” after which the anthology is named, and Abubakar’s “The Whispering Trees” for which he received the Caine Prize nomination, and “The Book of Remembered Things,” which he wrote at the workshop.

The other nominees were Chinelo Okparanta for her story “America,” Tope Folarin for his story “Miracle” and Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist, the one non-Nigerian on the list (though he does have Yoruba ancestry stemming from Abeokuta!) for his story “Foreign Aid.”

The 2013 Caine Prize nominated writers during the 6 July “Meet the 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writers” event at the British Library: (left to right) Elnathan John, Chinelo Okparanta, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, (moderator: Jacqueline Auma): Tope Folarin, Pede Hollist (c) CM

There have been quite a few blog reviews of the stories, and much discussion on social media. The Facebook group Writivism, in particular, set out to discuss all five stories before the prize was announced and express which story they would give the prize were they to have that authority. (A little after 6pm about four hours before the actual announcement, they proclaimed the winner of the Writivism contest Abubakar Adam Ibrahim). There was some amount of negative reaction from reviewers who complained that the prize was going back to pre-Evaristo days of depicting  stereotypical portraits of Africa, or, in this case, of Nigeria. One blogger, Nta Bassey, borrowed from Elnathan’s “How to” format, made famous by his now completed “How to” series with the Daily Times, to satirically skewer what she saw as the continuation of stereotypical themes in the stories, in “How to Write a Caine Prize Story (Whatever that Is).” While I think her post is clever and while I understand concerns about “poverty porn,” particularly as it is produced by Western charities, I think this sort of rhetoric is problematic and often times shallow because it makes too many generalizations by theme rather than looking at the nuances and particularities of the specific texts. It is like that silly, unfortunate accusation that made the rounds on Facebook last year that Rotimi Babatunde had supposedly plagiarized Biyi Bandele’s novel Burma Boy for his then nominated (it later won the prize) story “Bombay’s Republic” because both novel and short story dealt with the experience of Nigerian soldiers in Burma during World War II–as if one author can own a whole war. As I discussed last year after Evaristo’s blog post, there is a problem in trying to police which themes are acceptable, instead of looking at the quality of how each particular story has been written. Elnathan has often addressed this problem on Facebook, twitter, and recently in his satirical “Because I Care” column in Sunday Trust, responding sarcastically to Helon Habila’s review of Noviolet Bulawayo’s novel We Need  New Names:

If white people did not split us up into funny countries, we would have been one strong large territory and so everyone writing in this territory must remember what it means to be an African writer. It means that you must carry Africa on your shoulders. It means that you must be a good ambassador and ignore all the corruption that African leaders perpetrate. Ignore the fact that we have warlords all over Africa who use children in war. Ignore the poverty and pain and refugee camps. Anyone who writes about Africa and anal rape is a bad person. Even white people are tired of it. No one wants to feel guilty about this. Moreover, Africa is rising. Thanks to the World Bank and International donors, we now have some classrooms, some mosquito nets, local NGO’s for women who get raped in war and conflict, and very rich politicians and their friends, some of who make it to the Forbes list of richest people. Why should anyone write anything bad about us?

(Interestingly, blogger Chika Oduah reads Elnathan’s story “Bayan Layi” through Helon Habila’s review to argue that Elnathan subsumes the stereotypical headline to a story of “characters who are frank in an innocent kind of way that manages not to intimidate the reader”–she reads the story as one Habila would approve of.) During the interview with his father on 6 July 2013 “Two Writers, Two Generations,” Mukoma wa Ngugi called such rhetoric “Afro-Optimism,” arguing that an insistence on focusing on “Africa Rising” narratives rather than on those that deal with Africa’s problems can stifle political discourse.

Elnathan, who made a point of not reading reviews of his work before the prize was announced, explained to interviewer Mercy Abang that the story, which some have read as stereotypical “poverty porn,” was inspired by an almajiri he used to know while he was in university:

Bayan Layi was inspired by an almajiri friend of mine, with whom I maintained contact over a period of about 6 years when I lived in Zaria. Basiru was from Sokoto and studied in a Quranic school near my house. He also, like hundreds of others did chores for students, washing plates, clothes and going on errands. Thinking of it now I wonder if that was not some sort of child labour.
Basiru was a gentle boy with the cutest, purest, most uninhibited smile I had ever seen on an almajiri. Unlike many students, I let him hang around my house and we had long conversations about his life and about mine. It was hard to estimate his age but I would say between 10 and 14.

During the “Meet the 2013 Caine Prize Shortlisted Writers” panel on 6 July at the British Library, he also mentioned that he had written the story following the election violence in Northern Nigeria in 2011, as a kind of explanation to other Nigerians who often talk about “the north” in stereotypical ways. There is a difference, for example, he pointed out between the thugs who take drugs (and do not necessarily know very much about the Qur’an) and are often used in election violence and the almajirai who are studying the Qur’an. There are sometimes almajirai who join the yan daba (thugs), as happens in his story, but the two, often conflated, are not the same. When the moderator Jacqueline Auma pointed out that the story felt like a universal tale about street children everywhere, Elnathan answered that the stories that feel the most universal will be those that are the most rooted in a specific context.

Tope Folarin similarly pointed to the particularity of the American setting of his story “Miracle,” which on my first reading I had thought could be set just as easily in Nigeria, arguing that it was in his interest in the diaspora community that inspired the story. The miracles that the  audience in the Pentecostal church of his story are looking for are tied directly to their experience in America, as they are living in a land seen as a miracles by those in Nigeria trying to get visas (the pastor , yet need miracles once they arrive to fulfill these dreams. As the narrator of the story says,

We need jobs. We need good grades. We need green cards. We need American passports. We need our parents to understand that we are Americans. We need our children to understand they are Nigerians.

Folarin’s story, too, illustrates how a story rooted in a particular context can feel  relevant to a “universal” audience. Abubakar Adam also explained in talks that his story “The Whispering Trees,” which one interviewer said felt the “least African” and therefore the most universal [?]of the stories, was rooted in a northern Nigerian context where the spiritual is taken as a given. Like the others, he focused on the story of an individual in a specific context, yet readers like Jeffrey Zuckerman felt it could have as well been “set in the Catskill mountains […] or in the Middle East—but its Nigerian locale gives a tinge of familiarity to a location that media reports have made wholly foreign to Anglophone culturati.” When commenters asked Chinelo Okparanta about the “realism” of the parent’s mild reaction to their daughters same sex relationship, she argued that to say there can only be one reaction only homogenizes the multiplicity that exists within the country, again arguing for the individual story. Of all of the stories, I felt that Pede Hollist’s satirical story “Foreign Aid” dealt less with an individual story than with a typed character–but that is perhaps what made it so funny. He explained during one of the events that he pushed the character a bit to the extreme so that an audience could recognize him and his problematic misunderstandings of his former home without feeling personally affronted, and as a satire, I think the story works quite well.

All of these authors have been interviewed a great deal since their nominations, including multiple interviews with BBC and other news agencies here in London since they have arrived. For those curious about their own take on the Caine Prize and their own writing, check out these interviews, some of them published before the shortlist was released:

“My Book presents Nigerian stories from another Angle -Ibrahim” with Awwal Gaata in Blueprint.

“The Reader’s Heart is the most important award to win-Abubakar Ibrahim” an Interview with Sumaila Umaisha on Everythin Literature, 19 August 2012

Whispering for More,” an interview with Abubakar Adam Ibrahim by Edozie Udeze and Hannah Ojo

“Two Friends One Prize” an Interview with Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim on Metropole, 1 July 2013

I Wasn’t Expecting the Caine Prize Nomination:  Elnathan John speaks on ‘Conversations with Mercy Abang.’” on Y-Naija, 27 May 2013

“This Week’s Guest: Elnathan John” in Eugenia Abu’s reading column in Sunday Trust, 2 June 2013

“Religion, Morality, and Personal Responsibility: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Rae Winklestein-Duveneck for The Iowa Review

Emmanuel Sigauke’s interview with Chinelo Okparanta for the Munyori Literary Journal, 22 May 2013

“Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Adam Segal for Whole Beast Rag

Interview: Chinelo Okparanta” by Yuka Igarashi for Granta, 10 February 2012

“Cathartic Release: an Interview with Chinelo Okparanta” by Adedamola Mogaji for Saraba

Pede Hollist, 2013 Caine Prize shortlisted writer,” on Vitabu Books.

Tope Folarin Speaks to Nigerians Talk” by Kola Tubosun for Nigerians Talk

“Brittle Paper interviews Caine Prize shortlistee Tope Folarin” 5 June 2013

Below, I will copy the (rather sleep-deprived) column I wrote when the shortlist first came out. I didn’t join the Caine Prize blogger group because I felt I would be too biased, but I did make a few observations about the make-up of the prize:

Nigeria’s Four Caine Prize Nominees

Category: My thoughts exactly
Published on Saturday, 18 May 2013 05:00
Written by Carmen McCain

The last few weeks (as usual) have been full of bad news: the cultists attack in Nasarawa, attacks in Southern Kaduna, continued attacks in the northeast leading to the declaration of emergency rule in Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Last week in an article about Kannywood, I talked about the tensions I feel in celebrating film in the midst of so much suffering, but concluded with the thoughts that the multitude of stories coming out of Nigeria are important because they challenge what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story.” As the griot in the Dani Kouyate film Keita: the heritage of a griot, said “‘Do you know why the hunter always beats the lion in the stories? If the lion told the stories, he’d win sometimes too.’ [Achebe has also recounted this proverb in Home and Exile.] The logic of the proverb extends even further to the antelope, which is hunted by both the human and the lion. Because when the oppressed, those ‘antelopes’ caught between lion and hunter, tell their own stories and are heard, they have the potential to affect audiences for centuries.” As the news on Nigeria’s security gets worse and worse, there has been a welcome break in the continuing recognition of Nigerian literature on a global stage. On 14 May, the Commonwealth prize announced E.E. Sule as the Africa-region winner of the Commonwealth prize for his novel Sterile Sky (Pearson Education, 2012), a coming of age novel of the son of a policeman growing up in Kano in the midst of crisis [which I was lucky enough to read in manuscript form before it was published]. On 15 May, the Caine Prize for African writing announced their shortlist of five stories nominated for the prestigious short story prize from 96 submissions out of 16 different African countries. Four of the five nominations were for short stories written by Nigerians: “Bayan Layi” first published in Per Contra by Abuja-based Sunday Trust columnist Elnathan John; “Miracle” first published in Transition by Washington D.C. based former Rhodes Scholar Tope Folarin; “The Whispering Trees” first published in the collection of short stories of the same name published by Abuja-based Sunday Trust literary editor and writer Abubakar Adam Ibrahim; and “America” first published in Granta by U.S. based Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Chinelo Okparanta. [Pede Hollist’s “Foreign Aid” was the one non-Nigerian offering on the list.] These four nominations come on the heels of Nigerian writer Rotimi Babatunde’s Caine Prize win last year for his story “Bombay’s Republic.”

I was particularly excited about my friends Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John making the short list. Their nominations are poetic justice, following the disappointment both writers suffered in March of last year, when they were invited to the Caine Prize workshop in South Africa. Elnathan was not granted his visa in time to make the trip, while Abubakar made it all the way to Johannesburg before he was turned back by immigration officers during Nigeria’s row with South Africa over the yellow fever vaccine, despite having a valid yellow fever certificate. Both writers were re-invited to the Caine workshop held in Uganda in April of this year, and have now, incredibly, both been shortlisted for the prize this year. I am so proud. (Take that South Africa!) But beyond my personal delight at having two good friends on the list, I am also thrilled that so many Nigerians were shortlisted. It is much needed good news in a time when so much else is wrong. This Caine Prize shortlist, as well as the award of the Commonwealth prize to Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida University, Lapai-based novelist E.E. Sule indicates a new attention to stories coming out of northern Nigeria, which in the past has had much less global visibility than literature coming from the south. To be sure, there is something a little troubling about some of the most prestigious prizes for African writers being granted by European institutions—the NLNG is offering a welcome corrective to that—but all the same the Commonwealth Prize and the Caine Prize are doing good work by bringing attention to some of the most exciting young writers on the continent. It seems symbolic that the title story from Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s collection of short stories The Whispering Trees was honoured, as it was the first book signed and published by exciting new Nigerian publisher Parresia Publishers.  [When Parresia signed The Whispering Trees as their first title, the publisher Richard Ali asked me to come photograph it.] There’s a new generation of writers and publishers bursting on scene.

Richard Ali (left) signs the advance for Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s (right) novel The Whispering Trees, Parresia’s first title. (c) Carmen McCain

Obviously, having two such good friends on the shortlist and having read both stories in manuscript form before publication, it is difficult for me to objectively review the stories this year. However, I will make a few observations from a first reading of all five stories. First, obviously the judges this year were not making decisions about the stories based on issues of representation. Not only did Nigerians dominate the list, but men did as well, with only one of the stories written by a woman, Chinelo Okparanta. Interestingly, all four of the Nigerian stories were told in first person, while Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollists’s story was told in a satirical third person. As for theme, three of the stories deal in some way with the African immigrant experience in America. Tope Folarin’s charming story “Miracle” is set in a Pentecostal healing service in the United States, although the setting could just as well be in Nigeria. Two of the other stories deal more specifically with the immigrant’s American dream. The one non-Nigerian on the list, Florida-based Sierra Leonian writer Pede Hollist revisits a theme that Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s dealt with in my favourite story from last year’s Caine prize shortlist “La Salle de Depart,” but with a satirical eye: the trials of a returnee from America who comes for a short visit to Sierra Leone and attempts to impress everyone with his lavish gifts. Chinelo Okparanta’s story is told from the other side of the ocean, of how a woman who desires a life in America away from the judgmental eyes of her society,  is able to draw from the environmental disaster of an oil spill in America to persuade a visa officer that she is legitimate applicant. While it touches on gay/lesbian issues similar to last year’s nominee Stanley Kenani’s “Love on Trial,” I thought Okparanta’s story this year was much more sophisticated and nuanced. Although the preceding three short stories all deal, in some way, with the immigrant experience and dreams of living abroad, the stories by Elnathan John and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim deal with the experiences of ordinary people living, loving, and managing in northern Nigeria. Elnathan John’s “Bayan Layi” is a first person story told from the eyes of a young almajiri caught up in Kaduna election violence. Making skillful use of Hausa terminology and codeswitching between English and Hausa, it beautifully captures the voice of a street-child. Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s “The Whispering Trees” tells the story of a young man’s journey towards accepting the terrible effects of a car accident. Unlike any of the other stories this year, however, his story takes a mystical turn that reminds me of South American magical realism.
I hope to write more about these stories and other works by these authors in the future. But in the meantime, I hope readers will go to the Caine prize website [www.caineprize.com] and read the stories for themselves. Let me know what you think. A big congratulations to all of the writers who made it this year.

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

I wrote the following in early February after my parents returned from a trip to the U.S. and brought with them Binyavanga Wainaina’s memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place I had ordered for my friend Daily Times columnist and author  Elnathan John:

 

Before I send it off to Elnathan, I crack it open curiously, read a chapter before I go to bed. The next morning I wake up and open it again. I read greedily. The way I used to when I was in high school with my science fiction and fantasy. The way I read when I would neglect my homework, come home with a novel, which I would finish before I would start my homework late at night, working on my bed far into the night with a candle. I would fall asleep, my head inches from the candle balanced on a plate, sometimes not yet done with the algebra, which I would try to hurriedly finish in shaky pencil in the car on the way to school the next morning.

 

Those days, I poured the stories into me. Every day a new novel. Greedily. In grad school, I began to read more slowly, pencil in hand. I read theory and criticism, and long academic papers that I printed from the Internet. It was no longer a joy to read. I stopped reading. I became addicted to the Internet. In grad school when trying to finish my MA thesis, I started a blog. It was such a relief to have that outlet–to write my thoughts effortlessly in that forum when I was so stuck with academic writing. Then Facebook came along, and I became doubly addicted—to the inane games, the well-turned status update, the latest news–link upon link upon link.

 

I am two days late on an academic paper deadline, and yet I am sitting here in an office chair in my parent’s spare room, sitting at the desk in front of my computer, reading shamelessly–even when my mother comes in, the computer screen dead–reading Wainaina like a science fiction novel. It is not what I am supposed to be doing. It is not work. It is pleasure. Wainaina’s musings awaken in me memories of my own life, of the daydreams at fifteen, when I would stare dreamily out the windows of our van at the misty mountains of the green plateau in rainy season and imagine fantasy novels about a shepherdess name Merrony tending flocks on a long sunflower strewn Plateau. It was to be a trilogy. I can still remember the story now, as if it were a novel I had read long ago, a novel that will always remain in that “to-be-written” stage. My preoccupations have moved past Merrony, but Wainaina makes me want to write again in that way.

 

When I planned to write a review of Wainaina’s memoir for my column, I thought at first maybe I’d write something stream of consciousness. What I’ve copied above was the beginning of my brainstorm. But it felt too self-indulgent for the Weekly Trust. I let it be a blog post. Instead, I decided to focus on the parts of the memoir that seemed the most strikingly relevant to Nigeria right now. I can’t find the hard copy of the article, but if you scroll down below or click on this link, you can read what I wrote.

 

A mixed-up people: When Wainaina writes about Africa

 

Written by Carmen McCain, Saturday, 11 February 2012 05:00

 

 

This past week, I procrastinated revisions on an academic article to greedily devour Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina’s 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About this Place. Wainaina won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002 for his short story “Discovering Home” and is perhaps best known for his satirical essay “How to Write about Africa” published in Granta in 2005, a piece that skewers stereotypical ways in which non-Africans write about the continent. In a later reflection on the essay, Wainaina reveals that it “grew out of an email” written “in a fit of anger, responding to Granta’s “‘Africa’ issue, which was populated by every literary bogeyman that any African has ever known.” When Granta later published an edited version of the email, he wryly remarks: “I went viral; I became spam. […] Now I am ‘that guy,’ the conscience of Africa.”

 

As my own familiarity with Wainaina’s writing was limited to

Binyavanga Wainaina

Binyavanga Wainaina (Photo credit: Internaz)

having read a couple of his sardonic essays and interviews, I admit that the lilting dreaminess, even sweetness, of his memoir came as a surprise. If “How to Write About Africa” bitingly mocks how foreign reporters or celebrity activists write about Africa as if Africans had “no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks” then Wainaina’s memoir explores the depths and quirks through the remembered details of his own life.

 

Wainaina writes in an impressionistic present tense: the haze of childhood, an early obsession with words, his mother’s patient love. He changes schools, goes to South Africa for university, holes himself up in a room, drinking, reading, partying, never finishing school. He takes a trip to Uganda for a family reunion, out of which comes his first publication in a South African newspaper. A turn in the narrative comes when he submits the hastily revised piece, re-published as a short story in an e-journal, to the Caine prize. Although they initially respond that they do not accept electronically published material,  one day he receives another “email from the bloody colonizers” inviting him “to come to England, and have dinner in the House of Lords, and do readings, and go to the Bodleian Library for a dinner of many courses, with wine, and all of London’s literati.”

 

Following his Caine prize win, the memoir becomes more travelogue of the African countries he visits on writing business, impressions of Lagos, Lome, Accra; Kenyan election violence; African news browsed for on the internet, the writing life in America’s cold winter, where he is now director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College. What struck me most in this sprawling account of family and personal history was the reoccurring motif of the ambiguity of borders, the way people change personalities as they switch languages, the shifting identities of ethnicity and naming that languages bring, how they include and exclude.

 

Wainaina grew up in Nairobi, son of a Ugandan Bufumbira mother and a Kenyan Gikuyu father, speaking Swahili and English. Following Gikuyu tradition, he, as second son, was named after his maternal Ugandan grandfather, Binyavanga, a Bufumbira nickname that means “mixed up”. His name becomes an appropriate lens through which to read his memoir.

 

Lessons about the way language and ethnicity exclude come early. One of his earliest childhood memories is of a quarrelsome woman who insults his mother because she is Ugandan. As a teenager while Kalenjin Daniel Arap Moi is in power, Binyavanga and his sister are among the top twenty students in their province, yet neither of them is called to any secondary school, “Rumors are spreading everywhere. We hear that […] names are matched to numbers, and scrutinized, word by word, line by scientific line, for Gikuyu names in the secret office by Special Branch people.” Discriminated against because of his father’s Gikuyu name, when a Gikuyu becomes president, “for the first time in my life, to be Gikuyu is a public event. […] The rest of Kenya has become Tribes. There is a text message being sent to Gikuyus calling Luos and people from western Kenya ‘beasts from the west.’” The Ugandan origin of his first name becomes confusing for those who want to pigeon hole him into one of “us” or “them.” He describes an airline hostess who insists on knowing where his first name came from before she lets him pass. “One person stops me on a street to tell me how happy he was to see me in the newspaper—but that name of yours, my friends are asking, you are half what?”

 

And yet, Wainaina points out, these political uses of language and ethnicity are often colonial constructs. He frequently returns to a history of diverse kinship, rich old stories about the kingdom of Buganda, the Swahili culture the Arab explorer Ibn Batuta encountered centuries ago. “We are a mixed-up people,” he writes, describing how his Ugandan grandmother was originally from the Congo, his mother’s sister went into hiding in Rwanda, other family members settled in South Africa and America. In the two days of a reunion in Uganda, “we feel like a family. In French, Swahili, English, Gikuyu, Kinyarwanda, Kiganda, and Ndebele, we sing one song, a multitude of passports in our luggage.”

 

Of his nanny Wambui, he writes, “Her aunt is half Nandi, her grandmother an Ngong Maasai. Wambui is Gikuyu by fear, or Kenyatta-issued title deed, or school registration or because her maternal Gikuyu uncle paid her father’s fees, or because they chose a Gikuyu name to get into a cooperative scheme in the seventies. […]She could have become a Luo, if they stayed there long enough, and she married there; she is dark skinned enough to get away with it.”

 

Though Wainaina’s memoir is written in English, he invokes his compatriot Ngugi wa Thiong’o, the great champion of writing in African languages, in a celebration of how multiple languages, though sometimes abused politically, are one of the riches of Kenya’s national character: English for official business, “brotherhood” in Swahili, more intimacy in mother tongues. “All city people inhabit several worlds in many languages. […Some] speak six or seven languages.”

 

Personalities change from language to language. A Maasai girl he meets is shy and awkward in English, but in Swahili and the street language of Sheng, “she pours herself into another person, talkative, aggressive. A person who must have a Tupac T-shirt stashed away somewhere.” On a bus, he watches a conductor whose “body language, his expressions, his character even, change from language to language—he is a brash town guy, a Gikuyu matatu guy, in Gikuyu, and even in Kiswahili. When he speaks Kalenjin, his face is gentler, more humorous, ironic rather than sarcastic, conservative, shy eyes.”

 

In his travels around Africa, Wainaina’s observes, along with delightful new quirks of national character, similar discrimination over language, class and ethnicity. Towards the end of the book, he writes in a fog of horror about the Kenyan election violence of 2007-2008.

 

Yet the mixed-up nature of his own family background points to relationships of familiarity possible all over the continent. When, a kind South African friend hires Wainaina, at his most destitute, as a marketer, he remembers in a rush of warmth other acts of compassion: how another South African friend  “offered to let me stay rent free in her house” and how her “father, a physics professor […] left South Africa in the fifties unable to get a job in Verwoerd South Africa [… but] was adopted in Nigeria where they lived for many years, […teaching]  a generation of Nigerian physicists at Ibadan.” “This is how to become an African,” he writes.

 

The “place” Wainaina writes about is both his mother’s hometown and the continent he travels: His family history is one of blood and one of adoption by friends throughout Africa. This is how to write about Africa, he implies. This is how to write about this place.

 

The Strange Poisonous Fruit of Hate: South Africa, Nigeria, and the world

Here is last week’s column, “The Strange Poisonous Fruit of Hate.” I wrote it in a very scattered state of mind. At times, there was gunfire in the background which punctuated my own emotional turmoil. I’m afraid my attention span manifests itself in the piece, which jumps around a bit, but which perhaps gives a feeling of Jos following the St. Finbarr’s Catholic church bombing in Rayfield and the tragic ‘reprisal’ attacks that followed–as well as my increasing horror at the hatred I see creeping out on little cockroach feet to infest the world.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (left) with his publisher at Parresia, Richard Ali (right). A friend is in the background. (c)CM

I had been planning to write a piece on my personal boycott of South Africa, following the  deportation of around 150 Nigerians (125 initially and more thereafter) from the Johannesburg airport for supposed irregular yellow card certificates. I had spent the week before agonizing with my friends Elnathan John, a blogger with Daily Times whose most recent short story has been published in ZAM Magazine, and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, the literary editor for Sunday Trust whose collection of short stories The Whispering Trees is forthcoming from Parresia Press. (For a taste of their work, see Abubakar’s story “Closure” and Elnathan’s story “Your Man” both published in Sentinel Nigeria, edited by Richard Ali.) Elnathan and Abubakar had been two of the twelve African writers invited for the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing workshop to be held in South Africa this year. (The Caine Prize for African short stories is sometimes called the African Booker, and luminaries like Helon Habila and Binyavanga Wainaina have been among the recipients of the prize.)

Elnathan John in Abuja. (c) CM

Elnathan had applied for his visa over a month earlier but, because of a technicality regarding a deadline he was not told about for paying a N110,000 ‘repatriation fee’ that South Africa requires many Nigerians to pay before granting them visas, his visa was delayed until 3 days after he had supposed to travel the trip had to be cancelled.  Abubakar was able to get the visa in time but when he got to Johannesburg was told that his yellow fever certificate (which he had gotten following an inoculation in the Abuja Airport port health office) did not have the manufacturer’s batch number, and he was sent back to Lagos.  (Abubakar describes his travails in this article in Sunday Trust). Ironically, the day Abubakar was sent back, Elnathan got a call from the visa office saying that he should come pay the N110,000 visa fee. (He declined.)

Following this outrage, I determined to boycott South Africa. South Africa businesses make billions of naira in Nigeria (the largest market in Africa for South African businesses like MTN and DSTV), yet they continue to treat Nigerians with disrespect. In 2005, Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, incidentally one of the patrons of the Caine Prize,was held at the airport for over nine hours. (see here and here).

My Boycott: My phone had been slowly dying for about a year (and I had been stubbornly putting up with it.) But upon my resolve to boycott South African businesses, I took the opportunity to buy a new two-sim card phone and along with it a new glo line to gradually replace my MTN line. I also recently switched over from MTN internet to Glo (a Nigerian company), which gives more bandwidth and is cheaper. So far, I have been very pleased. Although the Thursday (8 March) after the deportations, South Africa’s foreign minister came out with a humble apology, later followed by an apology from South African President Zuma himself, the apology was too late for both Elnathan and Abubakar who missed the Caine workshop. Neither does South Africa seem to have any plans to compensate the nearly 150 visitors who were sent back to Nigeria by over-zealous immigration officials. Although I have long been invested in an “Africa without Borders” and while I am pleased with the apologies from the South African government over the diplomatic incident, I think this is an appropriate time to challenge the hegemony of  South Africa’s businesses on the continent.

As I was writing my column, I was struggling with a bit of cognitive dissonance over my belligerence to South Africa vs my plea for peace in Nigeria. I didn’t get into that in the column, but I think I can settle my internal inconsistencies by thinking about inequitable power structures. Diplomatic relations between two sovereign nations are quite a different matter than people taking justice into their own hands.

As usual, to read my column, you can click on the photo below to be taken to a readable version of the original, or you can scroll down below the photo to read it on my blog (with lots of links added).

The strange, poisonous fruit of hate

 Written by Carmen McCain Saturday, 17 March 2012 05:00

 It’s a little before midnight on Monday, the day after the bombing at St. Finbar’s Catholic church in Jos. There was automatic gunfire a few hours earlier and I am having trouble concentrating on anything. I turn on the TV and Centurion is on. It is a film about a group of Roman soldiers fleeing a band of indigenous warrior Celts in ancient Britain. The movie is violent. Arrows thunk into the chests of soldiers. One Roman soldier betrays another, stabbing him so that he becomes bait for the wolves pursuing them, while the other man escapes. During an interlude, I hear, in my own world of Jos 2012, what sounds like the shouts of spectators at a football match. I know it is not football. I turn down the volume on the TV to listen. Onscreen, Romans soundlessly slam Celt faces into log walls. Celts stab spears through Roman bellies. Outside I can hear the rumble of an angry mob, then gunfire.

This week I had planned to write about xenophobia in South Africa. About how two of my friends, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and Elnathan John were unable to attend the prestigious Caine Prize for African Writing workshop that was to hold from March 5 to 15. Elnathan’s visa, for which he had applied at the beginning of February, was delayed until the travel date passed. Abubakar got the visa on time but was turned back at the Johannesburg airport because the immigration officials claimed he didn’t have the manufacturer’s number on his yellow fever certificate—even though he had been inoculated and received the certificate from the port authority in the Abuja airport. I spent the week furious at South Africa, which makes billions of naira in Nigeria from businesses like MTN and DSTV, and from Nigerian films on the Africa Magic channels, yet still treats Nigerians with such disrespect. South Africa eventually apologized for deporting around 150 Nigerians over the yellow fever issue. It was an appropriate gesture, but the apology came too late for my friends to represent Nigeria at the Caine workshop. I went ahead and bought a new phone SIM card from a Nigerian company and made it my main line. My ideal is an Africa without borders, but following South Africa’s display of contempt, I prefer to support Nigerian businesses.

Now Tuesday, it is still hard to concentrate. I read Internet news all day long. Hatred hangs in the air, a suffocating grey smog creeping along the earth. It is pathological, infectious. In South Africa, the poisonous structures of apartheid have been internalized and then erupt into violence. Xenophobic riots in May 2008 killed 62. Last week the hatred showed a more refined face, a more polite aggression. Uniformed immigration officials smiled cold professional smiles, while expelling Nigerians from their country.

But it is in Nigeria too. The hate. Writing in the Daily Times, Ademola Thomas Olanrewaju points out that Nigerians discriminate against each other much the same way South Africans discriminated against them. He cites how Fashola ‘deported beggars to their respective states’—how states all over Nigeria discriminate against so-called non-indigenes. Much of the violence in the country grows out of notions that people should stay in the land of their great grandfather’s origin or else live as second class citizens. This hatred also seems to be one of the factors behind the violence of Boko Haram, who have spoken about their plans to drive Christians, even those who are indigenes, out of the north and who tolerate no one except those who share their own purist ideals. Those claiming to be Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad raze schools, shoot up mosques, bomb churches, police stations, soldier barracks, the UN headquarters. [A partial UN list of attacks up to 20 January 2012 here.] Leadership reported the story of a former member of Boko Haram who attempted to flee the sect in Maiduguri by running to Kaduna with his fiancée only to be found by them in Kaduna and carted away to unknown tortures.

In her classic science fiction novel A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle writes of our planet as being covered by a dark shadow of evil. The shadow feeds on hatred. It covers the globe and is lodged like shrapnel in every human. After the bombs went off at the COCIN church in Jos two weeks ago and then at St. Finbar’s Catholic church last Sunday, cyclical revenge violence killed nearly as many innocent people as the bombs had. In my own country of origin, the United States, politics has become a cynical game of pitting those who claim purist American and Christian ideals against everyone else. The toxins enter the soil, and strange fruits grow out. The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik praised anti-Islamic American bloggers Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and others in the Internet manifesto he wrote before he killed 77 people. Since Breivik’s bombing and shooting, other bloggers have praised this self-confesssed killer as a patriot. [See for example, this one] In America’s war of revenge after 9-11, the poison entered the armed forces as it does in most wars, driving soldiers mad. Out of a jingoistic military culture grew the American torture in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Most recently an American soldier in Afghanistan went berserk, going out in the middle of the night to slaughter 17 Afghan civilians asleep in their homes.

Violence feeds violence. Hatred feeds hatred. Living in a violent environment, we are all traumatized. We feel helpless. Striking out against those perceived to be on the ‘other side’ seems to be the only thing we can do. Our first reactions are those of mistrust. But the only way out of this is to reach across boundaries to those who are as hurt and confused as we are—refusing to demonize the ‘other’. In the midst of all of the bad news, my father forwarded me some encouraging stories. On March 12, the Kaduna youth wing of the Christian Association of Nigeria and the Northern Youth Muslim Forum met to pray together and break the Christian Lent fast together. According to Leadership, the CAN youth chairman Diji Obadiah Haruna said that the breaking of Lent fast with Muslims was continuing a tradition that had been halted by crisis: “Our quest to bring back the true spirit of togetherness has given birth to an association that will foster unity between Muslim and Christian faithful […] Love is the key […] The more you plan for progress, definitely, the more some obstacles will come your way. But I believe we will conquer those evils that do not wish us well.” Likewise, the National President of the African Youths for Conflict Resolution, who led the Muslim delegation, Dr. Suleiman Shu’aibu Shinkafi said, “I urge us all to respect each other’s religion and to stop the incessant killings and bombings or any act of terrorism against each other through whatever name that both Christian and Muslim doctrine has disowned. ‘We pray that God will expose those who want to see us apart and may God continue to join us together in his glory and mercy.’”

The actions of Christian and Muslim youth in Kaduna offer a glimmer of hope in troubled times. But beyond formal meetings, we need to rebuild those informal friendships across faith and ethnic boundaries that are often interrupted in times of crisis. It is in these personal relationships that we recognize that the ‘other’, so easily labeled as an enemy, is actually a brother or sister. It is only by this sort of unity that we will be able to rebuild Nigeria, Africa, and the world.