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Why Kenyan Makena Onjerika won 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing

By Tony Mochama | July 8th 2018
Writer Makena Onjerika. She has said she is aiming for the starts after bagging the Caine Prize. [Courtesy]

She was our sister and our friend but, from the time we were totos, Meri was not like us. If the Good Samaritans who came to give us foods and clothes on Sundays asked us what we wanted from God, some of us said going to school; some of us said enough money for living in a room in Mathare slums; and some of us, the ones who wanted to be seen we were born again, said going to heaven. But Meri, she only wanted a big Fanta Blackcurrant for her to drink every day and it never finish.

That is the opening paragraph of 'Fanta Blackcurrant,' the ten-page short story that, this past Monday, won Kenya's Makena Onjerika this year's Caines' Prize for the best published (and submitted) short story by any African writer.

Ten pages that beat out a final short-list of three Nigerians and a South African, to make Makena only the fourth Kenyan to win this prestigious short story prize - after the early millennium wins of Binyavanga Wainaina and Yvonne Adhiambo Oduor (2002, 2003), before the near a dozen year wait before young Okwiri Oduor won it in 2014 with her 'Father's Head.'

Announcing the winner at a dinner award ceremony at Beveridge Hall in the Senate House, SOAS, in the UK, Award Chair Binaw Mengestu, Ethiopian-American author and poet had this to say: 'The best stories have a subtle, almost magical quality to them.

They contain, through the rigour of their imagination and the care of their prose, more than just a glimpse of their characters' lives.

The stories submitted for this year's Caines Prize contained worlds within them. ..'

If the best story was the most magical one, then Wole Tabi's tale 'Wednesday's Story,' that personifies days of the week, and retells the tale of Solomon Grundy, ought to have taken the gong - with all its 'magical surrealism' tricks.

If it is about rigour of the imagination, then the comical farce 'Armed Letter Writers' by Olufunke Ogundimu should have gone laughing all the way to the bank to collect the ten thousand pound (Shs 1.3 million) prize money - although considering the sometimes irrational exuberance of the imagination of this particular tale - that would have been an armed robbery by this Nigerian Man of Letters.

If it were about 'care of prose,' then Nonyelum Ekwempu's American Dream was your dream story for the prize, though its subject matter did come toe-to-toe with our Onjerika's tale of chokoras, poverty and woe.

Besides, one scents a whiff of wannabe 'Chimamandaism' in this story, a type of Nigerian Women's Story Movement in the diaspora formula, successfully replicated by the likes of Lesley Nneka Arimah. But as they say, success breeds many imitators - which explains why the typical Kenyan stall has a salon, Wines & Spirits and cyber café.

As if our national life revolves around looking good, getting plastered, and logging into social media.

'Involution' by the white South African Stacy Hardy (whose name sounds like a nom de guerre for a writer of YA detective novellas) had the most inward looking story of the five.

It literally contains a 'world within itself' in the sense, or perhaps not, that Judge Binaw mentioned.

The win certainly took Makena by surprise.

As she admitted to the BBC: 'I certainly did not expect to win. I had my person among us five whom I'd bet on to win it. It took a few minutes of the judges talking before it sank in, like, oh, you mean (it's) me?'

I remember joking to a fellow writer at our AMKA Creative Writing workshop - (where Makena was a regular attendee) - that if Makena Onjerika had written a story called 'Fanta Orange,' instead of 'Fanta Black Currant,' she would have been the surefire winner, for the Orange Prize

Puns aside, she was best!

The reveal, like that of a judge 'banging wood on tables,' comes in Mengestu's final words last Monday at Beveridge Hall, that 'nothing was perhaps as remarkable as finding writers across the continent, and in the diaspora, had laid waste to the idea that certain narratives belong in the margin.'

By moving a fringe tale, about street urchins, to the centre of the page; by using an off page collective character to tell the story of poor Meri, by telling it so movingly, and in an authentic 'broken English' voice (that's where Makena whipped her Nigerian competitor Nonyelum), there is no doubt that Onjerika's 'Fanta Blackcurrant' was the sweet if sad story of the lot.

Tony Mochama, a pioneer Miles Morland Scholar, is a three time bronze medalist of the Burt Prize for African Writing. [email protected]

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