The case for African regionalism

Last week, Rotimi Babatunde won the 2012 Caine Prize for his short story “Bombay’s Republic.” By all accounts, it was a deserving win; prize chair Bernadine Evaristo described it as “ambitious, darkly humorous and in soaring, scorching prose exposes the exploitative nature of the colonial project and the psychology of independence.”

While we celebrate Mr. Babatunde’s achievement, we do note that he is the fourth Nigerian to win the Caine Prize for African literature since the award began 13 years ago. Helon Habila won the award in 2001, with “Prison Stories” the short story which later became his novel Waiting for an Angel published in Nigeria by Cassava Republic Press. In 2005, Segun Afolabi won with his story “Monday Morning from Wasafiri” while E.C. Osondu won in 2009 with the story “Waiting.”

It has been rightly pointed out that translated writing from Francophone countries and the Maghreb are generally underrepresented in the prize. In fact, they are completely absent from this year’s line-up. Aaron Brady points out in his piece in The New Inquiry that:

Because the Caine Prize is only geared to writers writing in English, the short list is always dominated by the same half-dozen countries, with only very rare exceptions; the Caine prize’s “Africa” more or less means South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and the diaspora living in Britain and the US. You’ll note that this years’ list is no exception: Nigeria, Kenya, Malawi, Zimbabwe, South Africa.

Perhaps instead of getting caught up in whether the prize is representative of the writing on the continent, we should admit that the Caine Prize has its limitations – biases that may come from being initiated and largely curated by UK-based and Diaspora writers. If we stop expecting it to be everything for everyone, we will be better off.

I believe that what is needed now are more regional prizes to nurture and reward the writing coming out of every region on its own merit. We live on a vast continent spanning geographical distances larger than Europe, the continental United States, and the Indian subcontinent combined, and sometimes I don’t think that we pay enough attention to our regional differences.

In Europe, regional differences of language, custom and culture have created markets so distinct that it is rare that French literature is judged alongside British or German literature. So why do we insist that a single prize encompass all the literature being produced by so vast a continent?

Let’s get ourselves out of the colonial mind-set that sees Africa as one monolith and begin to explore the rich individual histories and cultures that make us unique.

Perhaps a prize for the best Swahili fiction? Or Hausa fiction? Any takers?


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