Echoes from Etisalat Prize for Literature

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By PRISCA SAM-DURU

“I am thankful to the organizers of this event, Etisalat Nigeria for this most excellent and necessary prize. We are all aware of the shortage of literary prizes in Africa and it is heart-warming to know that Etisalat Nigeria sees and values the significance of such literary works in Africa.”

These were the words of Zimbabwe’s Noviolet Bulawayo who made history penultimate Sunday, at the Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos, when she became the first writer to clinch the inaugural edition of the Etisalat Prize for Literature.

The journey towards the discovery of Africa’s most prolific debut book and flash fiction writer which started in June 2013 was reduced to three finalists in January after the hundreds of entries were screened to nine last December.

Interestingly, the Award ceremony turned out to be an all women affairs as apart from the fact that the panel of judges which included Prof Pumla Dineo Gqola of the University of Witwaterstrand, South Africa, (who chairs the panel), Sarah Ladipo Manyika (writer and academic) and Billy Kahora (Managing Editor of Kwani Trust), picked three women as finalists- Yewande Omotoso (Bom Boy), Zimbabwean writer NoViolet Bulawayo (We Need New Names), and South African Karen Jennings (Finding Soutbek) in the fiction category, another female writer, Uche Okonkwo, emerged winner of the Flash Fiction.

At the end, NoViolet Bulawayo’s  “We Need New Names”, floored two other books;  Bom Boy by Yewande Omotosho and Karen Jenning’s Finding Soutbek, to clinch the Prize.

NoViolet Bulawayo (pen name of Elizabeth Zandile Tshele), was born in Tsholotsho, Zimbabwe author, and Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. She was born and raised in Zimbabwe and attended Njube High School and later Mzilikazi High School for her A levels. She completed her college education in the US, studying at Kalamazoo Valley Community College, and earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in English from Texas A&M University. In 2010, she completed a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Cornell University, where her work was recognized with a Truman Capote Fellowship.

Her Award winning novel, We Need New Names was released in 2013, and was included in the 2013 Man Booker Prize shortlist. The feat made her the first black African woman as well as the first Zimbabwean to be shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

When asked if she were to emerge winner, Jennings, who was proud and pleased to have made the shortlist, said: “I would probably faint…then I would cry. This is because I put a lot of heart into this book. I wanted to write a book on the poor people and corruption, which is much in South Africa. Too many people are forgotten in South Africa.” Although Jennings lost to Bulawayo, she appeared less disappointed during the show.

With the feat, Bulawayo whose short story, entitled: Hitty Budapest also won the 2011 £10,000 Caine Prize for African Writing, has again added another award to her collection as first winner of the Etisalat Prize for Literature. “We Need New Names”,  tells the story of ten years old Darling’s journey out of Zimbabwe to America; and how she navigates a fragile and violent world.

Bulawayo, in addition to receiving the cash prize of £15,000, was presented with an engraved Montblanc Meisterstück pen, a Samsung Galaxy Note and will attend the Etisalat Fellowship at the prestigious University of East Anglia as well as being mentored by Proffessor Giles Foden – Author of the “Last King of Scotland”. She will also enjoy book tours in three African cities to enable her commence work on her second book.

An elated Bulawayo specially thanked the judges, patrons, and Etisalat Nigeria for the award and for the opportunity the Etisalat Prize for Literature afforded her.

Runners-up, Yewande Omotosho and Karen Jenning were each, presented with Samsung Galaxy notes and also, won book tours to two African cities.

In his opening speech at the well attended event that was put together to celebrate exceptional literary talent, the Acting Chief Executive Officer of Etisalat Nigeria, Matthew Willsher said, “the Etisalat Prize for Literature was designed to recognize and reward debut writers of fiction in Africa, with the objective of discovering new creative talents from Africa and promoting the growing publishing industry on the continent, stressing that,  Etisalat Nigeria is indeed pleased to celebrate all authors in the African literary spectrum. As such, Etisalat Nigeria is proud to use its maiden pan-African Prize for Literature to recognize and celebrate the amazing work done by these unique individuals.”

The judges who commended the finalists for their show of ingenuity, narrative style as well as content pointed out that they worked within the criteria required: character, originality, narrative strength and language and finally, adjudged Bulawayo’s style and language as more exquisite.

Speaking further about the book, Gqola said, “So much have been written about Zimbabwe and its crisis in the last decade, most of which are political: I love that Noviolet’s book is a clear story about the last decade in Zimbabwe. But it is also a story about a little girl. I love how she was able to fuse really big political, social issues and a very intimate, familiar little girl world.”

Prof Kole Omotoso, a patron of the Award and father of Yewande, one of the finalists said he was proud of his daughter’s achievement so far.  He praised Estisalat’s efforts at promoting literature in the continent. “It is not just writers and publishers that the prize has affected, but has, in fact, affected other prize, which has come up to imitate what Etisalat is doing

The Flash Fiction category which had 20 finalists saw Neverland by Uche Okonkwo  emerging winner.

She was presented a cash prize of £1000, a Smart Tablet Device and a Published E-book promoted online and via SMS.

Presenting the Award to Uche, patron of the prize, a foremost Award-winning female playwright, Ama Ata Aidoo, commended the winner as well as other finalists for making it that far adding that the ingenuity of the craft in Flash Fiction, is that it truly takes immense talent and courage to tell compelling stories in a small space. Each of the 20 finalists in this category has succeeded in telling stories in 300 words.

The event also celebrated African writers of all generations such as  D.O Fagunwa, Naguid Mafoud, Chinua Achebe Flora Nwapa, Ben Okri, Chimamanda Adichie etc with Re Olunga Orchestra’s inspiring performance which the organisers tagged: The Write of Passage.

A special performance by celebrated African music legend, Youssou N’Dour and his band, turned the Award ceremony into an evening of super entertainment with hot African vibes. He performed six songs, including “Redemption Song” and “New Africa” which was spiced with a blend of electrifying drumming as well as the sonorous voice of Nigerian female act, Ruby earned him a well deserved standing ovation.

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