Can an African language literature prize be inherently Pan-African?

Last month we announced the new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature at the Ake Arts & Book Festival in Abeokuta, Nigeria. The prize has the express goal of recognizing writing in African languages and encouraging translation from, between and into African languages.

The prize is named after its primary sponsors, Mabati Rolling Mills (a subsidiary of the Safal Group), a roofing company based in Kenya and Cornell University, an Ivy League university in Ithaca, New York. That one of the major sponsors is based in Kenya, shows that African philanthropy can lead the way in underwriting African cultural production. Cornell’s support is through the Africana Studies and Research Center and the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs and falls under the broader vision of internationalization so that the Cornell community can be immersed in a globalizing world.

All African literature whether in European or African languages serves as a tributary to the greater ocean of the African literary tradition. A Kiswahili prize for literature is as Pan-African as a Yoruba or isiXhosa prize. If we can accept that a French and English prize is African, should we not see an African language prize as inherently Pan-African? It would be ironical to consider European language prizes to be more African than those honoring work in African languages. We need to dismantle the framework established by the Makerere generation in the 1960’s of the higher Pan-African and national literatures being in English and lower and divisive ethnic literatures being in African languages. There is a need for African literature in African languages to enter a global conversation with literatures around the world on a more equal footing.

The 15,000 dollar prize will be split into four and awarded to the best Kiswahili unpublished manuscripts or books published within two years of the award year across the categories of fiction/short fiction collection, poetry and memoir, and graphic novels. Recognizing that a major impediment to the growth of writing in African languages has been what to do with the manuscripts once written, East African Educational Publishers (EAEP) will publish the winning fiction entry. And the best poetry book will be translated and published in English by the Africa Poetry Book Fund. We are still looking for publishers interested in translations across other languages, African and non-African alike.

We believe that rewarding writers and translators of different African languages with prizes, scholarships, teaching posts, influential editorial and publishing positions would breathe life and most importantly salaries in to a new generation of professional multi-linguists. Instead of seeing the thousands of African languages as a problem, we need to see them as a resource. Imagine if every single African university had a translation center.

Imagine what these busy towers of babel would do for African literatures. Translations between African languages and between other world languages would enrich our literature while contributing to the larger body of world literature. Translations centers would give literatures multiple lives in different languages. It would enable us to identify skilled translators and professionalize translation. Rewarding writers and translators of different African languages with prizes, scholarships, teaching posts, influential editorial and publishing positions would breathe life and most importantly salaries in to a new generation of professional multi-linguists. Translation is the future that has always been with us.

Africa as a whole has a population of over 1 billion people. Yet even for African literature in English for example, there are only a handful of literary journals, prizes and publishers. And the situation is much more dire for writing and publishing in African languages. If we are to grow the African literary tradition, and increase literacy, we need more of everything. We need more prizes, more literary journals, magazines, newspapers, translators, publishing houses and more readers.

Back to the practicalities of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature. The award winning ceremony will be held at Cornell University, Africana Studies Center. The winning writers will be invited to take up residencies at Cornell University and partner institutions. The second and third award ceremonies will be held in Kenya and Tanzania respectively in 2016 and 2017.

For more information, see here.

Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree

Mukoma Wa Ngugi, academic and novelist, and Lizzy Attree, director of the Caine Prize, are trustees of the Kiswahili Prize.

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