A big African literature prize in an African language

Lizzy Attree

The Kiswahili Prize works to undermine the marginalization of African languages in literary culture. An interview with one of its founders.

Mombasa. Image credit Xiaojun Deng via Flickr CC BY 2.0.

Interview by
Sean Jacobs

In 1978, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, then a prisoner of Kenya’s postcolonial dictatorship, announced that he would cease writing in English, which he deemed the language of power. From then on, he would write and publish in Gikuyu, his native language. But this didn’t mean  Ngugi stopped publishing in English. In fact, he is considered a major writer in English, so much so that every year literary pundits and odd makers wager their reputations and money on him every every year the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced.  He still published novels in Gikuyu however.

But Ngugi’s experience is an exception. Publishing in local languages in many African countries is restricted to school instruction books or work manuals, and most African languages still struggle to establish a foothold in the commercial publishing industry or in literary and intellectual culture. There are some exceptions, such as Afrikaans in South Africa—the result of vast state and other investment from the Afrikaner business class, as well as the language being tied to a racial nationalist political project of the National Party. So, efforts like the Kiswahili Prize work to undermine the marginalization of African languages in literary culture. In this interview, Lizzy Attree, one of the founders of the prize along with Mukoma wa Ngugi (Ngugi’s son), in 2014, answers some questions about the prize and indigenous language publishing on and from the continent.


SJ

Why do we need a Kiswahili Prize right now?

LA

It’s the only pan-African, global literary prize for African literature in an African language. So yes, we need it.

SJ

How do you compete in “the prize economy,” especially when all the big Western awards have been for African literature or African writers this year?

LA

The Kiswahili Prize competes because there are no other global pan-African prizes for African languages to date (since the NOMA Prize ended in 2009). The other big Western awards have gone to some work in translation from francophone or lusophone Africa, but none for Kiswahili. The Kiswahili Prize awards a large US dollar sum annually donated by African philanthropists at Safal Group, the largest producer of steel roof sheeting on the continent.

SJ

Does it matter for the work you do that all the big Western prizes went to African writers?

LA

It matters because all the other major book prizes are playing catch up after over 70 years of neglect.

SJ

How do you respond to perceptions that the Kiswahili Prize is being hosted or administered from within American and British institutions? [Mukoma wa Ngugi is an academic based at Cornell University and Attree, also an academic and board member at Short Story Day Africa, is based in London].

LA

The Kiswahili Prize Awards are hosted by Mabati Rolling Mills in Kenya and ALAF Ltd in Tanzania—both subsidiaries of the Safal Group, which is an African conglomerate headed by Manu Chandaria. The link with Cornell University is via Mukoma and the Africana Studies Department at that university, which supports the Prize’s website platform and covers some of our travel costs to Africa and back. The Prize administrator and director is Munyao Kilolo, who is based in Nairobi. Earlier this year the Prize re-branded as the Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature to reflect the name of the key sponsor. African philanthropy for African cultural production has been the main mission of the Prize since its inception in 2012.

SJ

Why has no African country decolonized its publishing industry beyond local versions of English, French, Portuguese or Arabic languages?

LA

There are many African countries that have already begun decolonising their publishing industries by publishing in multiple African languages and in translation. For example, Jacana Media [South Africa] publishes books in Afrikaans, English, isiXhosa, isiZulu and Sesotho. Their website explains that, “These books were made possible with the support of Biblionef and funding from the [South African] National Arts Council.”

Perhaps no country has fully decolonized, but the decolonisation is definitely under way.

The Department of Arts and Culture in South Africa published a Troubadours series in multiple languages from Afrikaans to isiZulu. Plus its tautologous to say that “local versions” are not languages in themselves, always evolving and incorporating mother tongue expressions, accents, linguistic variation, slang, play, music and diction across vast regions and language groups and between countries via porous borders. I could give examples from Guinea Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Mozambique, and Sudan and Morocco, among others.

Of course, some may claim that Africans have indigenized English or French. But the question still stands regarding Indigenous languages.

Indigenous languages can be considered a derogatory term by some, as can “local” languages. Languages plural are all in flux, and “Africans” do not have single identities, neither for that matter do “Europeans” or “Americans,” or “Britons.”

SJ

What do you make of a statement by someone like Mahmood Mamdani during a public lecture at the University of Cape Town in August 2017, that “it is no exaggeration to say that Afrikaans represents the most successful decolonizing initiative [on language] on the African continent.” Mamdani suggested that this was only possible via state support, what he referred to as “a vast affirmative action program.” By this, he meant it came about through investment in and subsidies for the book industry, for publishing; facilitating monopolies to emerge; building Afrikaans medium universities, etc. Mamdani’s point was that no postcolonial government on the continent had elevated indigenous languages to languages of science or humanities, beyond what he described as “folkloric.” He was implying that private initiatives won’t get us there. You need the state. Thoughts?

LA

Yes, you need the state, and the state is acting in many African countries. For example in South Africa as I mention above, but where progress is slow because there are so many competing languages to cover; and in Tanzania where Kiswahili is the main language of education. The African Union has also more recently returned to the political mobilization of Kiswahili as an African language, and UNESCO declared July 7 as World Kiswahili Day in an attempt to raise the visibility of an African language worldwide.  Rwanda has adopted Kiswahili as a national language and South Africa teaches Kiswahili in some schools. Obviously the people and living languages have to be involved and enfranchised too. I wonder if Mamdani has considered Tanzania as a case study? There is also an argument to be had about Arabic as an African language.

SJ

How has the “space” for literature in local languages in East Africa changed in the last five years? Are there any trends or patterns you are seeing? From what you know or your research, is it any better in any other region in Africa?

LA

Anecdotal evidence suggests there is a lot of enthusiasm for writing and reading in African languages, and that primary-level education in mother tongues is being widely encouraged.

SJ

Are there locally-oriented models of publishing and distribution that better align with the reading audiences of those places, rather than copying traditional Western publishing practices?

LA

This is a huge question, but I bet if you ask the people at, say, Mkuki na Nyota, a company that has been publishing in Tanzania for decades, they’d have better data. That said, many authors are self-publishing, or publishing online. There are hidden boxes of classic books in Kiswahili on street corners in Dar es Salaam, probably stolen from libraries around the country and for sale if you ask to see what else a bookseller has available other than textbooks and books in English.

SJ

Do readers have different preferences about the length, size, style or voice, sales location of the texts? Are publishers tapping into those preferences?

LA

Again, publishers like  Mkuki Bgoya in Tanzania or Ahmed Aidarus in Kenya would know better. From what I have seen, though, when you take books to the people, into the marketplace, or to a bus station there is an appetite for books, if they are affordable. There’s an interesting article I can recommend by Zamda Gueza and Kate Wallis in Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies about Dar es Salaam’s female-led book clubs and their influence.

SJ

What can publishers do to advocate for students to be able to master their own languages in schools rather than the refrain by teachers “no speaking vernacular!”?

LA

Lobby the education departments of their governments and create a culture in which looking inward, rather than seeking external validation, underpins an investment in preserving African languages, before they are lost completely. This approach doesn’t just lie in books, but is a philosophy of life, and can be advocated across civil society, media, and communications platforms.

SJ

Apart from your prize, what are the other ways for readers to find their way to non-Europhone literature in translation? What are the good presses? The literary magazines? For you at least. How do we find them?

LA

There aren’t many. Paivapo Publishing in Kenya is publishing children’s books in mother tongues. And Jalada continues its translation project. Imbiza is also open to publication in multiple African languages. Cassava Republic won a grant to publish an African languages imprint in 2019 and started publishing children’s fiction in March 2022 in Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. Ituika is a good place to keep a watching eye, as it expands its network of translators and advocates for translation in African languages.

SJ

Can you say a little about the 2022 winners of the Kiswahili Prize?

LA

Halfani Sudy and Moh’d Omar Juma won $5,000 each at the 2021 Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature awards announced at a special ceremony on January 27, at the Mlimani City Conference Centre in Dar es Salaam.

In first place for fiction, Sudy’s novel manuscript Kirusi Kipya (New Virus) is about a female soldier, Hannan Halfani, who discovers a secret plot to assassinate President Mark Mwazilindi at the palace. She shares the secret with detective Daniel Mwaseba.

In first place for poetry, Moh’d Omar Juma’s Chemichemi Jangwani (Spring in the Desert) is a poetry collection about a newly elected local representative who has to deal with various social, economic and political issues.

In second place for fiction was Lucas Lubago’s novel manuscript: Bweni la Wasichana (The Girls’ Dormitory) and the runner up prize in any genre was Mbwana Kidato’s Sinaubi, which judges described as “a new form of writing.” While it is highly creative, it is neither a novel, nor a play. Both Lubago and Kidato won $2,500 each.

SJ

Finally, what are African writers “saying” in local languages that they aren’t in the so-called “colonial languages”?

LA

Critiquing the government, satire, comedy, writing about crime, jealousy, passion, sex, espionage, the position of women in society, religious ideology, traditional medicine beliefs and practices.

About the Interviewee

Lizzy Attree, Ph.D. is director of Short Story Day Africa and co-founder of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize.

About the Interviewer

Sean Jacobs, Founder and Editor of Africa is a Country, is on the faculty of The New School and a Shuttleworth Fellow.

Further Reading