Writers Can Learn from Onjerika’s Caine Prize Gift to the Poor
After being confirmed winner of the 2018 Caine prize for literature, Makena Onjerika has touched the hearts of many by her act of absolute authorial philanthropy by declaring that she will be donating a tenth of her £10,000 prize money to street children in Kenya.
This is only happening when most of Kenyan politicians are looking for the ways of how to stop teaching the arts in Kenya. One of the political suggestion to do away with the arts education in Kenya has been that arts teachers have to be paid lower salary compared to the science teachers.
Thank goodness, Onjerika is now proving those that are anti-arts education to be wrong. Especially, when she made the statement of her intention to help the street family when speaking to BBC on 6th July 2018. Onjerika said that the money will help rehabilitate street children in Kenya. She also added that she chose to write about street children because the people of Kenya. Kenyans are nonchalant about street children and only used the derogatroy sheng word Chokora when refering to the street urchins.
Makena Onjerika won the 2018 Caine Prize for her short story Fanta Blackcurrant published in Wasafiri in 2017. Onjerika is the fourth writer from Kenya to win the Caine Prize. The previous ones are Binyavanga Wainaina in 2002, Yvonne Owuor in 2003, and Okwiri Oduor in 2013.
On giving out the prize the chair of judges for the prize, Dinaw Mengestu praised Onjerika by pointing out that, “The winner of this year’s Caine Prize is as fierce as they come – a narrative forged but not defined by the streets of Nairobi, a story that stands as more than just witness. Makena Onjerika’s Fanta Blackcurrant presides over a grammar and architecture of its own making, one that eschews any trace of sentimentality in favour of a narrative that is haunting in its humour, sorrow and intimacy.”
Makena who is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing programme at New York University, has been published in Urban Confusions and Wasafiri. Makena is currently living in Nairobi. She wrote Fanta Blackcurrant by narrating in the first person plural. This story is about Meri, a street child of Nairobi, who makes a living using her natural intelligence and charisma, but wants nothing more than a big Fanta Blackcurrant for her to drink every day, one that would never finish. While it seems Meri’s natural wit may enable her to escape the streets, days follow days and years follow years, and having turned to the sex trade, she finds herself pregnant. Her success stealing from Nairobi’s business women attracts the attention of local criminals, who beat her and leave her for dead. After a long recovery, Meri crossed the river and then the narrators do not know where she went.
The 2018 panel of judges was chaired by Ethiopian novelist Dinaw Mengestu. On making an announcement Mengestu pointed out that Makena Onjerika was chosen from a five-name shortlist that included: South Africa’s Stacy Hardy, for Involution published in Short Story Day Africa’s Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa; Nonyelum Ekwempu, for American Dream published in Red Rock Review and republished in The Anthem; Olufunke Ogundimu, for The Armed Letter Writers published in New Orleans Review‘s The African Literary Hustle; and Wole Talabi, for Wednesday’s Story published in Lightspeed Magazine.
The £10,000 Caine Prize is awarded to the best 3,000-10,000-word short story by an African writer. Previous winners of the Caine Prize are: Sudan’s Leila Aboulela (2000); Nigeria’s Helon Habila (2001); Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina (2002); Kenya’s Yvonne Owuor (2003); Zimbabwe’s Brian Chikwava (2004); Nigeria’s Segun Afolabi (2005); South Africa’s Mary Watson (2006); Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko (2007); South Africa’s Henrietta Rose-Innes (2008); Nigeria’s EC Osondu (2009); Sierra Leone’s Olufemi Terry (2010), Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo (2011); Nigeria’s Rotimi Babatunde (2012); Nigeria’s Tope Folarin (2013); Kenya’s Okwiri Oduor (2014); Zambia’s Namwali Serpell (2015); South Africa’s Lidudumalingani (2016); and Sudan’s Bushra al-Fadil (2017).
The Caine Prize was hit by administrative challenges during the early part of this year, especially when Lizzy Attree, the Prize Director since 2011, left and joined Short Story Day Africa; and then novelist Alain Mabanckou resigned from the panel of judges. But last month, Dele Fatunla was named a new Administrator of the prize.
This is not the first time a Caine Prize winner has shown generosity with their £10,000. In 2015, Namwali Serpell, the first Zambian to win the prize, shared hers with her fellow shortlisters, at £2,000 each. Aminatta Forna used her literature prize for philanthropy work by esablishing the Rogbonko Project which aimed at helping the Sierra Leonean villages to rebuild themesleves in terms of welfare and social facilites.
Even though Makena Onjerika will be winning more hearts with this, alot of questions are yet to be answered. For example, the governement of Kenya has the Ministry of Gender that takes care of the street children, and also every devolved unit in Kenya has money for the poor and the vulnerable, why then is bucolic poverty still persisting among the street families? How is Onjerika going to deal with corruption so that her donation ends helping the street families given that every insituion in Kenya is overtly selfish, corrupt and varicious. There is also the question of altruism; is helping the street children the most correct act of altruism for Onjerika at this time? What if she had considered helping the bright children who are in school but have fees problem, or establishing a community library in the slums or esablishing the Makena Onjerika literature prize for writers under age of 20 years?
by – Alexander Opicho