Last month, Makena Onjerika became the fourth Kenyan to win the acclaimed Caine Prize for African writing for her short story, Fanta Blackcurrant.
It was published in February 2017 in the UK literary magazine, Wasafiri.
Fanta Blackcurrant follows the life of an orphan called Meri, who lives as a chokora (street child) in Nairobi with a gang of other homeless girls.
Meri likes nothing more than “a big Fanta Blackcurrant for her to drink every day and it never finish.”
Not only is she beautiful, but she is also smart and witty, and endeavours to carve out a better life as a juvenile beggar. But as the years go by, Meri is drawn into the dark world of sex workers, substance abuse, violence and an unwanted pregnancy.
Dinaw Mengestu, the award-winning Ethiopian author and chair of the Caine Prize judging panel, described Fanta Blackcurrant as “a narrative forged but not defined by the streets of Nairobi…haunting in its humour, sorrow and intimacy.”
In a BBC interview, Onjerika said she was super excited and surprised to be named the winner because she had been betting on one of the other four finalists to win.
Since 2000, the £10,000 ($12,800) annual Caine prize honours original short stories by African writers. It is named after the late British businessman Sir Michael Caine, who also established the Booker Prize.
Past Kenyan recipients of the Caine Prize are Binyavanga Wainaina, Yvonne Adhiambo Oduor and Okwiri Oduor. Ugandan writer Monica Arac de Nyeko was the 2007 winner.
Onjerika started writing the story after reading Olufemi Terry’s story Stickfighting Days about street boys in Sierra Leone, which won the 2010 Caine Prize.
Ojerika decided to focus on street girls. Many of her favourite books feature female protagonists such as Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid and The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N K Jemisi.
Fanta Blackcurrant gets its name from a soft drink by Coca Cola that is popular with children. But the author says she is not a fan of sodas, for health reasons, and generally drinks just one bottle of Coke a year.
Meri’s story is narrated by one of the other street children, a technique Onjerika derived from reading stories by Japanese American writer, Julie Otsuka.
Onjerika has never interacted with street children, only observing them from a distance like most Nairobi residents. She wrote the story while studying for her master’s degree and relied on research by anthropologists and social workers to understand the lives of Kenyan street children.
Yet she manages to skilfully capture a youthful viewpoint that gives the tale a poignant naivety and a window into the mentality of young girls.
Onjerika went to a boarding secondary school and says that she drew from personal experiences to describe the thinking and behaviour of girls in confined environments.
In the end, we don’t know what happens to Meri because, “she crossed Nairobi River and then we do not know where she went.”
I found the open-ended conclusion interesting since it lets you imagine a future for the young urchin.
For Onjerika, this was the right place to end because, she says, “Everything that could happen in this story for me happened. I don’t know what happened to Meri either.”
There is no mindblowing plot but an emotional coming-of-age account that exposes the wretched life of homeless youth.
Onjerika bends the rules of grammar to write Kenyan-style dialogue, relying on her intuition to keep the story understandable by non-local readers.
“Reading stories as a reader would is a skill you develop over time,” she said.
Onjerika plans to spend part of her prize money on projects for street children.
She is currently working on a full-length fantasy novel, a process she acknowledges is different from short stories but just as difficult. “Writing is making something out of a lot of nothing, after all,” she says.