When I was first approached to be a judge for the Kwani? manuscript project, I said an emphatic “No” perhaps four times. How did anyone imagine that I could find the time to read the 282 submitted draft manuscripts, many of which obviously would be very raw?
Mercifully, a team of nine first line long-listers were recruited for the job of whittling 282 manuscripts submissions to a more manageable long-list of 30.
At this juncture Billy Kahora and Kate Haines persuaded me to join the judging panel. We ended up with a blend of academics (Prof Simon Gikandi of Princeton University and I), writers (Helon Habila and our chair of Judges Jamal Mahjoub) and publishers (Irene Staunton and Ellah Wakatama Allfrey) with the marching orders: Deliver the final six manuscripts in just under two months!
Taking part in this process was quite enriching. For a start, the project was empowering to me at the technological level; I purchased a tablet to enable me to work more and fuller hours reading and evaluating the stories. In addition, the judging took place via an electronic portal and through this I was having a serious literary conversation with five other people whom I have never met and may not meet any time soon.
Apart from Gikandi, who like me teaches literature, I was unsure of the different backgrounds and professional training of the other judges and what to expect in terms of literary preferences.
To my mind, this was a plus because each of us had specific things we were looking for, which after comparing notes, enabled us to pare down the list of 30 to 10 and eventually to six.
Our chairman Jamal Mahjoub saved his own vote for the very last moment and that way the rest of us felt free to make our own evaluation without coercion. By June 21, our collective verdict was in and on July 1, 2013, after much deliberation behind the scenes, a wisp of white smoke billowed out of the Kwani? house: The Kintu Sagahad been selected.
At the time of rendering our verdict, none of the judges had been provided with the identity of the six authors whose work we shortlisted. This brings me to another important point: The liberty of knowing that we were concerning ourselves purely with the product in our hands and not names.
Knowing an author’s name could predispose one to read in a particular way and, more importantly, ignore weaknesses because of their identity. Of course, once in a while one would come across a familiar style and try to guess the identity of the author — in my case I could tell that Dining with the Dictators was Tony Mochama’s manuscript — but that was the exception and only because I am familiar with his column in The Standard.
We had a free hand to evaluate the texts without baggage. What mattered to me wasThe Kintu Saga and the imperfect majesty with which it told the narrative of a fictional society in Uganda. I was struck by the way it connected to and grappled with life in contemporary Africa, exploring the ways in which societies and individuals seek to deal with the intersections of history, modernity, religion and culture.
Yet what is crucial for me in all this is not that The Kintu Saga won. It is that this initiative showed that there are many people across Africa and beyond who believe in the cultural viability of the Kwani? project and want to be a part of its story of institutional growth.
By now, it should be pretty clear, particularly in academic circles, that any serious discussion of Kwani? can no longer be formulated around the rather unproductive question of whether Kwani? is a good thing or a bad thing for Africa’s literary culture. That question to me is no longer relevant.
As with Sheng, those who use the sociolect will use it anyway whether others approve its use or not. The question is, instead, can we try to understand and analyse what they are doing in cultural terms? It is necessary that those in the academy begin asking serious questions about Kwani? as cultural space and practice.
What also matters to me too is that 282 individuals found it worth their while — forget the money — to do some level of research, sit up long hours during the day and into the night to churn out hundreds of pages of creatively told stories.
I was particularly struck by the amount of history that must have been read in order for some of those manuscripts to be written.
It may not always have been understood or interpreted in particularly profound ways, but the history of Uganda or South Africa or Russia, to name but a few, that were alluded to, tells me that there is a generation of new writers who still see the fundamental connection between literature and history.
Perhaps the competition organisers could consider publishing all six finalists and running the competition again next year? Indeed, there is no dearth of literary talent in Africa and we think Kwani? deserves credit for helping quite a bit of it come into the public domain.
Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga and its experimentation with myth is not a perfect text, but out of 30 rough gems it impressed the judges most – telling its story convincingly and with depth.
The promise in this work is worth reflecting about.