OBBO: The stories Kenyans tell, that others don’t

Saturday October 12 2019

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed

Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed addresses his country's diaspora in Washington, US on July 28, 2018. The PM was on October 11, 2019 awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve his country's conflict with Eritrea. PHOTO | REUTERS 

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The Nobel Prize season is here. Those who study the Nobel winds, said this time East Africa would surely bring a gong home.

Africa has never done particularly well in the prizes for science and economics, but the Nobel sorcerers are saying the prospects look good for the Peace and Literature honours.

Ethiopian premier Abiy Ahmed, *word had it, was close to the front of the queue for the Peace prize for his efforts in burying the hatchet with adversary Eritrea. And the legendary Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has been in the frame for the Literature prize many times but didn’t get the nod, was said to be in contention, but again didn’t win.

As everyone who follows the Nobel knows, only a fool would have bet the house on how the Committee that picks the winners, cast its votes.

But if Abiy and Ngugi had both bagged it, it would have been the first time an African region has won two of the prizes in the same year.

Also, ahead of the announcement, the prospect was exciting, it would have been the second time Africa had won the Peace prize back to back, since Kenyan environmentalist and democracy activist Wangari Maathai ran away with it in 2004, and Egypt’s Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, collected it in 2005.


The fact that Ngugi has been tipped for the literature prize several times, casts the light on a prize that Kenyans have won far more times than any other East African country; the Caine Prize for African Writing.

Established in 2000, it is an annual literary award for the best original short story by an African writer, whether in Africa or elsewhere, published in the English language.

The east side of Africa has won it five times, four of those by Kenyans. The only non-Kenyan to crash the party was Uganda’s Monica Arac de Nyeko, who won the 2007 prize for her short story Jambula Tree.

Kenyan writer Makena Onjerika won the 2018 one for her short story Fanta Blackcurrant; in 2014 Okwiri Oduor won the 2014 prize for her My Father’s Head; Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor took it in 2003 for her story Weight of Whispers; and in 2002 – the first time an East African male had a look in – Kenya’s Binyavanga Wainaina walked away with it for his Discovering Home.

Sure, other East Africans have starred elsewhere. Uganda’s Jennifer Makumbi was last year awarded one of literature’s biggest prizes, the Windham-Campbell Prize from Yale University, and a juicy $165,000 to go with it; and in 2012 Rwandan author Scholastique Mukasonga, whose family was massacred in the 1994 genocide, won France’s prestigious Renaudot prize.

The Caine Prize, though, tests a burst of vivid imagination, and is a contest in a time when there is an avalanche of new material by youthful African writers wrestling with the angst and turbulence of a changing Africa and the world.

The question, then, is what does it say about the rest of East Africa that there have been four Kenyans, a lone Ugandan, and no other winners in this eastern swath of Africa?

Perhaps a better way, would be to ask what it says about Kenya that it has won it four times, and the rest only tasted it once. To that, we return next week.

(*This column went to press before the announcement of the Peace Prize).

Charles Onyango-Obbo is curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’ and publisher of explainer site Roguechiefs.com. [email protected]