Kenyan writer Idza Luhumyo has won the 2022 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing with her short story Five Years Next Sunday.
Okey Ndibe, chair of the 2022 AKO Caine Prize judging panel, announced the winner at an award ceremony on July 18 at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and described Luhumyo’s story as “an incandescent story, its exquisite language wedded to the deeply moving drama of a protagonist whose mystical office invites animus at every turn.”
Luhumyo beat 267 entries in a year of record submissions, and will receive £10,000 in prize money. Her story will be published in the 2022 AKO Caine Prize anthology later this year.
Five Years Next Sunday was published in Disruption, a publication of the Catalyst Press and Short Story Day Africa, 2021. The story also won the 2021 Short Story Day Africa Prize. It is about Pili, a young woman who is feared by her family and community. A chance encounter with a foreigner changes her fortunes, but there are duplicitous designs upon her possession.
“What we liked about the story was the mystical office of the protagonist, who is both ostracised and yet holds the fate of her community in her hair. She is stripped of agency by her immediate family, as well as the Europeans who give the impression of placing her on a pedestal, yet within that seeming absence of agency, and oppressive world, is her stubborn reclamation of herself. The dramatic tension in the story is so powerful and palpable that it’s like something you could cut with a knife,” Ndibe said of the winning story.
Luhumyo becomes the 23rd winner of the prestigious literature prize. She is the fifth Kenyan writer to win after Binyavanga Wainaina (2002), Yvonne Owuor (2003), Okwiri Oduor (2014) and Makena Onjerika (2018).
In an interview with the BBC’s Newsday programme, she said that she and her fellow Kenyans "are very good at storytelling [and] we have very expressive cultures".
The story opens with a description of hair: “My locs are just shy of five years. They flow, like water. They are fluffy and black. They are dark. I forbid anyone to touch them. I use a black scarf to cover them. And how they coil, and how heavy they are, weighing me down with the expectations of my quarter."
Luhumyo told the BBC that she was "thrilled" to have won the Caine Prize and saw it as evidence that her story "resonates" with the audience. She said she now plans to write a novel.
"Hopefully you'll be hearing from me in a couple of years," she said, "but for now I'm just enjoying the moment."
Judging alongside Ndibe this year were French-Guinean author and academic Elisa Diallo, South African literary curator and co-founder of The Cheeky Natives Letlhogonolo Mokgoroane, UK-based Nigerian visual artist Ade Okelarin, and Kenyan co-founder of the Book Bunk Angela Wachuka.
On this year’s shortlist were Joshua Chizoma (Nigeria) for his story Collector of Memories, Nana-Ama Danquah (Ghana) for her story When a Man Loves a Woman, Hannah Giorgis (Ethiopia) for her story A Double-Edged Inheritance, and Billie McTernan (Ghana) for her story The Labadi Sunshine Bar.
The panel commended the other stories for the quality of writing. Mokgoroane and Diallo applauded the diversity of genre, and Ndibe said there was “a sense of the genius in the other contenders”.
Okelarin said the stories were “well written and emotionally resonant”, and Wachuka praised the inclusion of writers who are also editors (Danquah edited the Accra Noir anthology).
“The historic import of the Prize on writers' trajectories has ranged from the formation of literary entities, to unmatched global visibility, and opportunities including publishing deals and writing fellowships. I am honoured to have worked with such a formidable group of judges to contribute to the expansion of craft and our publishing ecology,” Wachuka said.
Shortlisted writers receive £500, and their story will be published in the 2022 AKO Caine Prize anthology.