New prize for African literature announced

The Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature – recognizing excellent writing in African languages and encouraging translation from, between and into African languages – was announced Nov. 18 in Nigeria.

The prize is a “major intervention in the struggle for writing in African languages, for their place and visibility in the global sun of literary imagination,” said author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a board member. “Prizes have generally been used to drown African literature in African languages under a Europhone flood. With the Mabati-Cornell prize the dreams of [poet David] Diop, [novelist and literary historian] A.C. Jordan, Obi Wali [politician and author of ‘The Dead End of African Literature’] and others are very much alive. I hope that this prize becomes an invitation for other African languages to do the same and much more.”

More than 140 million people speak Kiswahili in eastern and southern Africa; Kiswahili is also one of the official languages in Kenya and Tanzania. The prize will be awarded to the best unpublished manuscripts or books in Kiswahili published within two years of the award year in fiction, poetry and memoir, and graphic novels. First-prize winners receive $5,000 in the categories of prose and poetry; second prize in any genre is $3,000 and third prize is $2,000.

The winning entry will be published in Kiswahili by East African Educational Publishers, and the best book of poetry will be translated and published by the Africa Poetry Book Fund. Award ceremonies will be held at Cornell and in Kenya and Tanzania. The three prize-winning writers will spend a week in residence at Cornell and a week at an additional partner institution.

Cornell assistant professor of English Mukoma Wa Ngugi said the prize recognizes that all languages are created equal and no one language should thrive at the expense of others. “But beyond that recognition, the prize sets an historical precedent for African philanthropy by Africans and shows that African philanthropy can and should be at the center of African cultural production,” he said.

Literary critic Lizzy Attree, who co-founded the prize with Mukoma, said the Mabati-Cornell Prize “makes an important contribution to the body of world literature” and it “sets a precedent for other literature in African languages to follow.”

Attree noted that while international literary prizes for African writing exist, such as the Caine Prize and the recently established Etisalat Prize, there are no major international and pan-African literary prizes awarded to works produced in an African language.

Laurie Damiani, director of international initiatives in the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs, said: “It is an honor to be part of an effort that promotes vibrant literary traditions and encourages meaningful interaction between the peoples of East Africa.”

The prize is primarily supported by Mabati Rolling Mills of Kenya, the Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs, and the Africana Studies and Research Center.

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Syl Kacapyr