The Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa comes with a medal and a $20,000 reward, and has become a symbol of knowledge, creativity, courage and justice. The fourth edition, awarded this year, went to the South African journalist and writer, Sifiso Mzobe.
At the dawn of this century, literary jurists in Europe and America committed what many in Africa considered an act of deliberate contempt. On assessment of the “100 best” or most influential books published in the previous century, not one was from Africa. Even Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, which had sold over 6 million copies and had been translated into many major languages, did not make the list. The fury led Ali Mazrui, an elder African political scientist from Kenya, to counsel that as long as the selections were made in Europe and America, with their instinctive cannons, contempt would be Africans’ fodder.
He therefore suggested that Africa made its own selection. The continent’s literary connoisseurs obliged and in consequence the popularity of the selected 100 African books of the 20th century soared. Since then, there has been an increased confidence in the institutions of literary prizes by Africanist organisations in Europe and companies in Africa. As well as The Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, instituted in 1979 in memory of a Japanese-Africanist (with a monetary value of $10,000), there has been The Caine Prize for African Writing since 2000 (with a value of $10,000), the Commonwealth Book Prize instituted in 2011 ($10,000), and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize ($5,000).
In addition there are some domestic and less endowed continental prizes. But far more prestigious is the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, which comes with a medal and a $20,000 reward, and has become a symbol of knowledge, creativity, courage and justice. The Prize is administered by The Lumina Foundation, based in Lagos, Nigeria. Since 2006, the Prize has been awarded biannually in honour of the continent’s first Nobel Literature Laureate, Wole Soyinka, whose sense of environmental preservation led to a major prediction in his 1958 play, Swamp Dwellers, that the Shell Oil Company’s pursuit of oil and its effects would one day lead to an Ogoni crisis in the Niger Delta.
This was followed in 1965 with Kongi’s Harvest premised on the effect of bad governance on Africa’s development and the coming violence upon its leadership.
Since then, Soyinka, now 77, has become a man of the people in his homeland, especially so since the issues dealt with by these two plays have become an affliction in Nigeria and other parts of resource-rich Africa. Judging by the praise-singing poetry that attended the recent fourth edition of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and the dramatic adoration and enactment of his plays of varied themes, Nigerians are not yet tired of Soyinka as a bogeyman.
Meanwhile, the Lumina Foundation, which gives the Prize, continues to encourage reading in Nigerian primary and secondary schools through 63 Wole Soyinka Reading Clubs in the country, and by working with 84 libraries.
The Foundation was originally brought into being by Ogochukwu Promise, who had to resign from a lucrative banking career to do so and who gave out the first literature award on the 20th anniversary of Soyinka’s Nobel Prize, given in 1986.
“I could not condone illiteracy or pretend it was not harming the people I met and greeted, or still meet and greet,” says Ogochukwu. “Illiteracy is the architect of poverty, including poverty of mind, which is the worst kind of poverty really.”
An essayist, playwright and children’s novelist herself, Ogochukwu holds a PhD in Communication and Language Arts, and has more than 30 books to her name. The trouble in Africa, she believes, resides in illiteracy, which “breeds ignorance, backwardness, all manner of diseases, corruption, bad governance, injustice and irresponsibility”.
If the damage is already done to the aged, the children of today need salvation from reading and literature. As such, Ogochukwu edits and publishes The Lumina, a children’s classic, as well as The Promise magazine. These complement the efforts of the Soyinka Reading Clubs and libraries, which bring to their sessions renowned writers for discussions.
Of the more than 600 attendees of the fourth edition of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa held in Lagos, there were numerous state governors and senators. Former Ghanaian president, John Agyekum Kufuor, was guest speaker.
There was widespread approval when the panel of judges – normally five from Anglophone and Francophone Africa – decided on Sifiso Mzobe, a South African journalist and writer, currently with a community newspaper in Durban, as the 2012 winner. In 2011 Mzobe had won the South African Sunday Times Fiction Prize, with his first novel The Young Blood.
The first winner of the Soyinka Prize in 2006 had been one of the continent’s foremost women writers, Sefi Atta, with her novel, Everything Good Will Come. It was followed in 2008 by another woman writer, Nnedi Okorafor, with Zahrah the Windseeker; and in 2010 yet another woman, Kopano Matlwa (for her book, Coconut), who jointly shared the Prize with Wale Okediran (for his Tenants of the House).
One of the fourth edition’s judges, Eid Shabbir Shabbir, a professor of literature and chair of African Studies at the International University of Africa in Khartoum, Sudan, summed up the general sentiment: “Any right-thinking person and organisation’s head will feel privileged to embrace this project. The Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature makes a remarkable contribution to the world’s intellectual discourse. Its growth and sustenance is crucial for Africa’s continued advancement.”
Interestingly, the laureates and those who aspire to the Soyinka Prize, have each won a literary prize and all seek to make a career out of writing. They are cosmopolitan by nature and most of them live in Europe and America, some having been born there.
They write not only about Africa and its cultural make-up, but also issues with universal relevance. Some, such as Sefi Atta, Nnedi Okorafor and the best-selling Chimamanda Adichie, are in their 30s and 40s and teach Africa-related courses at university. Guest speaker John Kufuor said at the fourth edition of the Prize: “Soyinka has set the pace and I believe Nigeria must be commended for producing other prodigious writers. They all come together to enhance the image of Africa.
“In many other fields of endeavour, Nigeria also sets the pace on the continent in producing powerful entrepreneurs of world class – in the fields of ICT, banking, finance, media and filmmaking.”
This Prize is intended to be “mobile” and its future announcement will rotate among the capitals of the continent. Its monetary value will increase – and no doubt also its appeal.