part-time musings

Tag: Writing on Africa

(Capetonian) Olufemi Terry wins 2010 Caine Prize

Olufemi Terry was announced as the winner of the 2010 Caine Prize for African writing at a function in Oxford on Monday night. Terry was born in Sierra Leone but now lives in Cape Town. His story ‘Stickfighting Days’ is a disturbing closely-detailed first-narrative from the perspective of a street kid who’s life is centred on stickfighting, status, and ultimately vengeance. It’s not a likable story in many ways, but it’s undoubtedly convincing and compelling.  You can read it here on the Caine Prize website


Ex Africa.. The Caine Prize Shortlist

The winner of this year’s Caine Prize will be announced at a dinner in Oxford on Monday. Sometimes called the African Booker, the award highlights both the diversity and excellence of contemporary writing coming out of Africa. I also think the Prize and the events surrounding it are unusually good at providing opportunities for the public to meet the writers involved.

The shortlisted writers are:

All of these pieces are available to read online on the Caine Prize website

I personally love Namwali Serpell’s ‘Muzungu’, partly because of the way it portrays an experience of childhood that I can relate to, and partly for this extraordinarily evocative paragraph:

Her parents had settled into life in Zambia the way most expats do. They drank a lot. Every weekend was another house party, that neverending expatriate house party that has been swatting mosquitoes and swimming in gin and quinine for more than a century. Sibilla floated around in a billowy Senegalese
boubou, sending servants for refills and dropping in on every conversation, distributing laughter and ease amongst her guests. Purple-skinned peanuts had been soaked in salt water and roasted in a pan until they were grey; they cooled and shifted with a whispery sound in wooden bowls. There were
Tropic beer bottles scattered around the veranda, marking the table and the concrete floor with their damp semi-circular hoof prints. Full or empty? Once the top is off a Tropic bottle, you can’t tell because the amber glass is so dark. You have to lift it to check its weight. Cigars and tobacco pipes puffed their foul sweetness into the air. Darts and croquet balls went in loopy circles around their targets, loopier as
the day wore on.

One of the events associated with the Caine Prize next week is being hosted jointly by the the Institute of English Studies, the Royal Africa Society, and the Centre of African Studies at SOAS. On Wednesday 7 July, Caine Prize shortlisted writers will be taking part in a seminar on African writing in Room 116 at SOAS at 1.30pm. If you’d like to attend, contact Angelica Bashiera at 02078984370 or email

A book worth reading

I hate bad writing on Africa. And there is a lot of it.  So when I come across a truly excellent book on Africa I feel I should share it.

Conrad’s phrase  ‘The Heart of Darkness’ – that stock-in-trade phrase that seems to find its way into any writing on the Congo – is in fact a reference to the darkness of the European heart; the absence of understanding and humanity in European interactions with Africa. And certainly when one reflects on the dearth of decent literature on the Congo in English, one has to admit that there are lamentably few points of illumination disrupting the Cimmerian shade of our ignorance.

One of these points of light is undoubtedly Janet McGaffey and Remy Bazenguissa-Ganga’s Congo-Paris: Transnational Traders on the Margins of the Law.  And I’ve just finished another – Michela Wrong’s In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz – which I’d compare to a hunting lamp casting a stark bright illuminating beam over the landscape.

I’ve been aware of In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz since it was published in 2000, but had never read a review and had, in all honestly, judged the book unfairly by its cover. It, and the fact the book seems to have found its way into the travel writing sections of bookstores, gave me the impression it was one of those ‘look I’m traveling through Africa on a motorcycle/elephant/golf buggie and aren’t the people poor/different/lovely’ kind of travelogues.  Well I got that wrong.  Not only was Michela Wrong in the DR Congo observing events in 1997 as the Mobutu era came to its dramatic and strange end, but she has also done an impressive amount of research on the personal history of Mobutu and the people around him, and on recent Congolese history.

The book offers the best account I’ve seen on Mobutu’s rise to power; on the scale of graft, nepotism, and decadence that characterized his regime; and of the events that led to his fall. And the book is infused with Wrong’s personal observations that make the characters and events come alive in the mind of the reader. Such as her description of the heavily-armed, sportswear-clad Mobutu supporters and their families gathered at the Intercontinental Hotel surrounded by their Louis Vuitton luggage waiting to make their escape as Kabila’s forces marched on Kinshasa.

I’d very much recommend this book if you’re interested in the history of the DR Congo- or the history of Belgium. And I’ll certainly be taking a close look at Michaela Wrong’s more recent books on Eritrea and Kenya.