This month (July,2018) started with jubilation and lots of promise to literary lovers and enthusiasts. Makena Onjerika’s ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ won the 2018 Caine Prize short story competition and three Kenyans, Daniel Many Owiti, Janet Kali and Wafula p’Khisa, were longlisted for the 2018 Babishai Niwe Poetry Prize. The poetry prize is organized and funded yearly by the Babishai Niwe Poetry Foundation in Uganda. It is awarded to the winning African poet at the Babishai literary festival in early August. These are not mere achievements; if they cannot move your heart, I wonder what will.
However, as much as we celebrate these achievements, there is need to ask ourselves tough questions regarding our literary investment, production and future in relation to other countries. On the 2018 Babishai Poetry Prize longlist for instance, over 20 out of the 35 poets are Nigerians. The rest are from Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia and South Sudan. This makes us to imagine that the prize this year is a Nigerians’ affair! But it’s not the first time to feel Nigeria’s literary dominance. A few months ago, Tendai Rhinos Mwanaka (Zimbabwean poet, publisher and editor) noted that he received a large number of submissions from Nigeria for the Best ‘New’ African Poets 2017 anthology. Moreover, Gloria Mwaniga often asked: “Why are Nigerians winning all the prizes?” to every Nigerian writer that she interviewed in her column: “By the Book.” Whether this is attributed to Nigeria’s rich literary heritage or unmatched creative imagination and energy is a story for another day.
What is the matter with our literary performance then? Why don’t we have as many poets and writers as Nigerians fighting for space in the literary world? Is it our literary heritage, inadequate artistic exposure and mentorship, government’s failure to support and recognize artists or weak creative imagination that is to blame? Everyone claims to be a writer or rather to know how good writing should be. But they aren’t writing at all. They aren’t reading or researching either. Facebook is awash with hastily drafted texts masquerading as poetry and short stories. Very few writers have blogs or websites for readers to access their work. They have very little knowledge of other writers and the ever-changing literary landscape. This denies us ability to compete, thus reducing us to mere literary flower girls in a contest where our counterparts take all the glory with ease.
I think young poets and writers in Kenya are just lazy. They hardly participate in literary contests, workshops and submit their work for publication– there are many online literary journals and magazines for this. A quick overview of what they write reveals that some of their work are mere rants and gossip. Such, if submitted for publication or contests, die prematurely in the critical hands of editors and judges who are intolerant to mediocrity. That’s probably why most of them don’t live beyond the social media pages.
This should change. Let’s encourage young writers, promote their work and challenge them to do better. Writers should write more and publish on any available platform as many times as possible. Nobody will take you seriously as a writer if you have no publication history. Furthermore, we should seize every opportunity to participate in all literary activities like contests, workshops and discussions. That way, we will not only be telling our story to the world but we shall also be safeguarding our literary future.