To Experience the Birth of a Heart-breaking Work of Staggering Genius.* - by Troy Onyango

Troy Onyango. Photo credit: Dilman Dila

Troy Onyango. Photo credit: Dilman Dila

1. Kisumu-Nairobi

The huge metal bird runs on the tarred road then leaps into the air, its full weight tearing into the dense, humid wind and its large, powerful wings spreading outwards, casting a shadow below. The lake becomes a pond, the rivers that feed it become tiny streams, veins running through the landscape, and the city below is an elaborate thing for a child to play with. I am inside the bird, its beak inching towards Nairobi, and its tail flapping, faning Kisumu.

Before. Before.

The email comes in on the afternoon of my birthday. An invite to the Caine Prize Workshop in Gisenyi, Rwanda. I shriek and jump around, excited about the fact that I will be spending two weeks writing in a serene environment, away from all distractions of life, surrounded by amazing writers from different countries, and with the help of the two facilitators, beat my story into shape until, eventually, it is good enough to be included in the Caine Prize Anthology. My excitement stays with me, even if the workshop is still a few months away.


2. Kigali

Kigali is a city out of a hyper-realistic painting. My friends and I joke always that Kigali is not an African city. Of course, this does not mean that African cities are homogenous in the way they exist, but in our imagination, limited by the very little travel, African cities as supposed to be characterised by a certain organisation in their disorganisation. Orderly in their chaos. Alive, brimming with life, bustling.

Imagine this: Take Nairobi for example, minus the chaos, without the robbery, remove the hawkers that meet you and want to sell you anything from mitumba clothes to cockroach and bedbugs pesticides, take away the Nigerian-Congolese-Nigerian music that filters from the small cubicles that sell phone chargers and bleaching cream, replace the colourful, noisy matatus with tourist buses, make the police polite and not corrupt, and finally, don’t have traffic jams that snake through and through. There, now you have Kigali.

At the airport, I am met by a guy holding a white sheet of paper with my name neatly printed on it. This is the first time I am feeling this important at an airport. Sigh, vanity. As soon as I walk up to him, he takes my suitcase from my hand and leads me to the car. I sit there and wait for him to pick up another client. A lady opens the door and tells me she is from the hotel and she has been told to come and help me wait so as not to get bored. She speaks very little English so we mostly just sit and let the silence fill the space and time.

Finally, the other client, a German lady with hair that is a sheep’s wool, comes and we head for the hotel. She tells me she is here for a conference. We talk about colonialism and the Berlin wall. After about an hour, we get to the hotel. Vimbai Shire, the coordinator of the workshop meets me at the reception and helps me to check in.


3. Gisenyi

Week I

We depart for Gisenyi in the morning.

The bus ride to from Kigali to Gisenyi, we were made to believe, would only take 3 hours. Four hours after leaving the hotel, we are still on the road, approaching Musanze. The occupants of the bus wish for one thing only – to get to their destination, rest and start working on their short stories.

As soon as we get to the hotel, the serenity brought by the lake alone compensates for the long hours spent in the bus. We all gather at dinner and Vimbai tells us what the itinerary looks like. For the next ten days, we are going to be staying at this hotel, working on a short story that will be included in the 2018 Caine Prize Anthology alongside the five shortlisted stories (and the eventual winner). True to her word, we start work the next morning, pitching our ideas, reading the small bits that we have already, discussing the stories and appreciating the chance to write and write and write without any distractions.

Before we realise it, the first week has ended, with every one of us having read out the bits of our stories and worked on them to produce a first draft for editing during the second week. We hand the drafts in to Elise and Damon, who have been guiding us through the workshop. Their experience and expertise is helpful, for they are able to advise us on what works for a particular story.

Week II

The rain falls in sheets, the tap-tap-tap sound is the background music to my editing. I have received feedback on my story from both Damon and Elise and I am using that to rework my story so that it reads better. Everyone else is busy in his or her room doing the same, or at least I imagine that is what they are doing.

In between the writing and the editing, we get to dance, go for long walks along the beach and swim in the lake.

The school visit comes on Tuesday just when we had thought it would not happen because most schools are closed for the holidays. We are lucky to find one school that will host us. After an introduction from the head teacher, we get to talk to the students about storytelling and writing.

It is my hope, truly, that we leave the school having inspired a few of them to become writers.


4. Kigali, again

We are seated around a table waiting for our meal.

The upper floor of the restaurant offers us a beautiful view of the city, thousands of lights flickering through the hills and valleys that make Kigali. A million or more glow-worms perched on the green walls of the hills. I wish to capture this moment and store it forever with me.

It is our final night together.

Before this, we have made the long, dreaded trip on the winding roads from Gisenyi to Kigali. During the trip, I sit next to Lucky Grace, and we share the sad songs that we have on our playlist. This, in a way, is our goodbye.

On our minds, the public event at Shokola Café.

The event, which happens from 6pm to 8pm, is well attended by the Kigali Literary Community. Readers, writers and friends who have come to show their support. Arinze Ifeakandu, Bongani Kona and Paula Akugizibwe do a reading of their stories. Afterwards, we discuss writing, reading, editing and publishing, with every writer at the workshop being given an opportunity to talk about his or her writing experience and the workshop too.


5. Kisumu

Home, with wonderful memories of meeting these brilliant writers who have been a part of my community for the past two weeks, with friendships that will continue to exist even after this moment, with new lessons that will persist through my writing career, and with a heart full of gratitude to have seen a story come from nothingness (or merely an idea) into what Bongani Kona refers to as, “a heart-breaking work of staggering genius.”

* A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a memoir by Dave Eggers.

About the Author

Troy Onyango is a Kenyan writer and lawyer. His work has been published in Ebedi Review, AFREADA, Caine Prize Anthology, Brittle Paper, Afridiaspora, Kalahari Review, Cosmonauts Avenue and Transition .  His short story ‘The Transfiguration’ was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2016. He won the fiction prize for the inaugural Nyanza Literary Festival Prize for his short story ‘For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings?’ His nonfiction piece, “This Is How It Ends,” was shortlisted for the inaugural Brittle Paper Award for Nonfiction. He was shortlisted for the 2016 Miles Morland Foundation Scholarship. He is a Senior Editor of Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. He is represented by the Elise Dillsworth Agency.

Raising the Next Generation of African Writers - by Esther Karin Mngodo

Esther Karin Mngodo speaking to pupils at English Medium school for this year’s workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo courtesy by Esther Karin Mngodo.

Esther Karin Mngodo speaking to pupils at English Medium school for this year’s workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Photo courtesy by Esther Karin Mngodo.

The faces of the children seated in front of us froze. A boy who just narrated a fictional story about a child living in poverty seemed to be lost for words, the other children looked puzzled too. A poster of Harry Potter’s face hung on the wall to the right, while rows of American books were on the shelves towards the left. Was it possible that at some point in life, the writer they held to high esteem, Ms. J.K. Rowling, shared something in common with them? They found it hard to believe when I told them in Swahili – alikuwa masikini – that she was poor. Was she really that poor when she created Harry? Wazungu are never poor, not that poor. Yet the answer to that question made all the difference. If Rowling, a poor woman in Scotland at the time, could create Harry, could a poor African writer do the same?

“But we do not have Hogwarts here,” one boy said.

“Nor did Ms. Rowling in Scotland,” responded Tendai, one of the fellow 2017 Caine Prize workshop writers. The room fell silent.

Three of us from the workshop were at the English Medium school in Bagamoyo, a town located about 75 kilometres from the big city, Dar es Salaam. In my group was Tendai (Zimbabwe), Lizzy (Caine Prize Director), Darla (Rwanda) and Elias, a Tanzanian writer based in Bagamoyo who tagged along. It was the first time the children had met writers from different African countries. The children were lively, well updated on current regional affairs. They had a few comments on Nkurunziza, the President of Burundi. Some of them said they read The Citizen, the newspaper I write for, which was impressive. However, they didn’t know their geography well. They were amused with Tendai’s long well-groomed hair, but weren't sure where Zimbabwe was when he asked. ‘West Africa?’ one guessed, and another, followed by a couple more, wrong guesses were made in the room. Mugabe they knew, but Zimbabwe? Not exactly.

Tendai was the last one to present. He introduced a game where everyone had to narrate a small part of the story and pass the storytelling along to the person next to them. It was a ghost story the children chose to tell. Their skills in storytelling were impeccable. If nurtured, we could get a number of bestsellers just from that one class. However, at some point, it was obvious that one child tried to retell the ‘Ghostbusters’. Characters were described as white with blonde hair. And at another point, the hero became a white man with a bodysuit. Bagamoyo was hot like a sauna. Why did the hero have to wear a tight bodysuit?

Our venue was the school library. Unlike what I had envisioned, it was big, widely spacious with shelves full of books. However, moving closer we realised that 90 per cent of the books were American literature. Talking about J.K. Rowling and Harry Potter made the children excited. They knew Mr. Miyagi and Vampire Diaries. Yet when we asked them to name just one South African writer, or Kenyan, or any African writer, they could not.

What if Harry Potter was African?

Most of the children couldn’t see how that was possible. Can an African writer create Harry Potter? It was a big question. The question wasn’t whether or not it was possible to copy and paste this character, since we already knew that they were capable of that (with how they told the ghost story). The question was, can there be any creativity coming from Bagamoyo? Can they tell their stories, in their context, without making a work of fiction feel like a bad essay?  It was a stretch for the children to think that they could use the things they saw every day in their stories – a coconut tree, women dressed in kanga, a witch on a winnowing basket instead of being on a broom.

That Harry was fictional, was hard to grasp. That Harry himself was poor, did not seem to have registered well. Although this demonstrates what a great writer Rowling is, to create such real characters, it also shows that there is need to deconstruct some preconceived ideas that the work of fiction from the West is of higher standard than ours, especially among the young writers and readers. There is a need to construct a new possibility. And this can only be done with telling our own stories well, and more workshops such as the one we were able to do.

Participants for the 2017 Caine Prize Workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Top row: Daniel Rafiki (Rwanda), Darla Rudakubana (Rwanda), Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), Cheryl Ntumy (Botswana/Ghana), Agazit Abate (Ethiopia), Esther Karin Mngodo (Tanzania), Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe), Zaka Riwa (Tanzania), Elise Dillsworth (workshop facilitator) and Mohammed Naseehu Ali (workshop facilitator). Bottom row: Lydia Kasese (Tanzania), Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) and Lidudumalingani (South Africa)

Participants for the 2017 Caine Prize Workshop in Bagamoyo, Tanzania. Top row: Daniel Rafiki (Rwanda), Darla Rudakubana (Rwanda), Lesley Nneka Arimah (Nigeria), Cheryl Ntumy (Botswana/Ghana), Agazit Abate (Ethiopia), Esther Karin Mngodo (Tanzania), Tendai Huchu (Zimbabwe), Zaka Riwa (Tanzania), Elise Dillsworth (workshop facilitator) and Mohammed Naseehu Ali (workshop facilitator). Bottom row: Lydia Kasese (Tanzania), Abdul Adan (Somalia/Kenya) and Lidudumalingani (South Africa)

The 2017 Caine Prize Workshop was the first time that I was stationed in one place for 10 days with no other agenda but to write and workshop others’ work. It was a great opportunity for me to taste the possibility of being a full-time fiction writer. Everything was cared for, all I had to do was write.

Every evening, we worked on each other’s stories before sitting at the table for dinner. We got to know each other a little more every day, the 11 stories we produced became ‘our’ stories. And we bonded in such an amazing way as brothers and sisters in African literature. I think what stood out for me was how different we were – in culture and background – and yet we had one thing in common, we were all young writers from Africa. And all our stories were different. Some futuristic, other went back to the past. Some were fantasy, while others philosophical. It is a rich anthology that portrays how writers of African descent are free in their thinking. And perhaps other writers, and readers can be freed in their thinking as well.

I hope that there are more of our stories in bookshelves like that of the school we went to in Bagamoyo. I hope that our stories inspire people to read, to write, to live. I hope that this anthology would be something worth reading, worth keeping, worth sharing. It broke my heart to see how even if the children wanted, they couldn’t access the kind of stories they needed to read. How can they know the potential that lies in them as storytellers if they do not read stories that they can relate to? I hope that we keep telling our stories until children are no longer bothered by the question: Could Harry Potter be Musa Juma, an African boy from Bagamoyo?

Caine Prize 2015 Writers Workshop by Nkiacha Atemnkeng

Nkiacha Atemnkeng is a young Cameroonian writer based in Douala who was one of twelve selected participants of the 2015 Caine Prize Writers Workshop.  In a recent blogpost, Nkiacha shared his experience of the workshop held in Elmina, a picturesque coastal town in Ghana from April 6th to 19th.

Arriving in Accra

 An immigration officer looked at me and said, “You’re a nice guy!” I was taken aback. Immigration officers in my country don’t lavish such beautiful compliments on anyone. They are either non-committal to you or they scold you. So I asked him,

“Why do you say that?”

“There are some people that when you see them, you begin to shiver. But you! I don’t think so. Where are you from?”

“Cameroon,” I answered.

“It doesn’t matter where you are from, you’re a nice guy.” I felt flattered. Being airport staff myself, I knew he said that from his profiling of me, with respect to fake documents or illegalities.

The second officer who stamped my Visa pronounced my town of birth with a certain familiarity that something told me that he knew the place, “Nkiacha, born in Kumba!” I halted, trying not to think of the exaggerated infamous stories of my birth place. But as he returned my passport, he added,“I attended CPC Bali.” “Oh! Really! Good to know.”

(CPC Bali is one of the first Secondary schools in Anglophone Cameroon.) We spoke French briefly after that. The “nice guy” one warmed up to my chat so much he even gave me his phone number.

I left for the arrival hall. A gentleman gave me a cart, placed my bags on it and told me, “Welcome to Ghana”. It was another commendable act of gallantry. So off I went thinking about first impressions. “Ghanaians are generally hospitable, friendly people, birthplace of pan-Africanism really.” Then a voice boomed,

“This way sir, Customs.” (Damn it.) “Okay.”

“Anything to declare? Currency? Goods?” the man asked, his eyes on my bags.

“Nothing. Only clothing.”

“So where are you from?” he asked, spotting my foreign accent.


He sighed.  “You people came here in 2008 and eliminated Ghana in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations,” he snapped and flung his hand away dismissively. The unexpected reproach made me laugh, as I remembered the 1-0 defeat. An eight year grudge! Does he know our team has suddenly become the dead lions?

“I’m sorry about that.”   

Okay, first impressions. “Hospitable, gentle Ghanaians, customs officer exclusive.”

Accra looked like the better behaved twin of my city, Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. The commercial hustle and bustle was palpable. There were throngs of people in every street corner and avenue. I saw a multitude of impressive buildings and neat wide roads, garnished by lots of traffic lights and a glut of cars and taxis plying them. The names of the businesses were entertainment; Downhill Virgins, Shalom fast food, Glee Oil etc. We drove past the state house and I was puzzled that it is along the road. Ours is a swanky mansion safely tucked away from public view in Yaoundé. The Accra presidency looks more statehouse like, with its pentagon like, slightly circular frame and greyish compartments and floors, surrounded by high flying Ghanaian flags. Accra is also a city with better architectural symmetry than Douala. Traffic lights at almost every junction guide movement, especially during hold ups.

Driving to Elmina

After lunch, we all hopped onto two buses and began our long drive to Elmina, the coastal town in the Central region where we were based. Brainy conversations trickled on all subjects in our bus and I was impressed by the intellect of young Efemia Chela who sat next to me, telling me about Ghanaian life.

“Oh look,” she quickly pointed at a boy selling West African garden snails in a bowl and I gasped at their gigantic size as we drove past. I was asked about writing in English and not French, since I am from a “Francophone country”. I explained that I write in English which I am more versed in and some French which I studied in school. But I am Anglophone Cameroonian, though living and working in a Francophone city. Little correction, Cameroon is a bilingual country, though predominantly Francophone.

Our conversation sort of paused when we drove past a car accident scene. Pede Hollist finally broke the silence a few minutes later,

“I noticed we were all quiet. So what inference can we draw from that?”

“It was heart breaking. But it seemed nobody died, only injuries. I saw a lady with some blood on her body,” someone answered. That was the only sad moment in our bus trip. Nature consoled us with scenic views of lagoons, fresh foliage and beautiful villages like Winneba and Anomabo, where we saw a clown who had disguised like a woman at a small beach party. We drove along the coastline, where hundreds of wild coconut trees lined the seashore and its waters breathed fresh breeze on us. The bluish green sea was quite a sight, as its gruff water currents splashed noisily against the shores, leaving behind a meshwork of brown seaweeds. After three and a half hours, we finally arrived at the eye catching, Coconut Grove Beach Resort Elmina, a plush seaside hotel built in a grove of wild coconut trees. It has entertained guests such as Kofi Annan, Serena Williams and Bono.  After checking into our rooms, we later had dinner and chatted at length, to know ourselves better.

The Workshop

There was a lot of entertainment the next day; delicious food and wine, swimming in the beautiful ocean, table tennis, crocodile viewing in the pond and horse riding. I rode a horse for my first time and saw my first donkey too. We all assembled in the conference hall at 5pm and our facilitator, wonderful Sudanese novelist and first winner of the Caine Prize, Leila Aboulela, gave us a guided imagery writing exercise to do, to send us into writing gear. We wrote and read the short pieces. From the readings and discussion of the short stories we intended writing, it was already evident how different and unique we all were. Our second facilitator, South African novelist, Zukiswa Wanner joined us two days later and she was another amazing and funny writer to complete the very panafrican group of fictioneers.

So it was on. We wrote and wrote and then wrote some more. Each evening, there were readings of work in progress by three writers. The facilitators gave feedback, suggestions and positive criticisms to make the stories better. The other writers did too. Each reader had the option to either accept, modify or reject the suggestions. I worked on one short story and stuck with it all along. I judged most of the feedback to my story helpful. Apart from the facilitators, I also profited from the knowledge of writers/teachers like Diane Awerbuck and Pede Hollist. The workshop was also an opportunity for me to network with other writers and understand their different creative processes. By the time our stories were concluded, it was no surprise that the range was so wide; from realist fiction to science fiction, tragedy to comedy, stories set in the earth’s water bodies to high up in the air, aboard a plane, to be published along with the 5 shortlisted stories this year in the Caine anthology in July by New Internationalist.

We also visited some secondary schools in groups, to talk about writing and reading and to encourage the students to do so. I visited the Catholic Girls Junior Secondary School, Elmina with Zukiswa, Dotse and Akwaeke. I read to the students from my children’s short story illustrations book, “The Golden Baobab Tree” and they enjoyed it. The girls showed so much interest in the book, relishing the cartoon illustrations and passing it on, so I gifted my copy to the school. We asked if they had written any short stories that they could share with us. They were initially shy but soon warmed up to Zukiswa’s arresting presence and produced three stories, read by three different authors. We were impressed by their writing skills. Akwaeke never forgot a beautiful line from one of the girls’ stories about a promiscuous female character, “She was a rolling stone in the hands of men.” Wow! But there was a scene where a character received a “wonderful slap” and I gasped. 

Before we left, we informed the headmaster about some children’s short story competitions and urged the girls to submit their stories online.

As I embarked the bus to the airport, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction, after participating in one of the prestigious creative writing workshops in Africa, in that hospitable land of Kwame Nkrumah, where many people and even the signposts tell you “Akwaaba” (welcome) and the people are always ready to make you their “Charle” (friend).

Read Nkiacha’s full post on his blog here.
Find out more about the Caine Prize workshops

Surgical Anatomy - the bare bones of storytelling by Stanley Kenani

Caine Prize One Day Short Story Surgery in Port Harcourt

A day before the start of the Port Harcourt Book Festival14 writers came to the Niger Delta from all parts of Nigeria. Fifteen writers were selected from a list of 46 eligible applicants. One, however, could not make it at the last minute. So, these participants gathered in one of the conference rooms of the Presidential Hotel for a day-long short story surgery.

The team of facilitators comprised three people: the lead facilitator was Caine Prize Deputy Chair, Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and the two co-facilitators were Abubakar Adam Ibrahim (shortlisted in 2013); and Stanley Onjezani Kenani (shortlisted in 2008 and 2012).

What, you may ask, is a short story surgery?

In its typical sense, a short story surgery is a step-by-step strategy that allows students to cut open their drafts and mess with the guts, adding or removing chunks to a piece. It is a tool that appeals to kinesthetic learners – and to everyone who thought writing was boring.

But that is not what we did in Port Harcourt. The surgery was of a different kind.

From the start we were worried about the methodology, about what to put in and what to leave out. The task was not made any easier by the fact that participants were of varying degrees of aptitude. There was a temptation to throw in everything: opening, voice, setting, point-of-view, character, dialogue, details, ending and many other aspects of the craft. But people spend years studying all these. A day was therefore far from enough. Besides, those with more polished skills could get bored if we dwelt on the basics.

After some email exchanges and a Skype conference call, the co-facilitators agreed on the way forward. We started by workshopping Olufemi Terry’s "Stickfighting Days", which was awarded the 2010 Caine Prize. We divided ourselves into three groups, and each group analysed the story based on a key element of the craft: setting, language and character. 

Perhaps no story could have been more suitable for the occasion. "Stickfighting Days" drew mixed feelings from the participants. There were those who liked how the story handled each aspect of the craft examined. Overall, students liked the cinematic feel of the story, and the fact that from its opening, “Thwack thwack”, we dive straight into action. But there were also those who questioned everything...

Character: Why are all the characters alarmingly violent? A participant went so far as declaring: there is nothing I like about this story – so violent!

Setting: Why doesn’t the author name the country in which the story takes place? “That could have made me understand the story better,” said a participant. I was in the camp of those to whom the naming of the place did not matter. “This makes the story universal,” said a participant who shared similar views. “The setting could be Nairobi, Mumbai, Lagos, Cape Town – anywhere. They have rubbish dumps in all those places and more.”

Language: Why are characters using language such as ‘psychologically,’ yet they do not seem to have had the benefit of formal education? And what was the original language of the characters? English? Yoruba? Zulu? Against which others argued: does that matter?

The second part of the surgery involved discussing the stories of the participants themselves. Everyone had read these stories ahead of the surgery, and co-facilitators had made notes on each. Again participants were divided into three groups, and, with the author in a gag, each story was discussed in turn. Here, participants became surgeons: they tore into the stories as diplomatically as possible, providing vital constructive criticism in the process. Co-facilitators ended the day by providing one-on-one feedback to the participants.

According to the Director of the Caine Prize, Dr Lizzy Attree, the Port Harcourt One Day Short Story Surgery is a one-off event, for now, and was devised with the Port Harcourt Book Festival as part of the celebration of their 2014 UNESCO World Book Capital status.

Caine Prize Reflections by Bella Matambanadzo

Bella Matambanadzo

Bella Matambanadzo

No writer worth her salt would turn her nose up at the opportunity to take part in the Caine Prize for African Writers'Workshop. Being included in a group of 12 published and promising writers from 6 African countries whose short stories are produced into an anthology that sees 8 publishing houses work together is not the sort of gift an author receives everyday. I am looking forward to seeing the final collection stitched together. Its themes of place and belonging, of legacies and futures are inspired as much by our everyday experiences on the continent we call home, as they are by the places elsewhere that we visit, either in the flesh or through the magical realm of our imaginations. 

We will be published by local book houses in Zimbabwe,ZambiaUganda, Ghana, South AfricaKenya and Nigeria. Off the continent, we have publishing deals secured in the United States and in the United Kingdom. Our work may additionally be translated into French, the first time the Caine Prize is doing so for its annual anthology. I hope this is the beginning of an expansion in the languages formally associated with the Caine Prize. Perhaps in future collections will be published in Kiswahili, Fulani, Wolof, isiXhosa, Hausa and Africa's many other languages, that given the global nature of where Africans live in today's world, and where our works are read, would mean an expansion of readings and writings in our very own tongues. 

As a creative artist and thinker the precious gift of time to focus on the craft of writing and re-writing is something that I will cherish for many, many years to come. Time with other writers who serve as a loving group of peers, giving feedback and reactions to work that goes from draft to final version in less than ten days. The writing escape is organised in a formula that permits you to write what you want and share it firstly with other writers through daily reading sessions. Artistic independence is a hallmark of the workshop. You can either accept, or reject the feedback given you. Experienced editor/mentors offer one-on-one sessions where they see your words and suggest what works, what is incomprehensible, and where improvements can happen. Nothing is off limits. We were guided, urged in fact, to stretch our creative imaginations and push down traditional literary boundaries, break up and recreate language and show no respect whatsoever for prepositions.

I came back with 6 complete stories. The one that will go into the Caine Prize collection, and the 5 others that I am presently submitting to other publishers who have asked for stories. In terms of output that means I wrote a story every two days. The other writers were even more productive, knocking out stories and ideas more adeptly. We met as strangers, and we left with a sense of camaraderie that means although there will eventually only be one winner for the £10,000 prize announced at a ceremony this July because we shared so much as writers, listened to each other's ideas an stories, edited for each other, had great laughter together the collection honours us all. In the end we will all be winners because we worked as a team and everyone brought the best of themselves to our writer's retreat held in the perfect peace of Leopard Rock Hotel in the Vumba, Zimbabwe.

The visits to schools in the surrounding community brought us face to face with young writers, almost 800 of them spread across four different schools. Schools that have produced many of Zimbabwe's most profound literary achievers. At Hartzell, we could taste and feel the atmosphere evoked and immortalized in Tsitsi Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions. At St Werburgh'smission school we read what the students in the young writers club were crafting in their journals: poems, short stories and songs that they plan to publish in a newsletter.    

Back in Harare at the City Library we saw traditional literature coming into contact with tech experimentation. Zimbabwe's geek generation, and yes, it really exists far away from Silicon Valley, is building apps for books to stream via mobile phone. My aspiration now is for writing opportunities, and publishing prospects to expand in Africa, rather than diminish. I have found a thirst for books so rare here that it reminds me that literature is by no means dead. It's gaining a new morphology.

harare city library caine prize

A shorter version of this article was published in Harare News. 

A visit to St Werburgh school in the Bvumba by Bryony Rheam

The Bvumba is a special place for me: as a child, my family spent many holidays there and I have lots of special memories of long walks through the jungly terrain, sitting next to a huge open fire in the evenings and watching the mist rise as the sun came up in the morning.  In 1981, we lived for a year in Penhalonga, not far from Mutare along the Mozambican border.  I remember going to school in a very old bus, chugging up Christmas Pass and then that wonderful sense of almost freewheeling it down the other side into Mutare where I went to school.  It was a time of great transition in Zimbabwe: black children were allowed into what had predominantly been white government schools, and many white people were leaving for places such as South Africa and Australia.  The war in Mozambique was still in full force and, for all that we were so near, we may as well have been on a different planet.  The only interaction we had with the country was through the itinerant border jumpers who came across to sell the food aid they had received from West Germany: tins of fish which they couldn’t open. 

Years later and here I was in the Bvumba once again, attending a Caine Prize workshop.  Towards the end of our time there, we were divided into groups of four and sent off to different schools to give a talk about our writing. St. Werburgh is situated on the Burma Valley Road, on the other side of the mountain that dominates Leopard Rock.  It is an Anglican school, started in 1897, but it receives no funding from the church.  Originally situated on white commercial land, from whom it received some financial help, the school is now on its own, relying on US$25 a term school fees from its 900+ pupils.   

The other groups of writers went to secondary schools to give talks whereas we were invited to speak to the primary school’s Young Writer’s Club, a group of 8-12 year olds.  That the school had such a group was of great interest to me as an English teacher.  From my own experience, such clubs are attended by few and usually run out of enthusiasm quite quickly.  However, the 40 or so children who all trouped into the classroom to meet us proved that this was a writing club with a difference.  Luckily, it is headed by teachers who are keen to teach and share their ideas with the children in their care. 

We were shown their writing books in which they had recorded details about their families- many of them are being brought up entirely by their mothers – and about trips away to a nearby waterfall and the museum in Mutare.  They had also written an imaginative story; one about a rat who ate the back of a man’s coat sticks in my mind.  The man wore the coat, not knowing that the back was missing and everyone laughed at him as he walked down the road!  

What really struck me as I read the children’s work was how good their English was.  I work at a private school in Zambia where school fees are between US$3000-5000 a term (depending on if they are primary/secondary and boarding/day-scholars) and yet the standard of English is incredibly poor.  The pupils I teach are not all first language English speakers, but they all speak English at school.  At the age of fifteen, they struggle to hand in an essay which is more than one side of an A4 page long and which has a clear beginning, middle and end.  Yet these children in a remote government school in Zimbabwe have already got to grips with the basic structure of a story.   

Another thing which impressed me was the ease with which the children could stand up and recite poems to the audience.  Not many students I teach could do that from memory or they would mumble and look self-conscious and try to slink off without being noticed.   

It is a generally accepted fact that if anyone wants to be a good writer, they have to be a good reader. I give talks to parents about the importance of reading to their children because more and more children are writing within a vacuum.  They have nothing to stimulate their imaginations because no one is reading to them, including teachers, who often don’t value reading as it’s not ‘part of the syllabus’.  At St. Werburgh the problem is a different one.  They don’t have any books to read to the children.  Unfortunately, the suggestion to download free books off the internet, was not a particularly practical one in an area with no cell phone signal, never mind internet access. 

The children sang for us and we were also taken on a tour of the school before being offered mealies to eat.  On the tour, we saw the IT department and the special needs class.  There is also a class for children with autism and downs syndrome.  One of the girls is brain damaged after being hit by a car.  What I saw in the classrooms is some very progressive teaching practice.  There is a rota on the wall for cleaning the classroom; the children are taught skills such as knitting and the teacher plays music through her cell phone to provide stimulation.  She says that ideally they would like a CD player and I can feel that hint in her voice that hopes I might be the provider of such a machine.

I was impressed by the amount of pictures on the wall, some standard Ministry of Education posters about cholera and the importance of washing hands, but also handmade ones, some out of old corn flakes packets – vowel sounds and times tables.  It occured to me that the reason these children’s English is of such a good standard is because the basic teaching practice in Zimbabwean government schools still focuses on spelling rules and multiplication tables.  This is something that has been forgotten in many private schools and only recently has its significance re-emerged in the UK. 

Abdul Adan with children from St Werburgh school

Abdul Adan with children from St Werburgh school

Abdul Adan made a name for himself by learning part of a Shona song and also teaching a large group of school children who had gathered round him a Swahili song.  The area the school is situated in is a truly beautiful one and I couldn’t help envying the children for living in such an area.  However, it is also a place of incredible hardship.  Most of the parents who send their children to this school are subsistence farmers.  As they all tend to grow the same crop, maize, the price of a bucket of mealies is dirt cheap.  US$25 a term in school fees may not sound like a lot of money, but it certainly is for these people.  Some of the children faint during the school day as they have had nothing to eat all morning and the school cannot possibly feed them.

It is hard sometimes, considering the history of Zimbabwe in the last fifteen years, to understand why education is still so valued in the country.  Many of the children wrote how they wanted to be pilots or lawyers because ‘that’s how you make lots of money’.  Yet the country wide pass rate for ZIMSEC O level is 16%.  Even if these pupils do go on and get their A Levels, what then?  According to one of the teachers, the best thing to do would be to teach the pupils a skill so that they can actually do something practical, besides farming, when they leave.

Some of the children live as far as ten kilometres away, up the mountain and must not delay in their start to the long walk home.  They walk in groups as there is a danger that, especially girls, may be attacked and raped if they are on their own.  In the past, some children have disappeared, probably taken for body parts, although this hasn’t happened for a while.   

We leave after an exchange of email addresses and phone numbers.  Can I get any of the teachers a job in Zambia?  An average teacher in Zimbabwe earns just short of US$500 a month, regardless of experience and qualifications.  A government school teacher in Zambia can earn around US$1000 a month and they are often given car and housing loans. 

As we drive away, I marvel at the resilience of these teachers, people who obviously pour so much of their time and effort into teaching these children and who receive very little monetary recompense for it.  The landscape is incredibly beautiful as the car bumps and bounces down the road.  I think again of our family holidays, how there was always this feeling of security, of knowing what was going to happen.  Today I feel that we spend too much time ticking off places we have gone to.  

Holidays must always be somewhere different, somewhere exotic.  Yet there is something endearingly comforting about having a favourite place.   

It is a long time since we spent those holidays in the Bvumba and much has happened in both my family life and the life of Zimbabwe, and for me the country of my birth is a paradoxical mixture of love and incredible sadness.  I wish in many ways that the workshop had been held elsewhere, in a place with no emotional investment for me.  I think of my story that I have written over the course of the workshop.  It is sad, but it is also about letting go.  I suppose that’s what I want to do really, let go.  But in my heart of hearts, I can’t.  It’s under my skin, you see, and that’s why it’s me who can never really leave it. 

Don't you know, little fool, you never can win?
Why not use your mentality - step up, wake up to reality?
But each time I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop just before I begin
'Cause I've got you under my skin.
Yes, I've got you under my skin.

Workshop writers visit Hartzell School, Mutare by Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende

Learners at Hartzell School

Learners at Hartzell School

Friday March 28, 2014, Chinelo Okparanta, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim and I visited Hartzell School in old Mutare, just outside Mutare City. The school is named after Bishop Hartzell of the United Methodist Church who was the founder of the first Methodist Missionary Church in 1899 on land given to him by Cecil John Rhodes. The school was built in 1901 as a boys’ school and in 1903 a girls’ school was built. These two schools were integrated in 1924 and the students were trained as teachers and pastors so that they could spread the mission as educators and create new church communities.

Chinelo Okparanta and Abubakar Ibrahim at Hartzell School

Chinelo Okparanta and Abubakar Ibrahim at Hartzell School

We met with about 200 students from form 3, 4 and A-level students along with their instructors in the language and literature departments. The three of us read from our work and we discussed the importance of creative writing and the power of storytelling. 

The students asked us questions about finding their passion, how to nurture it and to stay motivated in an environment where writing is not considered a real profession. This question brought about the discussion of Zimbabwe’s perception of writers and artists and the negative stereotypes of writers as dreadlocked drunks and junkies. Dambuzdo Marechera was the primary example of what many people gave when discussing writers and we were able to show the students that there were many other writers who did not look like or behave like Dambudzo Marechera.

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende reading

Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende reading

Overall the visit was enriching for us and it is my hope that the talent, energy and dreams of these young people will find expression so that the story of Africa can be told in the voices of those whose very existence is inextricably tied to this continent. The rich stories of Africa require bold and courageous voices that are deeply empathetic to the issues that have shaped this continent and its people. It also requires voices that are committed to the delicate task of placing Africa and her stories within the global context.

Abubakar Ibrahim (left), Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende (centre), Chinelo Okparanta (right)

Abubakar Ibrahim (left), Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende (centre), Chinelo Okparanta (right)