African Violet and other stories
'amaBooks, 228 pp., 2012, 978-
Africa’s leading literary prize, the Caine Prize for African Writing, was won this year by Rotimi Babatunde from Nigeria, for his short story ‘Bombay’s Republic’. Besides receiving GBP10, 000, Babatunde will take up a month’s residence at Georgetown University Washington DC, as writer-in-residence. In September he will appear at the Open Book Festival in Cape Town, followed in November by a series of events at the Museum of African Art in New York.
Babatunde’s unusual tale appears in African Violet, a volume of short stories published by ‘amabooks of Bulawayo. The four other authors shortlisted with the Nigerian for the award, are Malawian Stanley Kenani, South African Constance Myburgh, Billy Kahora from Kenya and Zimbabwean Melissa Tandiwe Myambo. Stories from ten other African writers who attended a Caine Prize writers’ workshop in South Africa this year, are also included in the anthology.
There is a perception that literature emanating from Africa will always deal with corruption, political violence, rape, poverty and conflict. Most of the continent’s 54 countries have been through political upheaval and suffered varying degrees of drought and famine: but the engaging stories in African Violet offer an outlook on life in Africa that is witty, thoughtful and positive.
Colour Sergeant Bombay, the hero of the winning story, is thoroughly likeable as the ‘veteran… who went off to Hitler’s War as a man and came back a spotted leopard.’ Rotimi Babatunde’s humour and easy style lead us through the adventures of the soldier who battled with the leeches that scarred his body in the Burmese jungles, and Japanese forces that chopped up African cadavers in the belief that ‘black soldiers resurrect’. Returning home, the war hero declared the new Republic of Bombay, raising a flag of a spotted leopard over the old jailhouse. There he remained until ‘death finally unseated him from office’.
In Love on Trial by Malawian Stanley Kenani, law student Charles Chikwanje is discovered by the village gossip, Kachingwe, in flagrante delicto with another young man, in the village toilet. For a tot of kachasu, Kachingwe will provide salacious details of the encounter to curious villagers. The law takes its course, and although Chikwanje’s defence is dignified and articulate he is sentenced to 12 years with hard labour. The domino effect, when angry international donors cut aid, is felt by everyone, including Mr Kachingwe, who has lost the ability to solicit free drinks.
Ex-Arundel schoolgirl Melissa Myambo impresses with her writerly skills in La Salle du Depart, a tale of gender and family obligations set in Dakar. Having spent time in Senegal Myambo has absorbed the culture and atmosphere of this vibrant, largely Moslem country. Readers will look forward to an equally powerful story set in her native Zimbabwe.
The judge’s panel for this year’s Caine Prize, now in its 13th year, included Zimbabwean performance poet and cultural consultant, Chirikure Chirikure. Full of praise for the encouragement it affords African writers, he expressed the hope that the Caine Prize ‘would remain as bold and solid as the baobab tree.’
Previous Zimbabwean winners of this prize include Brian Chikwava (2004) and NoViolet Bulawayo (2011).
Reviewed by Diana Rodrigues