by Troy Onyango
The five entries shortlisted for the 2016 Writivism Short Story Prize (available on Munyori Literary journal) are stories we should all be eager to read since they explore an array of pertinent issues. Each of the stories boasts of a certain singularity and portrays the individual styles of the writers as they bring to us tales that leave us both in admiration and jealous of their talents.
Gloria Mwaniga’s “Boyi”, is a beautifully penned story that reminds us of the ravaging violence meted out on the people of the Mount Elgon region in Kenya by the militia group known as the Sabaot Land Defence Force (SALADEF). The story, narrated in first person by Boyi’s sister, follows Boyi’s family as it grapples with pain after their father, accused of betrayal when he lends the government surveyor a machete, hands over Boyi to the militia leader so as to save his family. And that is where the story begins. Grief engulfs the protagonist’s home and through this limbo and uncertainty as to whether Boyi is alive or not, we get to know more about his family.
The writer manages to paint a grim picture of the tragic situation and through her words, unwraps your emotions. Gloria’s prose is delightful and the metaphors that she employs in telling her story certainly make it even more alive.
“Did he think a child was a mat, which one folded and gave back to the owner after sitting on, or a dress which one could borrow from a neighbour?”
“Our very own boys, who ate oaths to protect our ancestral land have turned on us like the hungry chameleon that eats its intestines.”
Aito Joseph’s “The List” is a breath of fresh air and it shows the masterful skill the writer possesses. The humour in this story is unrivalled by any other in the shortlist. Joseph Aito presents us with the hilarious side of a marriage proposal impeded by the issue of identity and otherness. The bride’s uncle, who acts as the narrator, attempts to justify his outrageous actions earlier on in the story by claiming that he has nothing but good intentions for the bride. You can’t help but laugh and be dismayed when the list is being read out. Joe explores culture and traditions in a way that is intense and intriguing.
“How would they cope with our loud and ecstatic version of Christianity? When the young boys jam their hands non-stop in rhythm with the drum beats and then Mama Nkechi starts rolling on the floor, howling and screaming in the spirit, would they even understand?”
Perhaps the most bold and ambitious story on the shortlist is Acan Immaculate’s speculative fiction “SunDown”, set in a futuristic Uganda (2050) when the sun is on the verge of “dying and, with it, a civilisation that [they] painstakingly built over the course of a hundred and fifty thousand years.” The story follows Red Sun, a fifteen year old albino who has been left in the care of two Kenyans – Nyambura, an old woman and a watchman – after his parents are taken to another planet during the Mass Exodus. The migration has seen “the old, the cripples, the diseased and the people with the genes that had gone haywire…” abandoned. Acan’s story is gripping and the prose is delectable, leaving you yearning for more. And this is where I feel Writivism Short Story Prize should perhaps increase their word limit to enable such beauties to be written without inhibitions.
“From the heart, […] that’s where all our worlds come from. The lies come from the surface and the truths from the deep corners where the light does not reach.”
Abu Amirah’s “The Swahilification of Mutembei” is a story that mostly happens through flashbacks. It follows Mutembei, who upon a friend’s advice, left everything behind and moved to the Kenyan coast in the 90s to try his luck at selling Miraa. At present, he is playing draughts with his friend Nasoro, who recommends that he should get a Swahili wife after his white girlfriend left him. The story is engaging and demonstrates the writer’s ease with the pen and his mastery of the language. Reading this story feels like drifting through the afternoon wind and the plot holds you to the end. The writing is meticulous with sophisticated sentences and the story explores themes of radicalization, terrorism and the secession politics of the coastal region in Kenya.
“I didn’t know names had a tribal or pigment affiliation too. I thought that was only a reserve for our political selves!”
“Nyumba ndogo raha”
N/B: I found the three basic steps to becoming a Swahili, as revealed by Nasoro, really interesting.
The final story on the shortlist, Laure Gnagbe Bledou’s “I Didn’t Go Back” is one that I struggled with, I had to go back a few lines each time to get a hang of what I was reading. The story follows Stephanie, a young career woman grappling with the familial pressures to get married and settle down. This is an everyday tale, one every young woman in her mid-twenties would easily relate to, and I thank the writer for bringing it out. While going through it, the ubiquitous question of whether this story was written in French and translated to English as opposed to being originally composed in English kept occurring to me. I wish that if that was the case, it should have been mentioned so as to better prepare the reader that certain things may have been lost therein.
“If you have a friend who lives in Italy, you don’t present her saying that she lives in Europe right? And you don’t explain that you love her country because you’ve already been to Sweden and you love paella, right? So? Do you understand my exasperation?”
The stories presented by this year’s Writivism shortlist are as dynamic and entertaining as last year when Pemi Aguda shocked us with the man-eating religious sect, Adeola Opeyemi gripped us with the devastating horrors of war, Dayo Ntwari thrilled us with his Sci-Fi story of a rescue mission gone awry, Saaleha Bhamjee soothed us with dialogue-packed story of love and contradictions and Nnedinma Jane Kalu broke our hearts with her haunting tale of new fathers that left us teary-eyed.
The Writivism team has done a really good job in paring all the stories submitted to them and gifting us with these five brilliant short stories that bring to us new voices in the literary scape.
I promised myself I would not play favourites and I wish all the shortlistees good luck. May the best story win!