Kiswahili is the most important language in the East African region having been born in the Indian Ocean coast and rapidly spreading inland. The language is spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the eastern part of the DRC and Mozambique.
Today a new prize for those who write the language was announced at the Ake Festival in Akeokuta, Nigeria. (Everything is being announced there it seems) The new prize is the The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and as you can tell from the name is sponsored by Kenya’s Mabati Rolling Mills and USA’s Cornell University.
The brains behind the new prize are Mukoma Wa Ngugi and Lizzy Attree. Mukoma while recognized for his own writing is a disciple of his father’s Ngugi Wa Thiong’o who is a huge proponent of African languages. He has followed in his dads footsteps battling the “metaphysical empire” and thus his being one of the people behind it makes perfect sense. Speaking at the announcement he said that the “prize recognizes that all languages are created equal and no one language should thrive at the expense of the other. But beyond that recognition, the Prize sets a historical precedent for African philanthropy by Africans and shows that African philanthropy can and should be at the center of African cultural production.”
Attree is the executive director of Caine Prize which has been at the forefront of identifying literature on the continent but in English. On this new prize she said, “While there exists international literary prizes for African writing such as the Caine Prize and the recently established, Etisalat Prize, there are no major international and Pan-African literary prizes awarded to works produced in an African language. The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature, makes an important contribution to the body of world literature, the establishment of this new literary prize sets a precedent for other literature in African languages to follow.”
So how does it work? The prize will be awarded to the best unpublished manuscript or book published within two years of the award year across the categories of fiction, poetry and memoir, and graphic novels. The prize money of 15,000 US dollars will be given to three writers and the winning entry will be published in Kiswahili by East African Educational Publishers (EAEP). The best poetry book will be translated and published by the Africa Poetry Book Fund.
The three hottest new writers in Swahili on the continent will be unveiled at an award ceremony at the Cornell University, Africana Studies Center. The writers will be in residence at Cornell University for one week after which they will then be in residence for an additional week at a partner institution (in the USA or in Africa). The second and third award ceremonies will be held in Kenya and Tanzania respectively.
Sounds great no? That’s because it is. So where are the funds for this whole venture coming from? Well as mentioned its Mabati Rolling Mills (think Manu Chandaria) and Cornell University.
Sarit Shah, a director of Mabati Rolling Mills, lent his support to the big prize “Supporting literature and literacy is crucial to the development of a thriving culture, and Mabati Rolling Mills is proud to provide financial support for the foundation of a new venture in African language publishing.”
On his part Laurie Damiani, the Director of International Initiatives at Cornell University’s Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs said the office “is pleased to co-sponsor this exciting new initiative. It is an honor to be part of an effort that promotes vibrant literary traditions and encourages meaningful interaction between the peoples of East Africa.”
Sing it with me Swahili speakers, “Kiswahiiiiiili kitukuzweeeeee, kwa ni lughaaaa ya taifaaaa.” Take that metaphysical empire.
P.S. The name for that prize is quite a mouthful. What shall we calling it? The Mabati? The MC award? The That-Swahili-award-whats-it-called-again? Give us your suggestions hey?