Kenyan writer aims for stars after bagging Caine Prize

The Caine Prize for African Writing has come to Kenya thanks to Makena Onjerika’s short story Fanta Blackcurrant which is told from the point of view of a street urchin letting the reader in on the life of her friend Meri.

The most prominent feature of the story which was published in a 2017 edition of Wasafiri is that it reads like a long direct translation into English from Kiswahili or rather from the undefinable mashup of languages Kenyans speak everyday.

“If the Good Samaritans who came to give us foods and clothes on Sundays asked us what we wanted from God, some of us said going to school; some of us said enough money for living in a room in Mathare slums; and some of us, the ones who wanted to be seen we were born-again, said going to heaven,” reads the first paragraph in the story.

The long sentences in the story also helps to create the illusion that you are actually hearing and not reading. The voice of the narrator is so conversational that it bends language in the written word in a wonderful way.

She explains the style: “The character dictated the language I used here. I am particularly interested in the ways we break language to create new language in Kenya. Our Kenyaisms are an expression of our creativity, I think.”

The long sentences and awkward punctuation also reminds me of the breathlessness of a child eager to tell you something.

Though heartbreaking, the story is also wildly hilarious.

Because of its language, the story talks about Kenyaisms in a way that would not sound as delicious in what is considered standard English.

Onjerika joins other contemporary authors such as Elnathan John in his book Born on a Tuesday and Igoni Barrett in his short story My Smelling Mouth Problem in this trend of complicating written literature.

Other Kenyan writers who have won the Caine Prize include Okwiri Oduor (2014), Yvonne Owuor (2003) and Binyavanga Wainaina (2002).

Onjerika told the BBC that she would donate half of her Sh 1.3 million fortune to help rehabilitate street children.

Onjerika says winning Caine Prize “has brought me face to face with the reality that I have to write, I must write. I don’t have an option any more.”