AiW Guest: Beverly Akoyo Ochieng’
AiW’s annual Caine Prize review series is back. We’ve been talking about prize culture for a long time at Africa in Words; Kate Wallis started off this series in 2013. In the coming days we are featuring reviews of the stories shortlisted for the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing ahead of the announcement of the winner on 2 July. You can read previous years’ shortlist reviews and coverage of the Prize from AiW here as well as our coverage of the Anthologies. A series of events with the shortlisted writers are also planned in London (UK) this week.
Makena Onjerika’s ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ is a gritty portrayal of homelessness and street life in Nairobi. It centres on Meri whose story is told by a chorus of faceless and nameless narrators that are also her colleagues. They lead unremarkable lives begging for alms, robbing pedestrians, dodging city authorities, engaging in sex work. ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ evokes NoViolet Bulawayo’s ‘Hitting Budapest’, which won in 2011 and was the first chapter of the Man Booker Prize-shortlisted We Need New Names. There are some echoes in the narrative voice, the episodic structure and most of all the overarching theme of poverty and hardship.
Meri is the subject of envy for her ‘beautiful … brown mzungu face and a space in front of her teeth’ that enable her earn more than her colleagues do, therefore giving her a better chance at leaving street life behind. She seems to have a small breakthrough at the beginning of the story when she appears on television singing ‘Mary had a little lamb’. But this incident is quickly swallowed up and forgotten as the characters get caught up in daily survival.
Days followed days and years followed years. But no one came to save Meri. We finished being totos and blood started coming out between our legs … All of us were big mamas now. When we prayed people for money in the streets, they looked how we had big matiti hanging on our chests like ripe mangoes. We felt shame because they were seeing we were useless. In the end, all of us stopped praying people in the streets, even Meri. She followed us at night when we went to see the Watchman at the bank.
As their situation grows more desperate the narrative voice becomes increasingly raw and matter-of-fact. There is little room for attachments among members as evidenced in the detached tone of the narrators. Even Meri’s liking for Fanta blackcurrant appears to have no bearing.
Rather than wallow in their pitiable or humiliating circumstances, they find ways to adapt. When Meri is unable to continue with sex work because of her pregnancy, she uses it to draw sympathy from supermarket shoppers.
Looking how she was wearing a mother-dress with holes and no shoes, Good Samaritans felt mercy for her.
The narrators are awed by Meri’s inventiveness when she begins extorting office women by threatening to smear them with faeces if they fail to give her money. They even encourage her when she is beaten up for stepping into the turf of other street families.
We said, ‘Meri, stop fearing those women.’
We said, ‘Nairobi is not theirs.’
With each of these escapades, Onjerika’s story rings familiar for those of us from Nairobi: the parking boys of Jevanjee Gardens, the cat and mouse games between City Council officers and street families, the exhibitionism outside supermarkets and ATMs, the sinister nature of back streets and alleys. Although ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ spends a considerable amount of space capturing the setting, the story could do more to describe the inner lives of its characters, including Meri. It tends to be a passive observation rather than an internalised, first-hand experience. By the end of the story, nothing changes or grows, which may reflect the shame and indifference of city residents towards street families.
In addition to its strong sense of place, ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ is intensely grounded by its language. Kenyan references such as ‘matatu’, ‘mjengo’ or ‘mabati’ are not italicised or glossed, which allows the narrative to move easily as readers could easily infer from context. In fact, the story feels very ‘Kenyanised’ and mirrors closely with our own storytelling and descriptions, for instance how Onjerika writes ‘entered behind her’ in the passage below to mean ‘followed her’.
We heard Meri running and then she passed under the mabati fence surrounding our mjengo. All of us saw she was not carrying her nylon paper and then four men entered behind her.
‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ is compelling for its grit, humour and linguistic inventiveness. Its strong sense of place makes for an immersive and gratifying reading experience.
Makena Onjerika is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing programme at New York University, and has been published in Urban Confustions and Wasafiri. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and is currently working on a fantasy novel.
Beverly Akoyo Ochieng’ is a writer based in Nairobi. Her reviews have appeared in The Magunga and The New Inquiry. She co-hosts the literary podcast 2 Girls and a Pod, which is currently in its third season.