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 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing ahead of the announcement of the winner on 8 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 the UK over the next few weeks.
Our first review is by AiW Communications Editor Joanna Woods.
The Cameroonian-American writer, Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti once said: “Every day people would ask me where’s your name from… I would have to explain to them my heritage. It was a moment of education for me and I got to be an ambassador for the continent in many different ways.” Nkweti’s short story, ‘It Takes A Village Some Say’, seems to be woven around such sentiment. The writer illustrates the complexities of hyphenated experience in her short story, of the politics of naming, and of being an ambassador for resisting misperceptions of the African continent, offering different perspectives and sides of the story throughout.
Split into two parts: ‘Volume I: Our Girl’ and ‘Volume II: Their Girl’, ‘It Takes A Village Some Say’ is set in the aftermath of a human trafficking scandal. The story recounts a Cameroonian-American couple’s illegal adoption of a young girl from Cameroon, variously named “Our Girl”, “Their Girl”, “Winsome”, “Zora”: “Call her anything, anything you like.” Unable to have a child of their own, Mr. and Mrs. Saliki finally become a family when Mrs. Dukong/ Aunty Gladys brings the child to live with them in their American home.
At the beginning of ‘Volume I: Our Girl’, Mrs Saliki tells us not to believe everything we read in the tabloids, saying “We’re nothing like the others”. She then proceeds to tell us the story of the adoption, stating that “We did our best by Our Girl”. ‘Volume II: Their Girl’ starts similarly. From the trafficked girl’s point of view this time: “I give good read. Mais je suis rien commes des autres. Nothing like them. Those poor, poor telethon kids…” In both cases the reader is told that, although the Salikis and Zora argue that they are different, they are not the only ones affected by this human trafficking. The extent of the scandal becomes obvious towards the end of the story when ‘horrific tales’ are alluded to.
What becomes clear very quickly is that there are no winners in ‘It Takes A Village Some Say’. In spite of good intentions on the part of the Salikis, and bold attitude and a ‘mission accomplished’ on Zora’s part, the overall damage is unmistakable. The family in Cameroon lose a child; the family in America lose a child; the child loses her innocence; the trafficker loses her freedom.
Nkweti achieves novel proportions in this short story. The scope of the tale goes far beyond the plot, displaying the sensibilities of illegal adoption/forced migration, diasporic living, and nuances of village life in Cameroon. Starting from the title, the tone is skeptical. Manipulating the familiar saying: ‘It takes a village’, Nkweti focuses on the impact individuals and groups outside of the family home have on a child’s wellbeing. There is immediate hesitation around this with the addition of ‘some say’, however, and as a result the reader questions various actors intentions/ motives, and the ultimate influence of such involvement.
Nkweti offers refreshing prose that is clear and honest. I found particularly powerful the passage on language. In ‘Volume II’ the author unravels multilingualism, strongly criticizing assumptions about language use in Africa when she writes:
‘Does she speak proper English?’ asked Mrs. Dukong.
Do we speak proper English? Swine-beef! I wanted to tell that fatty bobolo, ‘Nous sommes bilingues.’ My family had lived in Douala for ten years now since maman had come to make market – so we spoke ‘proper’ English and ‘proper’ French and pidgin and Franglais. Not like Mrs. Dukong, with her pili-pili bush pronunciation grinding up ‘proper’ into ‘pro-paah’.
At this point in the narrative, the reader is invited (if not forced) to participate in shifting his/her own perception of cultures and language groups in Africa. Complementing such, Nkweti has said elsewhere: “We come from people who are accented,” using “Creole, Pidgin English, Cam Franglais… and a hodgepodge of the 250 indigenous languages that exist in Cameroon.” ‘It Takes A Village Some Say’ grapples with a topic long familiar to readers of African literatures: language. But it is hardly any less important today, particularly in the case of Cameroon, where recent political conflicts have highlighted differences between francophone and anglophone regions of the country.
In the end, Nkweti’s story asks the reader to think about a whole set of issues around whose story is told, and who gets to tell it. It will be interesting to see how ‘It Takes A Village Some Say’ fares in the 2019 Caine Prize, and I look forward to reading what Nkweti writes next.
Ngwah-Mbo Nana Nkweti is a Cameroonian-American writer and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from MacDowell, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross, Byrdcliffe, Kimbilio, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Clarion West, Hub City, the Wurlitzer Foundation, and the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts. Nana’s writing has been published in journals and magazines such as Brittle Paper, New Orleans Review, and The Baffler, amongst others. Her short story collection, Like Walking on Cowry Shells, focuses on the lives of hyphenated-Americans who share her multi-cultural heritage in the United States and Africa.
Joanna Woods is currently studying for her doctorate at Stockholm University. Her main research interest lies in contemporary African speculative fiction. She previously lectured at Chancellor College, Malawi and has a book published: A Negotiation of Ideas about Home in Malawian Poetry (2015). Joanna is AiW’s current Communications Editor.
For the reviews in AiW’s Caine Prize blog series this and previous years, follow the links in the Category here. Good luck to all the writers shortlisted!