AiW Note: AiW’s annual review series of what is now the AKO Caine Prize is back. We’ve been talking about prize culture for a long time at Africa in Words; Kate Wallis’s post on our joining the Caine Prize “blogathon” back in 2013 reflects on this in the context of the many other forms of “prizing” African literature. Through July, we are reviewing the stories shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. Normally the winner is announced early in July with a series of events and celebrations; under this year’s exceptional circumstances, AKO Caine Prize is holding a virtual event to unveil the winner on 27 July! Enjoy working your way through these reviews and the shortlisted stories in the lead up to then.
You can read the first review in the series, Zahra Banday’s review of Irenosen Okojie’s ‘Grace Jones’, here, the second review in the series, Ellen Addis’s review of Rémy Ngamije’s ‘The Neighbourhood Watch,’ here, and the third review in our series, Joanna Woods’s review of Chikodili Emelumadu’s ‘What to do When Your Child Brings Home a Mami Wata,’ here. Didem Alkan wrote our fourth review, of Jowhor Ile’s ‘Fisherman’s Stew.’
This is our last review ahead of the 27 July announcement and keep you updated on the winner. Reviews Editor Wesley Macheso reviews “How to Marry an African President” by Erica Sugo Anyadike.
‘This, you will realise, is what power can do: help you dispose of rivals, guarantee wealth, expose a show of respect and loyalty. Decide that power is not too shabby.’ (Anyadike, p. 11)
Erica Sugo Anyadike’s ‘How to Marry an African President’, first published in Adda and shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, is a story whose subject matter strikingly resembles the personal and political life of Grace Mugabe, former first lady of the Republic of Zimbabwe. The central character in the story is a former secretary to an ageing African president who later abandons her husband, with whom she has borne a child, to marry the president, forty years her senior. The conspicuous similarity of the events in the story to Mugabe’s life does not end with the retelling of this marriage, but goes on to manifest itself in the mannerisms of the protagonist; her opulent lifestyle, the hold she has over the old president, and even the kind of business that she engages in – dairy farming.
For distant readers who are not familiar with the Zimbabwe events, the story is a witty account of how a woman from a humble background can wield power by seducing a man whose image in public is flawless and as solid as an iron statue. Through the relationship between the president and the first lady, Anyadike explores the folly of human weakness which is a trait shared by all of mankind, even political leaders who have elevated themselves to the status of gods above their people. On the other hand, those who are conversant with the events on which the short story is drawn may find the narrative too familiar due to its close affinity to its factual source.
Nevertheless, what mostly stands out is the story’s exploration of the postcolonial African political terrain, which has been marred by corruption, abuse of office, self-aggrandizement, and violence perpetrated by the ruling elite. The president in the story is a man who is alienated from the masses and lives way above the standards of the common man in his society. The ‘old colonial hotel with paint peeling like tears, as if it were mourning for its former glory’ (p. 3) to which the president takes his lover on their first date, symbolises the lingering colonial legacies symptomatic of most postcolonial African states. The president has been described as ‘more English than the English owner himself’ (p. 3), painting him as one of the fabricated elites ‘branded [with] the principles of Western culture on their foreheads’ whom Jean-Paul Sartre indicts in his preface to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. It is such distance from Africa manifested in the leader that leads to his sour relationship with those who challenge his alienating authority.
Anyadike impressively employs the second person narrative in the story where the ‘you’ adopted by the narrator engages the reader who can easily read their possible reality through the lens of fiction. The tone also becomes accusatory if not reflective on those the story may concern. As Kwame Dawes intones elsewhere, the ‘you’ in second person narration can also point to a conversation that the narrator has with their ‘useful id or alter ego’. By interrogating her former self, the first lady may be agonising on possibilities and opportunities she may have failed to utilise when she had power. The narrative ‘you’, in its multiple dimensions, also becomes a distant point of reflection that sets the first lady apart as a female figure in African politics, which is dominated by men. The reader is able to see the first lady as a figure apart and it becomes interesting to notice how she is resented by the men around her husband, mostly because she is a woman who has suddenly become too powerful. This, in part, leads to her exile from the country after her husband is deposed.
Apart from interrogating the place of women in African politics, ‘How to Marry an African President’ importantly exposes how most African leaders become violent to their political opponents in order to maintain authority. The opposition to the presidency in the story is portrayed in the images of the first lady’s multiple lovers, some of whom are mysteriously murdered. The president’s snatching of another man’s wife and forcing the ex-husband into exile may symbolise how some African political leaders have seized countries that belong to the people and regarded them as personal properties, in the process alienating the citizens who are the real owners of the land.
It is worth mentioning that, despite its subject matter, Anyadike does not make the story a pornography of political violence in that her choice of characters brings lighter moments to the narration. While she paints a plethora of quotidian challenges in contemporary African politics, her story offers some hope to the African political struggle by emphasizing that ‘it is only a matter of time’ before bad leadership is uprooted.
 From the Foreword to Mahtem Shiferraw’s poetry collection Fuchsia (University of Nebraska Press, 2016, page x).
Born to Tanzanian parents, Erica Sugo Anyadike has lived in Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Kenya. She began her career in the film industry as a screenwriter in South Africa and has worked in various capacities in the television sector, including as a commissioning editor and an executive producer. In 2019, her short story ‘How to Marry an African President’ was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and for the Queen Mary Wasafiri Writing Prize. It is shortlisted for the 2020 AKO Caine Prize for African Writing. She has been published in Kwani 6 and in the Writivism anthology. Erica is currently at work on her first novel, All the Real Girls.
Wesley Macheso is a Malawian writer currently reading for his PhD in literature at Stellenbosch University. He conducts research on queer representations in African literature, among other emerging issues in literatures from the region. He teaches literature at the University of Malawi to survive and he writes to live. His short story “This Land is Mine” is published in Water: new short story fiction from Africa (2016) by Short Story Day Africa. He won the 2014/ 2015 Peer Gynt Literary Award in Malawi for his children’s book Akuzike and the Gods.