Review Caine 2021: Acts of Humanity and Metaphors of Freedom – Doreen Baingana’s ‘Lucky’

AiW Note: It’s that time of the year again and AiW’s annual review series of what is now the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing shortlist is back!

Every day this week, we will be publishing Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn, as they appear on the AKO Caine Prize website.

We hope you enjoy working your way through these reviews and the shortlisted stories in the lead up to the AKO Caine Prize specially curated virtual event at the end of the month, announcing the winner.

First up in our reviews is Doreen Baingana’s “Lucky”, published in Ibua Journal, online in Kampala, Uganda, in January 2021 (hot off the virtual press!).

NB: Karen’s review contains spoilers!! If you haven’t already, please read the full text of Baingana’s story, available on the AKO Caine Prize website, here.

Doreen Baingana is a Ugandan writer. Her short story collection, Tropical Fish, won the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Commonwealth Prize for Best First Book, Africa Region. Two stories in it were nominated for the Caine Prize in 2004 and in 2005. She has also published two children’s books as well as stories and essays in numerous international journals. Doreen also co-founded the Mawazo Africa Writing Institute, based in Entebbe, Uganda. Find her on Twitter @dbaing01

AiW Guest: Karen Lauterbach.

“Lucky” centers on a group of eleven school boys and their “mouthy maths teacher”, Mr Komaketch, aka Koma, who are trapped inside their school closed by civil war in Uganda. While all of the other students and teachers were lucky enough to leave the school, this group has been left behind.

The boys are hungry and spend their time searching for unripe maize in the school surroundings. While searching for food, the narrator, one of the young boys, reflects upon being stuck: stuck in hunger, while others are in exile in “England or somewhere”; stuck between government soldiers and the rebel forces of the Alice Lakwena movement, when others have travelled to family in the capital city; stuck because they have no phone numbers of relatives to call and can’t travel north where home is. It becomes apparent that being in the school/prison is also a temporal and existential stuckness, a stuckness in a “wide, flat, dry now” with no access to “the carefree past or a fantastic future”. 

As the story progresses, Koma keeps the boys busy with everyday routines. They get up early, clean the dorm, find food, and then return to sit in the classroom. Contrary to the boys’ own perception, Koma tells them that they are lucky to have all this free time to work hard and study.  

Then comes a shooting that makes “all the birds in the world scream and fling themselves into the sky”. The boys run to the dorm and hide under their beds. They are terrified, but the author also manages to portray a sense of relief in the arrival of the terror the group has been anticipating. Two of the boys sneak to the window and watch the rebels walking by, described as “A tremendous mass of blackness … [who] jog forward as one”, covered in oil, with light shining from their bodies.

After the rebels pass there is silence and Koma gets up and walks towards the open door. He is shot on the spot and dies. The soldiers find the boys and tell them that they are lucky not to have been shot as well. They are then tasked with burying their teacher. 

This is the first time I have read Doreen Baingana. What struck me as particularly powerful in Baingana’s narration in “Lucky” is the combination of the child’s perspective and the ambiguity with which the characters are portrayed. This is a story about the cruelty of civil war, but we are not left crying or sentimentalised. This is also a story about the complicated nature, overlaps and contradictions of figures of authority and providers of protection, but we are not given one-sided images of who is good or bad. Instead, we see the atrocities of the war through the observations of a young boy narrator, which at times reveal absurdities and ambiguities. This perspective reminds me of E. C. Osondu’s short story “Waiting” (and winner of the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing), in which a child in a refugee camp talks about dreams, luck and endless waiting in a way that reveals the ridiculousness of its humanitarian organisations and actors. 

With a similar narrating eye, the young boy in “Lucky” talks about his teacher as being an over-energetic and ignorant liar. Koma claims that the police protects them, for instance. But the narrator also explains that he enjoys being “smiled upon by him” and that he was comforted by the teacher’s presence when they were hiding. When Koma rises from his hiding place under the bed, the narrator sees him as a hero and wants to hold him. Now that Koma is fallen, the boy is determined to cover his dead body and protect it. Humanity lies in the realisation that “[h]e makes no sense most of the time, but that doesn’t mean flies should just sit on his face”. 

Another noteworthy and ambiguous figure in Baingana’s story comes through the boy’s memories of the old man and story-teller, Mzee Okiror. He has told stories of war, outside St Mark’s, after school and in the holidays — this war and many other wars, his entire being ingrained with war. Significantly, the narrator finds escape from the present moment in Mzee’s stories, he comes to know war, the weapons, and the shootings through these older stories. Although the boy’s mother looks down upon the old man, she sees him as a mad man and a victim, he is also interestingly a fixture, someone who cannot be chased away. He symbolizes a long history, the way in which war has become an integral part of society that can turn things upside down, such that former rebels become government soldiers and former soldiers take on the role of rebels.

“Lucky” is an intense and intriguing short story. Acts of humanity and metaphors of freedom run throughout. This is perhaps most evident in the bird motif that crops up repeatedly. Birds “rise and scream” when the shooting happens, for example. Later on they call and sing “so sweet and normal” and appear to question what it means to be lucky, just like the boy’s questions about the truths told by his teachers and stories told about war.

Despite the narrator’s queries and the ambiguities they bring to the two figures he portrays, he sees and approaches his teacher and the old man most strongly in all their humanity, as rounded and complex figures, the birds as reflections of another possibility and frame of reference, despite and above the war.

Karen Lauterbach is Associate Professor at the Centre of African Studies, University of Copenhagen. Karen’s primary fields of research are Christianity in Africa, religion, popular culture, and displacement. She has published on religious entrepreneurship, refugee pastors and churches in Uganda, as well as on perceptions of wealth in charismatic Christianity. Her publications include Christianity, Wealth, and Spiritual Power in Ghana (2016). She teaches courses on ‘Religion, culture and society’ and ‘Religion, popular culture and the media’ in which she integrates a variety of cultural material and texts. Follow Karen on Twitter @karenlauter

The full text of Baingana’s story, “Lucky”, can be found on the AKO Caine Prize website, here. You can also read all of the shortlisted stories there ahead of our reviews coming up this week.

This online event with Doreen Baingaina and fellow Ugandan AKO Caine Prize shortlisted writer Iryn Tushabe organised by Femrite is coming upnot to be missed:

And don’t miss out on the other reviews, chats and blog-alonga-readathons of the Caine Prize this year – a couple of them are at the Twitter links below – let us know if there are any we can share and your fave to win – we’d love to hear from you…

And just a reminder, especially if you’re a “from then to now” type of reader… this year’s AiW review set comes after a long engagement with the Caine Prize stories, and as part of our discussions about prize culture at Africa in Words: Kate Wallis’s post on our joining the Caine Prize “blogathon” back in 2013 kicked us off, reflecting this critical angle in the context of other forms of “prizing” African literature.

You can read previous years’ shortlist reviews, interviews with the writers, and other coverage of the Prize from AiW here as well as our discussions of the Anthologies.

Watch this space as every day this week, we will be publishing our AiW Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn – read the stories first at the AKO Caine Prize website – see if you agree with our reviewers.

  • ‘Lucky’ by Doreen Baingana (Uganda)
  • The Street Sweep’ by Meron Hadero (Ethiopia)
  • ‘The Giver of Nicknames’ by Rémy Ngamije (Namibia)
  • ‘This Little Light of Mine’ by Troy Onyango (Kenya)
  • ‘A Separation’ by Iryn Tushabe (Uganda)

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