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 are 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.
Our second review of the week is of Meron Hadero’s “The Street Sweep”, published in ZYZZYVA magazine (USA), in 2018.
NB: Our reviews may contain spoilers! If you haven’t already, you can read the story in full, available on the AKO Caine Prize website, here.
Meron Hadero is an Ethiopian-American who was born in Addis Ababa and came to the U.S. via Germany as a young child. She is the winner of the 2020 Restless Books Prize for New Immigrant Writing. Her short stories have been shortlisted for the 2019 Caine Prize for African Writing and published in Zyzzyva, Ploughshares, Addis Ababa Noir, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, New England Review, Best American Short Stories, among others. Her writing has also been in The New York Times Book Review, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, and will appear in the forthcoming anthology Letter to a Stranger: Essays to the Ones Who Haunt Us.
AiW Guest Tiwonge Carol Katemecha
‘The Street Sweep’ focuses on one character, Getu, and everything that revolves around him on the day he is getting ready to go and attend his ‘good’ friend Jeff Johnson’s (Mr Jeff’s) farewell party at the Sheraton Hotel in Addis Ababa.
The depiction of the protagonist’s anxiety is meticulous:
“Getu stood in front of his mirror struggling to perfect a Windsor knot. He pulled the thick end of his tie through the loop, but the knot unraveled in his hands”.
When he looks at his clothes, which are stained with sweat and missing a hem or two, Getu is filled with urgency. But the reaction he receives from his mother informs the reader that something is amiss. Yes, Getu is ecstatic to see Mr Jeff off. He claims that Mr Jeff has been good to him and has promised him ‘something’ hence the invitation to the party. However, his mother is not supportive of the idea that he attends the party. For she groans and says, “Has he been good to you? What has Mr Jeff actually done for you?”
As the omniscient narrator continues to tell us the story, it is revealed that Mr Jeff, an NGO worker, befriends Getu in order to gain ideas, suggestions from the local masses and implement those ideas whenever his organization is able to. Getu takes this gesture very dearly and is deluded with the notion that Mr Jeff’s invitation to the party will open many doors for him. He even calls himself “Mr Jeff’s man on the street”.
When he finally arrives at the Sheraton, Getu is delayed at the gate and has to prove his worth to the guards. He finally manages to enter only when some of Mr Jeff’s colleagues, whom he recognizes, show up. When he finally makes it through the doors and into the party, he is introduced to many NGO workers who offer him business cards.
Getu meets Mr Jeff and as they talk he realizes that there is no job or big opportunity in store for him. Mr Jeff’s talk was all talk. He escorts Mr Jeff to his taxi and bids him farewell.
Instead of going home, defeated and disappointed at the turn of events, Getu decides to return to the party but is met with new guards who demand an identity. This time, he does not flinch. He pulls out one business card from his pocket and introduces himself: “My name is Elias Isaacs with the WHO. I’m an interpreter here to meet a client”.
By the time the story ends, we see a different Getu, who is no longer disillusioned or blinded to words. This is a new Getu who has understood that in order to survive, you need to save and serve yourself. He is not anxious but calm. He has understood the game. Interestingly enough, as Getu transitions into this different personality, the story rushes towards the end in remarkable suspense, leaving the reader eager to know how Getu’s life will pan out thereafter.
Beyond the Ethiopian context, the story touches on the reality in many African countries. The use of an omniscient narrator propels this thought as the story is narrowed down to Getu – an ordinary young man with big dreams and ambitions who unfortunately does not have the means to live and thrive better.
At the moment, Africa is awash with many conditions and those that are usually ‘heard’ and ‘felt’, such as civil wars and famine, can be too broad for some to connect with. By narrowing down the conflict that exists between the West, NGOs and the locals to Getu’s condition, ‘The Street Sweep’ offers much insight into how trauma, horror and turmoil is enacted in the household, at a private and personal level.
Ethiopian-American author Meron Hadero uses ‘The Street Sweep’ to capture the notion of perseverance and survival in an easy and meticulous manner. She reminds us that seemingly mundane experiences encountered every day can deeply affect us. The burden that Getu goes through reflects some of the hardships that ordinary citizens undergo in order to stay afloat and survive, and this is set in stark contrast to those living in plush comfort with no real thought for those living a different life.
Tiwonge Carol Katemecha is a graduate student of English Literature at University of Malawi, Chancellor College. She tutors in the English Department there, and enjoys teaching and mentoring literature students. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in Education Language from the same university. Literature, art and music are some of her many passions, and she enjoys reading and studying transnational literature.
Watch this space – every day this week, we will be publishing our AiW Guest reviews of the five 2021 shortlisted stories in turn – read the stories in full at the AKO Caine Prize website:
- ‘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)
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.
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