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 third review of the week is of Rémy Ngamije’s ‘The Giver of Nicknames’ published in Lolwe, Kenya, 2020.
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.
Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian writer and photographer. He is the founder, chairperson, and artministrator of Doek, an independent arts organisation in Namibia supporting the literary arts. He is also the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Doek! Literary Magazine, Namibia’s first and only literary magazine. His debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One is forthcoming from Scout Press (S&S) in August, 2021. His work has appeared in The Johannesburg Review of Books, American Chordata, Lolwe, and many other publications. He is the Africa Regional Winner of the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize and was shortlisted for the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing in 2020. He was also longlisted for the 2020 and 2021 Afritondo Short Story Prizes. In 2019 he was shortlisted for Best Original Fiction by Stack Magazines. More of his writing can be read on his website: remythequill.com
AiW Guest Victor Zuze.
First published in Lolwe in 2020, ‘The Giver of Nicknames’ is set in a Catholic school in urban Namibia. Ngamije’s story is told from the first-person perspective of a school boy who is nicknamed ‘Onion Marks’ because of his remarkable agility in running (ie ‘Onion Marks, get set… Go!’). At his school:
‘…the fastest runners in each grade were awarded silver onion-shaped pins which sparkled on blazers, letting ordinary plebeians know they weren’t governed by the normal laws of the Pax Slowmana.’
Focusing on three of Onion Marks’ classmates who share the same given first name – Donovan – Ngamije has created a story whose rich sarcasm addresses injustice by unveiling social-economic and racial-identity problems in a multicultural institution. Onion Marks, the ‘giver of nicknames’, humorously humbles his schoolmates – rich, poor, white, black – with monikers only to find he is then forced into ‘the humbled seat’ himself.
The story employs a linear plot, narrated chronologically as it follows the protagonist’s experience with his victims as they join his class. Onion nicknames the first Donovan, Donovan Mitchell, ‘Donnie Blanco’. Even though he underperforms, Blanco is favored by the school’s administration since he comes from one of the wealthiest white families in Namibia. Dubbed as ‘model Namibian citizens’, the Mitchell billionaires have a say in almost every important national and international affair.
Unlike the likes of Onion, whose parents, ‘mostly middle-class folk who stressfully and strenuously financed [their] stints in private school’, Blanco is spoiled and, as a consequence, develops an air of superiority. This appears to plunge Blanco into the act of raping one of his classmates, Aliyanna. Onion witnesses and reports the abuse to the school’s authorities, who let Blanco walk scot-free because his family renders enormous financial aid to the school.
This becomes the prime reason for Onion’s hatred of Blanco and the Mitchell family. Whilst everybody else bows when money talks, Onion stands his ground, if obliquely, and Ngamije highlights the injustice: ‘kismet for chaos is for broke people’ because ‘the rich just send karma back to the kitchen if it comes out under or overcooked.’
Through the second Donovan, Donovan Manyika, Ngamije adroitly paints the triumph of hard work over privilege. Manyika is Zimbabwean, joining the school in ninth grade. This ‘smart and quiet…poverty scholarship kid’ whose fees are ‘financed by the Mitchell Education Foundation’ tops his class, education being his escape from the howling storms of poverty. Because of his success, Manyika becomes the pride of the less-fortunate; ‘given how hard he had it nobody envied his achievements.’ His only way to the top is through out-and-out hard work.
This is where Manyika’s likability shimmers. He is Blanco’s complete opposite. All jokes are on Blanco when Manyika’s intelligence shows the spoiled white boy up as ‘el imbécil supremo’; that is until he encroaches upon Onion’s precinct and reigns supreme there too.
Coming first, beating Blanco, had given Onion a lofty gait: ‘being Onion Marks made you top dog of the ludus.’ But he is stripped of his beloved moniker by the new kid who ‘runs barefoot’, ‘heels winking up and down’ ahead. He explains that he ‘didn’t fully understand what [he’d] snatched away from Blanco’ until it was taken away from him. Thus, although he respects and likes Manyika, he is nicknamed ‘Donnie Darko’, ‘to let him know gravity [is] a bitch and affects all men equally.’
In another showcase of Ngamije’s skilled narrative control, Onion’s narration shifts to second-person perspective with this realization; the loss of his title is also the name we, the readers, know him by: ‘…you aren’t Onion Marks anymore, the title that made you untouchable. You’re just a second-place shit-talker. Blanco smiles at you.’
The reader sympathizes. But this can only go so far and comes to a head with the third Donovan, Donovan Latrell. Latrell is an African-American who insists on being called ‘African-American’ instead of ‘black’ or ‘African’. Latrell’s insistence on being identified as African-American in Africa annoys Onion and his peers and, consequently, they torment him. Latrell is given the nickname ‘Fatty’ for his stout physique. In what marks the story’s climax, this piteous character commits suicide, leaving the boys wondering about ‘group-recrimination’. It is through Latrell that the author most pointedly criticizes ‘casual hazing’ in Africa and addresses the ongoing debate over (black) identity and race issues.
Through the ways that naming and words work with the incidents of Aliyanna’s rape and, perhaps more conspicuously, Latrell’s death, and the births of collective guilt in the school’s students, Ngamije calls upon us all, rich, poor, white and black, to call out bias, inequality and abuse, to practice fairness and to unify.
Victor Zuze is a writer, mostly writing poetry, from Blantyre, Malawi. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a Bachelor’s Degree in Education (Languages) and currently works as a Secondary School Teacher of Languages under the Malawi Teaching Service Commission. He shares his work on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @TyphusBars.
Every day this week, we are 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 look out for 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.