The illusion of choice: a review of “Five Years Next Sunday” by Idza Luhumyo – AKO Caine Prize shortlist 2022 reviews

AiW Guest: Yamikani Mlangiza (Malawi)

AiW note: Today’s post is the fifth in our annual guest reviews of the 2022 AKO Caine Prize 5 shortlisted stories. We’ll also be publishing Q&As with the shortlisted authors and, as in our previous years of our coverage around the work of the AKO Caine prize, opening broader conversations about this year’s iteration of it, all to be featured in the run-up to the winner announcement on Monday 18th July (see below the review for more on this).

Today, Malawian writer, blogger and environmentalist Yamikani Mlangiza reads Idza Luhumyo’s “Five Years Next Sunday”.

Luhumyo’s story was published in the 2021 Short Story Day Africa prize anthology, Disruption: New Short Fiction from Africa (co-published with Catalyst Press), having won that year’s award. This makes “Five Years Next Sunday” the sixth Short Story Day Africa published story – an independent non-profit organisation which was established to develop and share the diversity of Africa’s voices through publishing and writing workshops – to be on the Caine Prize shortlist (including those by Okwiri Oduor, Diane Awerbuck and Efemia Chela in 2014; and Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor and Cherrie Kandie’s stories, both shortlisted in 2019).

NB: Our reviews may contain spoilers! Read the story in full, available via the shortlisted stories page on the AKO Caine Prize website, or direct here.

If I were tasked with summarizing Idzi Luhumyo’s “Five Years Next Sunday”, I would want  to begin by using only two words: choice and destiny. But, then, no; I change my mind because perhaps I would even want to aim at what Luhumyo does so eloquently, and play with those decisions and their grammar, make those words flow into another phrase, the illusion of choice.

“Five Years Next Sunday” is an award-winning short story, taking the 2020/21 Short Story Day Africa Prize. Profound in so many aspects – touching on fear and obsession, sexualities and desire, cycles, times, seers and ancestral callings, the natural and artificial, how appearance and realities impact the environment and extractive relationships in the postcolony – it explores in a subtle way how the choices we make matter. 

The story begins with Pili, the protagonist-narrator: 

“My locs are just shy of five years. They flow, like water. They are fluffy and black. […] And how they coil, and how heavy they are, weighing me down with the expectations of my quarter” (46).

With this rolling rhythm, the reader is introduced to Pili’s choice to take after her aunt and “become a caller […] growing the rain in my hair” (47). 

Throughout, Pili bears the consequences and responsibilities of that decision. With the country living into the fourth year of extreme drought, and her hair nearly “ripe” at five years’ growth, she is feared and guarded by her family: her brothers, who must escort her to the grocery shop when she is sent out to buy water, “flank her like bodyguards” (46), but they will never talk to her; her father does not smile on her; her mother will not let her call her ma. But this changes in a chance encounter with a mzungu, a white man, Seth, who witnesses her head scarf drop in the shop, and is instantly enthralled. 

With his attention comes a shower of gifts and a flow of money for the family, who in turn start being loving towards Pili:

“There is no need for rain,” they say. “No need for you to cut that hair.” They smile. Ma smiles longest, strokes my hair. “Our blessing,” she whispers (49). 

Pili’s calling – which she heard from her sangazimi who got it from her sangazimi – has sealed her destiny. She lives quietly in the constant knowledge that eventually her secret will be exposed – the men that will come with the torches, stripping her of all “colour”, putting her on to the fire, their anger and fear stronger than that of thirst and death. Cutting her locs, releasing the rain, to come down “like it never has before”, condemns her banishment to “the quarter of witches, where all women who have the rain are sent” (52). 

She must also contend with the knowledge that her entire worth to her family is limited to her hair, how much Seth is willing to pay for it, his and white male friends’ continual fetishising of it, even in their ignorance of its true power. When she thinks she might trick destiny for a desire she mistakes for connection – “two women from different parts of the world yearning for things that we are yet to name, to baptise” (55) – with Honey, a white woman so much in unrequited love with Seth that she feigns tenderness with Pili, she finds she cannot outrun her foreordained course. And the choices she seemed to have are betrayed into nothing but an illusion.

“So you are ready, ripe?”
“Will you do it?”
“My family says there is no need.”
“But it has not rained for years.”
“You owe it to your quarter.”
“Maybe. I’d have done it. But my family likes me now.”
“Have they never loved you?”
“Not quite. It’s the hair. They feared it.” (53-54)

In its deceptively simple depth of style and language, Luhumyo’s story is art, told with a poetic intensity. Rich yet light, full, and like rain (pun intended), it falls and effortlessly flows. This is a powerful short that in its “small” space compels a reader to ponder for answers to big questions, questions you were not even aware you were being asked: how can we see to it that the choices we make now make a difference, really matter?

Yamikani Mlangiza is a Malawian writer, blogger and environmentalist. She is an alumnus of various writing workshops, including Short Story Day Africa and the Inaugural Afro Young Adult literature workshops, with stories published on various online platforms, like The Johannesburg Review of Books and The Kalahari Review. She is one of the contributing authors of the “Water Birds on the Lakeshore”, an anthology of Afro Young Adult fiction published in 2019.

Images and text below c. of the AKO Caine Prize website…

Idza Luhumyo is a Kenyan writer. Her work has been published by Popula, Jalada Africa, The Writivism Anthology, Baphash Literary & Arts Quarterly, MaThoko’s Books, Gordon Square Review, Amsterdam’s ZAM Magazine, Short Story Day Africa, the New Internationalist, The Dark, and African Arguments. Her work has been shortlisted for the Short Story Day Africa Prize, the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship, and the Gerald Kraak Award. She is the inaugural winner of the Margaret Busby New Daughters of Africa Award (2020) and winner of the Short Story Day Africa Prize (2021).

Idza’s short story, ‘Five Years Next Sunday’, has been shortlisted for the 2022 AKO Caine Prize. Read ‘Five Years Next Sunday’ here.

Find “Five Years Next Sunday” in its first publication context as the winning story of the Short Story Day Africa Prize 2021 anthology, Disruption:

This genre-spanning anthology explores the many ways that we grow, adapt, and survive in the face of our ever-changing global realities. In these evocative, often prescient, stories, new and emerging writers from across Africa investigate many of the pressing issues of our time: climate change, pandemics, social upheaval, surveillance, and more.

Edited by Jason Mykl Snyman, Karina M. Szczurek, and Rachel Zadok

Head to Catalyst Press for more, to purchase the book, and for links to read excerpts, or see Short Story Day Africa‘s elegantly designed website and marvel, and to find out more about the work that they do.

Read our reviews of the SSDA Caine Prize shortlisted stories: from 2019Tochukwu Emmanuel Okafor’s “All Our Lives”, and “Sew My Mouth” by Cherrie Kandie – as well as a Caine Prize follow-up piece that year from AiW Editor, Kristen Stern; and each of our reviews of SSDA’s 2014 Caine Prize shortlisted stories – Okwiri Oduor’s “My Father’s Head”, the story that won the 2014 Caine Prize; “Phosphorescence” by Diane Awerbuck; and Efemia Chela’s “Chicken”.

Please follow this link to read more from our (even) longer AKO Caine Prize series, including our other 2022 shortlist reviews from our Guest Authors: Joseph Kwanya (Kenya); Megan Brune (South Africa); Nnaemeka Ezema (Nigeria); and Innocent Akilimale Ngulube (Malawi).

The 2022 AKO Caine Prize winner will be announced on July 18th. Head to the AKO Caine Prize website – – for more, and for details of the line-up of related events and author/publisher appearances.

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