This year the esteemed and leading literary award for African writers, the Caine Prize for African Writing, was awarded to Kenyan writer Makena Onjerika for her short story titled “Fanta Blackcurrant”, published in Wasafiri (2017). Held for the second time in Senate House, in partnership with SOAS and the Centre for African Studies, the Chair of the Caine Prize judging panel, award- winning Ethiopian-American novelist and writer, Dinaw Mengestu, announced Makena as the winner of the £10 000 prize.
According to the Caine Prize website, Dinaw Mengestu praised Onjerika’s story in his remarks, saying, “the winner of this year’s Caine Prize is as fierce as they come – a narrative forged but not defined by the streets of Nairobi, a story that stands as more than just witness.
“Makena Onjerika’s ‘Fanta Blackcurrant’ presides over a grammar and architecture of its own making, one that eschews any trace of sentimentality in favour of a narrative that is haunting in its humour, sorrow and intimacy”.
Onjerika’s story is set on the streets of Nairobi. It follows Meri, a street child who survives like her peers by begging from those passing by. Narrated in the first person plural, by one of Meri’s peers in the street, the story portrays the everyday struggles of an often neglected part of society
Meri is the focus of the plot, a child who when asked what she wants most in the world responds with an endless supply of Fanta Blackcurrant, while her peers dream of a proper home and a place in heaven.
The narrator reveals how Meri’s natural beauty and charm allow her to benefit more from well-wishers on the street much to the disdain of her peers. They all believe that at some point Meri will be rescued by a Good Samaritan, saved from life in the gutters.
This does not occur and with each passing year, Meri’s looks fade and she begins to resemble the rest of her cohort on the streets. Addicted to drugs and trapped in a life of prostitution, there is a wistful hopelessness among Meri and her sisters.
After falling pregnant and failing to abort the child, Meri is forced to find a new way of supporting herself and her soon to come baby. Her wit and heavy look win the pity of those passing by who give her a little extra. This, however, does not sit well with those whose corners she has taken and eventually she is shooed away.
Left for dead
Meri then devices a plan on how to make more money. Immediately her look changes, so too her diet, much to the surprise of her fellow street sisters. Her turn of fortune is not long lasting and eventually her antics catch up with her almost leaving her for dead.
This short story is but a window into the life of a people who many pay no mind. It is an important piece that calls on one to think beyond their immediate situation about the lives of those who are forced into deplorable situations
The author Makena Onjerika is a graduate of the MFA Creative Writing programme at New York University, and has been published in Urban Confustions and Wasifiri. She lives in Nairobi, Kenya, and is currently working on a fantasy novel.
Other stories shortlisted for the prize include “American Dream” by Nigerian writer Nonyelum Ekwempu, published in Red Rock Review (2016), and republished in The Anthem, “Involution” by Stacy Hardy from South Africa, published in Migrations: New Short Fiction from Africa, co-published by Short Story Day Africa and New Internationalist (2017), Nigerian author, Olufunke Ogundimu’s “The Armed Letter Writers”, published in The African Literary Hustle (2017), and Nigerian, Wole Talabi’s “Wednesday’s Story”, published in Lightspeed Magazine (2016).
The shortlisted and winning story are available to read or listen to on the Caine Prize website.