Before the era of telephony and the complexities of modern day communication via satellites, cables and masts, a pure, undiluted form of communication existed. Literature, it is called, embodies the core essence of existence; the ability to express oneself through art, experiences, and also through culture.
Africa as a continent has witnessed several transformations and literature has provided an avenue for African writers to tell these poignant stories. Every year, new writers emerge across the continent and its Diaspora; and the popularity of African literary fiction is also clearly on display at major international awards such as the Caine Prize, the Man Booker Prizes, the Commonwealth Prizes, and the Women’s Prize for Fiction. So, when on June 5, 2013, a telecoms firm in Nigeria created a ‘Prize,’ to discover and reward new literary talent out of the continent and ultimately promote the burgeoning publishing industry in Africa, it was safe to say that the literary society had received a major boost.
Etisalat has launched the first ever pan-African Prize for Literature in line with its vision of providing a platform for communicating ideas, promoting excellence and nurturing talent. The company says that with this Prize, it aims to bring the much needed awareness and acclaim to the art of Fiction and short story writing while also applauding and rewarding the efforts of those who have ventured into this genre in recent times.
The Prize will be open only to submissions from writers of African citizenship and will be awarded in two categories; the Best Full-length Fiction Novel of a minimum of 30,000 words published in English in the last 24 months, and for the Best Flash Fiction work of less than 300 words, also in English. The deadline for submissions for the Fiction Novel category is August 30, 2013. A long list will be announced on December 11, followed by a shortlist on January 15, 2014, with the winner emerging by February 2014. The Flash Fiction Short stories will be launched towards the end of the year and driven entirely via social media.
One would wonder why a company concerned with technology and its various paraphernalia will delve into literature, a clear departure from its primary business model and operations. While addressing the media and members of the African literary society during the launch of the initiative, Steven Evans, CEO, Etisalat Nigeria, said the “creation of the Prize for Literature is borne out of Etisalat’s belief in the transformational power of literature.”
According to him, it is the belief that literature provokes fresh perspectives on the human experience as it is through astounding stories and life-like characters that literature has served as a means of communication. “These are attributes that we have modelled ourselves on here at Etisalat: being innovative; investing in talents that produce results, and empowering people with new platforms for staying connected,” he said.
It is said that literary awards are geared towards increasing the productivity of writers as well as bringing out the best in them by showing appreciation for work well done. In Nigeria, a critical mass of African literature, a number of literary awards exist. Of note is the Nigeria Prize for Literature in association with the National Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) launched in 2004. It is awarded annually to the best work by a Nigerian writer and alternates among four literary genres: prose fiction, poetry, drama and children’s fiction.
However, before now there had not been an award that stretches across the length and breadth of the continent that celebrates young and upcoming literary talent. The Etisalat Prize for Literature definitely stands out in this regard.
Etisalat brings to the table a prize money of £15,000 to the winner of the Fiction Novel category along with a Samsung Galaxy Note or iPad. The winner would also go on an Etisalat-sponsored book tour in three major cities and be awarded a scholarship/fellowship at the University of East Anglia, the pre-eminent school for creative writing. In addition, he/she will own a special Etisalat-engraved Montblanc pen. The second place winner would receive a cash prize of £1,000, a Samsung Note or iPad and a published e-book promoted online and via SMS courtesy of Etisalat.
Along with these impressive prize rewards is an equally impressive panel of four pre-selected judges consisting of notable African writers, novelists and authors chaired by Pumla Gqola, associate professor in the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa, acclaimed as one of South Africa’s most influential public intellectuals. Others include one-time winner of the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Africa and professor of Creative writing at the University of Ohio, Zaks Mda; Managing Editor of Kwani Trust, of the literary journal Kwani, Billy Kahora, an Anglo-Nigerian writer with a repertoire of published essays, academic papers, book reviews and short stories, as well as Sarah Ladipo Manyika. These judges will vet all entries that will make the long list, a shortlist of three novels and finally the winner.
In addition to the judges, Etisalat has included award winning writers like Dele Olojede, the first African-born winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting on the Rwanda genocide and Kole Omotosho, a writer for various magazines in the 1970s and publisher of Just Before Dawn, a historical novel on Nigeria as patrons. Others of repute include Ellah Allfrey, Deputy Editor of Granta magazine and deputy chair of the Council of the Caine Prize for African Writing; Margaret Busby, UK’s youngest and first Black woman publisher at the time she co-founded Allison & Busby Ltd and winner of several awards for her contribution to book publishing; and Prolific novelist, poet and playwright, Zaks Mda.
It is without a shadow of doubt that Etisalat is poised to make its mark giving this gathering of literary intellectuals to celebrate African literature at the global stage. The drums have been rolled out to inform the world of the birth of this initiative and to encourage young and aspiring writers to take advantage of this golden opportunity that will launch them on the international stage – a noble gesture from a company barely five years in operation in the country.
Perhaps the question on top of most minds is the sustainability of this award as certain awards have been known to declare no winner in the course of their existence. But the company’s CEO, Steve Evans, as well as the Chair of the judging panel, Gqola have allayed such concerns. According to them, the Etisalat Prize for Literature will produce a winner annually as there is a need to create awareness of African fiction novels and by extension, encourage public interest in reading.
Literature is important to every society because it speaks to us; it is universal, and it affects us. According to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation.”
Evans buttresses this fact when he described literature as having the power to effect change and serve as a catalyst for promoting a cultural revolution. However, it is imperative to point out that African fiction and short story writers often look to international awards for recognition and acclaim as there was no such award in the continent until Etisalat Nigeria floated this literary award; and this is hardly surprising. Across the continent, the company has shown a passion for nurturing Africa’s rising stars, and aims to position the Prize as one of Africa’s prominent literary prizes with the sole purpose of celebrating new African writers as well as the publishing industry.