In Kisumu

London Review of Books
Kisumu, Kenya

When people in Kisumu, in western Kenya, began voting on a Tuesday morning in early August it was more like a party than an election. At the Kenyatta Sports Ground, a large triangle of dirt and trees in the city centre, whistles blew, vuvuzelas honked and drums banged; there was shouting, laughing, singing, cheering, even dancing. Cigarette smoke and the smell of booze drifted up from boisterous clumps of young men. Other voters smiled and chatted as they queued in their hundreds, some with babies swaddled in polyester blankets. It was 4.45 in the morning, still dark and more than an hour before the polling stations were due to open, yet new arrivals were latecomers already. To work out which of the dozen growing lines of people they should join, they used the torchlights on their mobile phones to read lists of names taped to a breezeblock wall beside a sign declaring the availability of ‘Clean Executive Toilets & Bathroom’. At the front of each queue stood a police officer with an AK-type rifle. Behind each police officer, inside little pagoda tents, officials in yellow reflective vests branded IEBC (the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) worked by gaslight to prepare ballot boxes, papers and fingerprint-operated electronic voting machines. Continue reading In Kisumu

Mzungu prizes

LRB
Nairobi, Kenya

‘Ah, the tyranny of mzungu prizes!’ the Kenyan author and journalist Parselelo Kantai said when I rang him up to talk about literary awards for African writers. Mzungu is Kiswahili for ‘white person’ and Kantai was only half-joking.

Since its inception in 2000, the annual Caine Prize for African Writing – awarded, more narrowly than the ‘African Writing’ of its title might imply, ‘to a short story by an African writer published in English’ – has been the most high profile award for contemporary anglophone African writers. But it’s administered in Britain and the £10,000 cash prize is bestowed during a gala dinner at the Bodleian Library. ‘There’s something that rankles,’ says Kantai, who has been shortlisted twice. ‘Once the conferring is done in London you become big on the African landscape.’ Continue reading Mzungu prizes

In Abyei

London Review of Books
Abyei, Sudan

Last month the Northern Sudanese army, helped by Misseriya tribesmen, attacked the disputed town of Abyei, which lies on the border between North and South Sudan. President Bashir said the invasion, which was preceded by artillery and aerial bombardments, was in retaliation for an attack on his own troops. Most of those who live in Abyei, which has a population of 40,000, are Southern Sudanese – and thousands more returned there from the North in the weeks before and after January’s independence referendum. After the attack most of the town’s inhabitants fled across the sluggish brown river they call the Kiir. More joined the exodus, until something like 100,000 people were moving south on foot. Continue reading In Abyei