FEATURE ARTICLE

Chika UnigweSaturday, September 18, 2004
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obiwu@yahoo.com
Toledo, OH, USA

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WASHING HANDS AND NEEDING THE LOO


or an African writer at the very start of her writing career, getting a mail that you have been short-listed for the Caine Prize is the most delightful thing that could happen to you on a Wednesday afternoon when the only thing on your mind is how to get through the week's laundry, what to make for dinner, and how to compose the proposal for your doctoral defense in good enough Dutch. And the only way to react to such news, as I discovered, is to go out into your backyard and scream yourself hoarse.

When the names of the other short-listed candidates are released, I torture my eyes by reading and re-reading their stories that intimidate me by their sheer excellence. I re-read my story and begin to wish that I had written it differently. Used different images. Been more daring.

The days trudge on and I wake up one morning and it is Wednesday the 14th of July. The day all five finalists are expected to arrive in London. Finally, I could put voices and faces to the stories.

Parselelo Kantai. Kenyan with a Ugandan mother. He describes himself as a writer masquerading as a journalist. Parselelo has a generic face and as soon as you meet him, you are sure you knew him.

Monica Arac de Nyeko. Ugandan. Tall and shapely and the youngest of us all at 24. She turns 25 in two weeks time.

Doreen Baingana. Another Ugandan. Her skin is the color of my mahogany table when it is polished.

Brian Chikwava. Zimbabwean. He is shy, quiet, and extremely soft spoken. You have to lean in to hear him. It is difficult to imagine that he is a musician. It is even more difficult to imagine that he comes up with the memorable line, "armed with a vagina and a will to survive, destitution could never lay claim on her," in his award-winning story, "Seventh Street Alchemy." Brian looks like he is too innocent to use a word like vagina.

We all get acquainted. We are eager for the Caine program to begin.

Thursday:

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We have a colloquium at the British Council. We meet agents, publishers, and writers. The issue of the African writer and language invariably comes up. And Authenticity. And Validity. These are the words that will dominate discussions the following days. I am excited to meet Buchi Emecheta, the famed Nigerian-British novelist. Her braids are like my mother's. She is modest, down to earth and fiercely ambitious. She tells us not to be afraid to be ambitious. The East African candidates ask who she is. "Oh, I have heard of her," Doreen says, before rushing forward to introduce herself to her.

After the colloquium, we have dinner with, amongst others, Nick Elam (the Caine Prize administrator), Becky Ayebia-Clarke, and staff of the British Council. The food is bearable. The waitress anorexic. And the conversation flowing. Everything is discussed from Ike Oguine's new work-in-production to the state of roads in Abakiliki, Southeastern Nigeria.

Friday:

A reading at the Royal Overseas League where we are lodging. A reception precedes the reading and we meet the president of the Caine Foundation, Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne. She is Sir Caine's widow and slightly deaf in one ear.

This is our first reading, but we soon ease into it. Monica reveals she is a talented singer when she sings a few lines from her story, "Strange Fruit."

The Q and A session leads us again to the topic of African writers writing in English. As well as, predictably, to the question of validity and authenticity. But for Parselelo (who is moving to Oxford for a year in October), all the writers on the shortlist live in Europe and the US.

We all go out for a drink at the African Center. Patrick Wilmot (who has a forthcoming book to be published by Random House) is supposed to meet us there, but he does not turn up. But Catherine Fellows from the BBC is there, with a colleague from the African Service. As is Binyanvanga Wainaina (AKA "The Binj") who won the 2002 Caine Prize. The evening is relaxed as the East Africans enjoy Tusker beer and a young Kenyan playwright declares that "East Africa is the new West Africa," referring to East Africa's domination of the Caine Prize shortlist. That line plays in my head all night and keeps me from a good night's sleep. Luckily, we have the weekend free to discover London, shop and visit family.

The weekend is the lull before the explosion of Monday.

Monday afternoon, we have lunch at the House of Lords with the Baroness. I am seated at her right and on her left is Parselelo with whom she holds an extensive conversation at the end of which she turns to me and says of Parselelo, "he does not approve of my friends!" She then tells me of how she had mistaken the Nigerian High Commissioner's outfit at the award ceremony for Helon Habila in 2001, for a cardinal's attire, much to the chagrin of the High Commissioner. On our way out, she asks if we would be needing to wash our hands. We start to say "no" when her assistant interprets for us: "Will any of you be needing the loo?"

From the House of Lords, we move on to Oxford. It is here that the award dinner will be held. First a stop at an Oxford pub. Then a reception at Exeter College where everybody is introduced to us. Then the highlight of the night: the dinner proper. I share a table with the charming Helon Habila who promises to send me copies of the Dutch, Spanish and Italian translations of his book. Somebody at the table asks about his family and he shows us a wallet-sized picture of his beautiful wife and daughter. He tells me he hopes I win. I hope so too. I do not want East Africa to be the new West Africa.

The chair of the judges, Prof. Alvaro Ribeiro of Georgetown University gives a break down of the entries they got. Over a hundred. There were 22 entries from Nigeria. 4 from Uganda. Of the four from Uganda, two make the shortlist and one makes the Highly Commended list. Of the 22 from Nigeria, just one makes the shortlist. I am alarmed. Depressed. Worried.

Habila tells me again he hopes I win. It will be good for Nigeria.

But I do not win.

Brian Chikwava does.

"Washing Hands and Needing the Loo" is Chika Unigwe's evocative account of her experience at the 2004 awards ceremonies for The Caine Prize for African Writing. The essay is an exclusive narrative for Ederi@yahoogroups.com - an Internet listserv specially devoted to the most brilliant and thoroughgoing of the Nigerian tradition of art and writing. Chika Unigwe's story, "The Secret," made the Prize shortlist. Unigwe also won the 2003 BBC Short Story Competition. - Obiwu