Much has been said over the past few weeks about Binyavanga’s rant over the Caine Prize.
It is difficult to unpack.
1. Most of the World did not know Binyavanga till he won the Caine Prize.
2. That is the material point.
The question is not why the prize should still stand, of course it should. It serves to highlight some really interesting literature coming out of Africa and shares them with a World we had trouble reaching. I do not think that it strives to be more than that. If I could think of a slogan for the Caine Prize, it would be:
Hey World! Look at Africans who can write in English!
Of course there are downsides to it. We’re always explaining ourselves, our culture, our politics to the World at large. These stories are not written to be consumed by an African audience, but written so that someone foreign to it can gain sight into the things we do. Inevitably, the prize is judged, not by other African authors, but people who are ‘in-between’ (Africans of European or North American citizenship) and non-African people. They like what they like and their views and wants and likes are completely valid, even if we sometimes judge them to be biased.
A compelling article I read this morning, explains the enduring colonialist view prevalent in many systems particularly in East Africa. This is what has tainted the Caine. The idea that every other literary achievement or award is not quite as honorable as the Caine, that you have not yet made it as an author until you have been smiled upon by the Caine prize. That until someone other has recognized your work it is not fit to be read. The stench of colonialism and the gore of colonialist ideals is hard to shake.
Binyavanga is not wrong. Neither is the Caine prize. They just want different things and to be honest, so do I.