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Photo by David Kwaw Mensah.

Nigerian writer Irenosen Okojie.

Irenosen Okojie Wins This Year's Prestigious AKO Caine Prize

The AKO Caine Prize has awarded British-Nigerian writer Irenosen Okojie with one of African Literature's highest honours for her short story 'Grace Jones'.

The AKO Caine Prize has recently announced that British-Nigerian writer, Irenosen Okojie, is this year's winner. Arguably one of the foremost honours to be awarded in the African Literature space, Okojie's short story Grace Jones has received all-round praise from the judges. The recent announcement comes just after the shortlist of five writers was released earlier this year in May.

Grace Jones is a riveting piece that tells the story of Sidra, a Grace Jones impersonator, after the legendary 70s through 80s musician. However, Sidra has a few dark secrets she's eager to keep hidden away from the rest of the world. Both Jones's music and aesthetic in addition to her perpetual challenging of gender norms, are what inspired Okojie to write the story.

The Chair of the AKO Caine Prize judging panel and Director of The Africa Centre, Kenneth Olumuyiwa Tharp CBE, has described Grace Jones as a "radical story that plays with logic, time and place" and one that also "defies convention, as it unfolds a narrative that is multi-layered and multi-dimensional".

In a recent press statement, Tharp continues by saying:

"In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has prompted deeply powerful questions about race, justice and equality in the world today - this story offers a salient exploration of what it can mean to embody and perform Blackness in the world. This is a story of tremendously delicate power and beauty, and one in which we recognise the tradition of African storytelling and imagination at its finest."

In light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and various preventive measures, the AKO Caine Prize has reportedly commissioned British-Nigerian filmmaker Joseph A. Adesunloye to direct and produce a documentary film to celebrate the shortlist and announce the winner. A well-deserved win indeed to Okojie.

Read our interview with Okojie here.

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(Photo: Nichole Sobecki)

Kevin Mwachiro, journalist, queer activist, podcaster [Kenya]

"The reality of being queer is real. It is not a foreign thing. It is as Kenyan, as African as it may be, and it is ours. I remember I did an interview anonymously for the BBC back in 2006. And I told them, maybe within 50 years, I will see movement, it has happened so much faster. And not just in Kenya, but I've seen very many countries across Africa. And I am so, so happy that that is happening."

I was a church boy for a good part of my life. So, I was sometimes whore by night, Christian by day, if I can put it like that.

I had just come back from the UK where I did my masters and I knew I was not going to go back into the closet. I went to therapy and after going for over a year, I just got to accept myself for who I am. And I realized that I'm okay and I didn't want to come back and go back into the closet. I figure that closet stays in the U.K.

I was trying to find my space and a friend invited me to a group meeting. It was people talking about formalizing a movement or a way of coming together and it was fascinating. It just blew my mind. There were these people in the room and I'm like, "Fuck, these are all Kenyans." These are all Kenyans and I knew that I'd be fine.

And, along the way, being a journalist, I made sure that I would use the platform that I have to make sure that LGBTQI+ people are well represented. So I used to cover those stories shamelessly. People in the office wondered, 'Why is Kevin always doing the queer stories that no one wanted to touch?" I really didn't care. I figured I'm going to represent my people in the best way that I can.

But, Kenya is a lot more open now. It's amazing. I mean, it's fantastic to actually think that you can live a reasonable level of queerness here. Younger people are coming out, because it is possible. There are a lot more resources. There's a lot more support from what we had. There's a lot more, in some cases, visibility. There's community, there's a movement. There's, to some degree, health services. The internet has helped. There's visibility on TV and online.

But, we're not even out of the woods - far from it. But, there is light we're seeing. We've seen trans women being attacked, we've seen people being attacked in clubs. People being kicked out of their homes by landlords, there is still that. We've seen pushback in the arts. There was a movie called Rafiki which featured a lesbian couple - that got banned. And then we had Stories of Our Lives and that also got banned. I'm like, 'You motherfuckers!' They're silencing voices of not just queer people, but of talented Kenyans who want to see themselves represented in content created by Kenyans for Kenyans.

In 2011, there was a clinic in a town an hour away from me in a town called Mtwapa. Like a 'sexual productive' clinic that was targeting men who have sex with men, sex workers, etc. And they were very open about that. And then the community turned on them. Last year, I met one of the people who was at the forefront of this attack and they've made a total turnaround saying, "We acted on ignorance, these people are also a part of the community." These were Christian and Muslim faith leaders. And these same individuals are now engaging with other religious leaders to try and to ask them to be more accepting of the community so there is that. So for me, it's important that we recognize the good work that's been done, but also recognizing that we are far from out of the woods.

A key driver for me with my activism is to make sure that no one ever has to go through that feeling of loneliness as a queer person. No one has the right to go through that. No one. And I feel really sad when I hear of both the young and old killing themselves because of their sexuality. That shit should not be happening. That shit should not be happening anywhere in the world and should not be happening in Africa. I hope to work a lot more with young queer people, queer Africans, because I really want to show them and that it is possible to be black, African, and queer or just African.

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Kevin has recently been accepted into Amnesty International Kenya as their first openly gay board member. He has gone on to publish Invisible: Stories from Kenya's Queer Community, a collection of stories from Kenya's queer community, spoken at TEDx Programs and launced his own podcast Nipe Story (Tell me a Story).

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