The landlocked Kingdom of Eswatini now has bragging rights when it comes to African literary conquests and excellence through the success of this year’s winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Ntsika Kota, regional winner for Africa, penned the story, “And the Earth Drank Deep” as his entry to the global competition and emerged as the ultimate winner following the sifting of successful writers across five regions.
Perhaps what makes his story of success as much of a tale as the tragic thriller that earned him the prestigious prize overseen by the Commonwealth Foundation is that he is a self-confessed “rank amateur” who had no mind thinking that this would be his fate. He bashfully shares: “I submitted my story more out of pride than expectation. I was aware of the calibre of writing and adjudication, so I was under no illusions about my chances.”
The world of literary competition is vast, contentious and riddled with its own politics. Turn the lens to the much-debated category of “African Literature” and you will be hard pressed to not feel that you must find a side to take. The challenge of what slots writing into that box is laced with questions of is it based on the subject, plot, setting, themes, positionality of the author or simply on the fact that the writer accepts this badge for a particular work of theirs? While these questions might not be at the fore of Kota’s mind as he rides the whirlwind of this success, they cease to matter when you sit with the tense story that got him the prize.
Following the protagonist simply named ‘the hunter’, Kota’s story takes the reader on a gentle psychological trip of expectation and disbelief. At every turn where one might believe that one knows what side the narrator is on, something sprouts out of the bush landscape and is either soft enough to land on or too sharp to survive contact with. It follows in the footsteps of Grace Ogot’s thriller, The Green Leaves, some 30 years later and reminds readers and critics of the exciting nature of African ingenuity.
Kota is a chemist by training and a self-taught writer. By this merit, the strength of his literary skills can only be attributed to the adage “practice makes perfect” as he was notably inspired to invest in the craft of writing through a high school writing assignment. On Kota’s adept storytelling, Dr. Anne T Gallagher AO, Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation, said this success “is a reminder of what makes the Prize unique. It is an opportunity for writers from across the Commonwealth to express themselves, regardless of where they live or their previous writing experience.”
Accompanying Kota, the 2022 regional winners were Sofia Mariah Ma (Singapore) for Asia, Cecil Browne (UK/St Vincent and the Grenadines) for Canada and Europe, Diana McCaulay (Jamaica) for the Caribbean, and Mary Rokonadravu (Fiji) for the Pacific. These five emerged triumphant from 6 730 entries from 52 Commonwealth countries. Louise Umutoni-Bower, judge for the Africa region, observed Kota’s to be “a universal story. One that reaches across cultures and generations. A story that uses African folktale in a way that remains true to form but is also accessible. It is a reminder of a time when storytelling had a prized place in social gatherings.”
To win the prize in a year that celebrates historic cultural milestones within the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee adds, perhaps, another nod to growing traditions. Kota formally received his award in Kigali, Rwanda, during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting gathering. Beyond going getting his story published in Granta magazine, Kota’s prizes are £2,500 (shortlist) and £5,000 (overall winner), which should see him scribing more in the foreseeable future.