Ask anyone who has ever had to do it and they will tell you that coming up with a completely infallible idea is nearly impossible. For those who are tasked to do so through storytelling, it has been known to spark existential despair.
Yet, when the right moment meets the right energy and writer, magical things have been known to happen. One such case is that of Professor Alexander McCall Smith. There are few places around the world where if you mention the name Botswana to someone, they won’t reply by citing Mma Ramotswe or the diamond wealth.
Building off this relationship, the British author has established a partnership that seeks to nurture literary arts in Botswana. Officially titled, “The No.1 New Writing Award,” the novel prize is the result of a collaboration between the author and the Art Residency Centre (ARC) in Gaborone.
McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book series, which is set in Botswana, continues to be a global success. A quarter of a century since the series began in 1998, it has gone on to do wonders for the imaginaries of what Mma Precious Ramotswe’s Botswana might look like in real life through audio and visual media for consumers near and far. It was fitting that when the BBC and HBO collaborated to produce the televised film (and later the series) in the late 2000s, they came to Botswana to not only feed into the economic development but also support the cultural sector as well.
While the lead role in the film adaptation went to Grammy-winning American neo-soul musician and actress, Jill Scott, the relationship between the originator and his place of inspiration hasn’t waned. “I find it hard to believe it’s been 25 years since I started,” says McCall Smith, reflecting with “it’s the greatest possible privilege to act as a chronicler of a fictional character who seems to have spoken to so many people.”
Following the trends across the African literary landscape, seasoned readers and writers from Botswana will oversee the adjudication. Highlighting that the prize is not only about advancing Botswana’s literary progress, Ann Gollifer, Director of ARC, further stated that they “look very much forward to hosting this event, that will highlight the richness of the Botswana creativity of today.”
There are various English literary prizes to which Batswana may submit their works – such as the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and The Caine Prize for African Writing – but, unlike the Bessie Head Short Story Award, it means pitting themselves against a substantially large pool. This competition comprises of two literary forms – poetry and short story – and is open to citizens and residents of Botswana only.
Hopefuls are invited to virtually submit their original, unpublished works in English to the Art Residency Centre before the 15 December 2023 submission deadline. While there is no age limit for writers, Professor McCall Smith has made an active effort to encourage young writers – thus there is an extra provision for them in the short story form. Prize money of P5,000 will go to each of the winning writers of a short story and a set of poems. The best short story by a writer under the age of 18 will be rewarded with a P2,500 prize.
The work of legacy is both partly self-celebrating and reflexive in examining what impact emerges in the tracks left behind. That McCall Smith has chosen to embark on this journey to the profit of writers from Botswana is yet another thread in the tapestry of the tale of these two worlds. The victors will be showered with praise and get to read their works alongside the Professor at a ceremony to be hosted in Botswana in March 2024. If there ever were a reason and time to start writing, an opportunity would say it is now.