Cameroon Caine Prize Experience: Alex Smith

15 Oct 2011

Cameroon Caine Prize & A (Text Message) Diary
By Alex Smith

I never met an Englishman who spoke Afrikaans and could recite the poetry of C Louis Leipoldt. One of the memories I will always keep with me of the Cameroon Workshop was a meal at the group house in Buea, when Nick Elam, who is as English as crumpets, so beautifully spoke the lines “Dit is die maand Oktober! Die mooiste, mooiste maand! Dan is die dag so helder, so groen is elke aand…” over a dish of fufu, a local specialty. He is a master raconteur, and it is in a great part thanks to Nick Elam’s zest, imagination, wanderlust and passion for African literature that in April this year a group of 14 writers from all over Africa were fortunate to be in Cameroon, writing. At the 2011 workshop there were writers from Nigeria, Uganda, Ivory Coast, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia, and of course, Cameroon. It’s an extraordinary idea and made for a wonderful experience – to be in a house on the edge of the jungle with fourteen writers for ten days, each of us tasked with creating a short story 3 000 – 5 000 words in length which must be completed and edited by the end of the period in order to be emailed to the publisher in London for an anthology to be printed within the month, ready for the next Caine Prize Award event.

Breakfast of sweet mangos, pineapple, sugary papaya and instant coffee was optional and writing schedules were up to the individual writer – Ayo a lawyer from Nigeria wrote best in the cool of midnight, but I wrote best in the fresh of dawn. Three other daily events were compulsory: lunch, dinner with French red wine and the evening read-and-feedback session in the house boardroom with critiques from acclaimed authors Veronique Tadjo and Jamal Mahjoub.

Another daily event led to the title of the new anthology: Ken Barris, Beatrice Lamwaka and I, took to making a daily afternoon pilgrimage up the hill through the town. Beyond the smog of old cars, in the near distance was a mountain, green and lush, and we speculated about the possibility of a mountain walk. Such an expedition never materialised, but at the end of the ten days, Ken named his story, a fictional account of a group of walking writers, “To See the Mountain”. The 2011 Caine Prize Anthology is available in South Africa now. It is an eclectic selection of stories, including the 2011 Caine Prize winner, NoViolet Bulawayo. The UK Guardian said of it: “These works, five shortlisted for the prize and a further 12 drawn from the Caine Prize’s attendant writing workshop, cannot be neatly surmised or blithely stereotyped… This is a vital collection of stories drawing on a rich treasury of material that couldn’t have come from anywhere else.”


Cameroon SMS Diary (Collated from messages sent home)

Day 1. We live at the end of a dirt road, where, apart from a cavernous half-built, unpainted church, our double-storey house, the colour of calamine lotion, is the grandest building in this part Buea. Our tall walls border on small-holdings where women and men work the land with hoes and machetes. Had kufu and naki, a kind of cassava for lunch, very tasty. At lunch, sat next to Ayo from Nigeria. She hates burnt toast and dog-ears in books and has more personality that most people manage in a lifetime. She tells horror tales of Lagos. Her hair is peroxide blond; she wears a cross around her neck and smokes menthol cigarettes with a kind of holder a 20’s flapper might have used. I started working on a story in the hours before dinner.

Day 2. A handsome multicoloured lizard lives in the stairwell of our house. Internet connection is intermittent. I wrote from when the cock’s started crowing before sunrise today, and between writing we had meals upstairs and drinks downstairs in the yard paved with volcanic rubble. This afternoon, we did what felt like a marathon walk through town to find the nurseries, but apart from nearly being run over (driving is crazy here and pavements broken and crowded) and seeing blue lizards, we never got to the nurseries. I was hot and hoping for a cold shower when we got back, but the water was off, so I bathed in a bucket, and it worked pretty well.

Day 3. Around here, cocks start crowing from 3 a.m. onwards. We walked again, but not as far and we headed towards the jungle in the direction of the mountains. Last year’s Caine Prize winner, Femi, as well as Walter from Buea University and Beatrice (in a pair of high platform shoes) came too. Wrote again after the feedback session until night insects took over the computer screen. My story, “Wolf Blue” is now 6 000 words. I go to sleep, the night frogs under the banana palms are singing.

Day 4. Saw a fabulous moth, dark red mahogany, bigger than a hand. The evening is cool (my feel are getting very dirty here and with the water ration, it has been impossible to clean them until Beatrice suggested a piece of volcanic rock gravel; I tried it and it works well. My feet are clean again. In the feedback session, we drink red wine and listen to stories in progress – Ken reads from his which is rich with wonderful details about Cameroon and the town we’re in.

Day 5. Took a shower in the tropical rainstorm, so lovely. First shower in days. All the buckets were outside, catching the water gushing from the sky. Carried buckets of water upstairs for the toilet and to bathe with tomorrow morning. In the group feedback session, Jide Begun, who studied acting in Nigeria, read some paragraphs from his story set in Lagos; he writes with the flair of Jose Saramago and after this workshop has been invited on an Achebe residency before he starts a creative writing degree in the States.

Day 6. Non-stop singing in the half-built church today. My stomach is a little unsettled. I cut 2 000 words from my 8 000 word story. When Beatrice reads her pacing is languorous and her voice mesmerising; the opening paragraphs of her story of a mother searching for her child, made me want to cry.

Day 7. There are children singing and playing in the school next to the half built church. I’m eating pawpaw with a view of the banana palms and will take a long last walk through the town soon. Ayo’s story with its fantastic title is disturbing and compelling.

Day 8. We went to a volcanic beach today, mango trees nearby, had a lovely swim, water like a bath and no waves and I saw a sea-snake near the rocks. The snake and I ran away from each other quickly. Namwali does exquisite things with words in her story, and Femi’s story is cosmopolitan, a web intrigue and clever conversations.

Day 9. For some, it’s has been a traumatic workshop: Veronique has to leave because our lack of telephone access made it impossible for her to communicate with her family in the Ivory Coast, which is in political turmoil. Today, Shadrek from Malawi received terrible news: his mother passed away.

Day 10. Internet in Buea has been down all day, finally come on, but so slow. Some of us were just in the old town high on the mountain slope. On the way up, school came out, twelve year old kids were walking home with machetes, but Walter, who is a local, explained it was their day to learn how to clear fields; he said, if they don’t learn young, they will be eating stones in the future. There was a strange atmosphere in the old town; people watched us from their windows, and Beatrice and I both felt like intruders. We looked at masks in a cantankerous man’s shadowy study, but they were too expensive to buy, according to Femi. On the roadside there were machetes for sale from Columbia. We all save our completed stories to the main computer and celebrate not too late into the night. Tomorrow we leave at 4.30 a.m. from Buea.


Note: SA PEN members Alex Smith and Ken Barris were shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Prize for African Writing for their stories “Soulmates” and “The Life of Worm” respectively, as published in New Writing from Africa 2009, the anthology of short stories selected as finalists for the 2009 PEN/Studzinski Literary Award.