Tanzania enjoys clean sweep at Kiswahili prize for literature

Fatuma Salim (left) receives a dummy cheque from Dr Caroline Asiimwe, the executive secretary of the East African Kiswahili Commission, after her poetry collection Changa La Macho won a top prize at the 2023 Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature competition in Kenya last month. PHOTO/COURTESY/ Silas Wafula /Safal MRM

What you need to know:

  • The winners of the 2023 edition were awarded by Dr Caroline Asiimwe, the executive secretary of the East African Kiswahili Commission (EAKC) at a ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya, last month. 

Tanzanian authors Philipo Oyaro and Fatuma Salim have won the top prizes at the 2023 Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature competition.

Oyaro won the first prize in the fiction category for his novel Dunia Duara (The Earth is Round), while Salim’s Changa La Macho (Sand in the Eyes) took the top prize in the poetry category. She became the first woman to win the poetry category. Both Oyaro and Salim received $5,000 (Shs19.5m) in prize money. 

Dunia Duara is a crime detective story whose plot revolves around Aneth, a beautiful girl and the leader of a mining company, who has multiple lovers. After being raped by one of her business associates, more salt is added to her wound when she ends up in the High Court of Tanzania with accusations of economic sabotage and money laundering slapped against her.

While being taken to prison, the prison bus Aneth is riding in ends up being involved in a serious road accident after a collision with an oil truck. Dozens perish in the inferno, with Aneth also feared dead. Later, the police investigations indicate that she is at large. The plot line thereafter thickens.

“It is one of the best experiences in my life because it was my first time to participate in this competition and emerged the winner,” Oyaro told Saturday Monitor, adding that his body of work addresses many ills in his native country written about in “an entertaining style.” 

The need to create a new, just society is a dominant theme in the anthology Changa La Macho. It employs multiple poetic personas, visual and figurative language, with Salim saying her body of work “takes on the big shots […], calling out leaders for their irresponsibility and the mess they sometimes create.”

Salim’s poetry collection also addresses itself to a range of issues, including sexual abuse, pandemics, and natural disasters.
“It’s like a poetic guide on resilience, reminding us that even in tough times, we can come together and push through,” she said, adding that Changa La Macho is “a poetic journey, nudging us to think, feel, and maybe even spark a bit of change.”
Describing her body of work as “real, raw, and unapologetic”, Salim described as “absolutely amazing” the feeling of being the first woman to win the poetry category.

“Honestly, I’m still soaking it all in. The late nights, the pouring of emotions into my work, and the constant belief that my voice matters – it’s all worth it,” she said. 
“This win feels like a big, warm hug to my soul […] This victory is not just about breaking barriers; it’s an invitation for more voices to be heard, especially from women. I hope this inspires others to embrace their unique perspectives and dive into the world of poetry,” she added.

A win for women
Salim said when she was working on her poetry collection, a bunch of things influenced her in a big way.
“First of all, being a woman, I felt this strong desire to break stereotypes and show that we ladies have some pretty incredible stories to tell. I wanted to prove that women can create something truly special,” she told Saturday Monitor, adding, “My cultural background played a huge part too. I dove into my heritage, embracing the traditions and stories that shaped me. It was all about adding my voice to the bigger conversation on why diversity in literature matters so much.” 
Salim said she was also influenced by “everyday stuff” that includes a range of “emotions that women go through.”

The winners of the 2023 edition were awarded by Dr Caroline Asiimwe, the executive secretary of the East African Kiswahili Commission (EAKC) at a ceremony in Nairobi, Kenya, last month. Dr Asiimwe congratulated the winners and praised the management of the prize, its board, and the sponsors, led by Safal Group, for their important work in promoting literature in African languages, particularly Kiswahili. 

Anders Lindgren, the chief executive officer of Safal Group, highlighted the importance of the Kiswahili language in the development of the East African region. “Through our support of these awards, the Safal Group is firmly committed to the course of African languages. I commend the SAFAL-MRM Foundation for organising the awards this year,” Lindgren said.

The 2023 judges were Prof Kyallo W Wamitila of the University of Nairobi, Dr Zuhura Badru of the University of Dodoma, and Mr Ali Mwalim Rashid of the State University of Zanzibar. Prof Wamitila (chair) commended the 2023 entrants for the high quality of their writing, saying it made it difficult for the judges to pick out the first-place winners. 

“This is sufficient evidence that we have a great treasure of creativity, especially among young people, that transcends the boundaries of each country, and which if sprinkled with the basics of writing and publishing literary works will greatly strengthen Kiswahili literature,” Prof Wamatila said. 

Walter Bgoya of Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, the official publisher of the winning manuscript, said: “The Safal-Cornell Award has raised talented writers in the field of literature since it was established in 2014, and there is no doubt that it has given writers inspiration and made the award ceremonies a day of great joy in the lives of those who are lucky enough to win.” 

Other winners

Ahmad Simba (Tanzania) was the second-place winner in the fiction category for his manuscript Safari Ya Maisha (The Journey of a Lifetime). In the poetry category, Lenard Mtesigwa (Tanzania) was the runner-up for his manuscript Ndani Ya Subira Kichwangomba. Simba and Mtesigwa received $2,500 (about Shs9.8m) apiece. Both were previously shortlisted in 2022 for different manuscripts. 

Safari Ya Maisha is an aesthetically appealing story with a well-crafted plot. The narration is captivating and enchanting; the reader easily visualises the images of contemporary life and its challenges like family and local rivalries, crime, and racial bigotry. 
The anthology Ndani Ya Subira Kichwangomba is striking because of its diversity of structural forms, figurative language and tone that fuses well with various topics discussed. 

The other shortlisted works and authors were Salome Anaishi by Nicholas Ogal, and Ushairi Wa Maisha Ya Kesho by John Karithi both from Kenya. 
Two short story collections were also shortlisted—Mtoto Wa Mama Na Hadithi Nyingine by Edwin Omindo (Kenya), and Koti La Karani Na Hadithi Nyingine by Stallone Joyfully (Tanzania). 

The Safal-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature is supported by Safal Group, through its subsidiaries Mabati Rolling Mills of Kenya, and ALAF Tanzania, the Africana Studies Centre at Cornell University, and the Ngugi wa Thiong’o Foundation. 
The prize is awarded to the best unpublished manuscript in the categories of fiction, poetry and memoir, and graphic novels. 

In addition to the prizes, winning entries will also be considered for publication by Mkuki na Nyota Publishers in Tanzania. Elsewhere, the winning poetry will be translated to English and published by the Africa Poetry Book Fund. 
The prize was founded in 2014 by Dr Lizzy Attree and Dr Mukoma Wa Ngugi to recognise writing in African languages and encourage translation from, between, and into African languages.