Etisalat Nigeria, one of the country’s major telecommunications service providers and leading corporate citizens, recently launched the Etisalat Prize for Literature. Along with education and health, Nigeria’s publishing industry has been added to Etisalat’s list of sustainable social investments. The Prize is the first ever pan-African prize celebrating debut fiction writers. The Prize’s award ceremony, which took place on Sunday February 23, 2014 at Federal Palace Hotel, Lagos, demonstrated the company’s commitment to the literary arts and created an avenue for bridging gaps across communities, cultures and continents. Present at the award ceremony were literary giants and enthusiasts from different cultural backgrounds.
Entry to the competition was open to publishing houses which have published a minimum of ten authors. Each publisher could enter no more than three books and, to ensure transparency, the employees of the organisation were not eligible to participate. The entries were evaluated by a judging panel of Pulma Gqola, Billy Kahora, and Sarah Ladipo-Makinya. The shortlist was decided from an initial list of nine after a retreat in Morocco during which the judges discussed the longlisted books at length. At the ceremony Matthew Willsher, the Acting Chief Executive Officer of Etisalat, said that "as a rite of passage, published and unpublished literary works of art have been passed down from generation to generation in Africa. Etisalat Nigeria is indeed pleased to celebrate all authors in the African literary spectrum." Kole Omotosho, a patron of the award, introduced a musical piece in four movements commissioned by Etisalat and composed by Re Olunuga. This segment traced African literature through four generations, beginning with writers such as DO Fagunwa and Naguib Mahfouz, moving on to Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Flora Nwapa, and Bessie Head, and then to Ben Okri, Alain Mabanckou, Leila Aboulela, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The final generation were the new entrants Etisalat celebrated at the event. Ghanaian writer Ama Ata Aidoo was introduced to loud applause and announced the nominees while a female voiceover read brief sentences from the stories. Nigeria’s Uche Okonkwo, a University of Port Harcourt graduate, won the flash fiction category with her piece “Neverland,” while Bonaventure Chukwu’s “Fear” and Nzere Jeremiah’s “Silent Screams” came in second and third place. Okonkwo was rewarded with £1000 and a Samsung Galaxy Note, and the runners-up received £500 as well as Samsung Galaxy Notes. NoViolet Bulawayo of Zimbabwe won the main prize with her novel We Need New Names ahead of Nigerian Yewande Omotosho’s Bom Boy and South African Karen Jenning’s Finding Soutbek. Bulawayo, who is also the first female African writer to be shortlisted for Man Booker Prize, was rewarded with a £15,000 cash prize, a Samsung Galaxy Note and a Montblanc Meisterstuck pen. She will also be a fellow at the University of East Anglia in the UK, be mentored by Giles Foden (author of The Last King of Scotland) and embark on a three-city book signing tour alongside the runner-up authors. Ladipo-Manyika praised the diversity of these debut novels with regards to their content and narrative styles: Bulawayo’s story centers on contemporary global migration, Omotosho’s cross-cultural tale love and loneliness and Jenning’s an exploration of history. The award ceremony featured a performance from celebrated African musical legend-Youssou N’Dour, who thrilled the audience with his hit song "7 Seconds" which he performed with Nigerian artist Ruby, as well as Bob Marley’s classic “Redemption Song”. Through this event, Etisalat has succeeded in encouraging and inspiring creativity across all continents. It has also provided a platform to communicate ideas here in Nigeria: Uche Okonkwo, Bonaventure Chukwu, Nzere Jeremiah and Yewande Omotosho were brought to the limelight and this honouring of their talents will in turn encourage other aspiring Nigerian writers. It is exciting to know that Etiaslat appreciates the value of cultural works through its commitment to arts in Africa: the company also sponsors Nigerian Idol and the LagosPhoto Festival. [slideshow_deploy id='2863'] Images courtesy of the Quadrant Company