Fire On The Mountain

Sound City, Southern Nigeria 06:45am

I jump off the bed and scamper to my prayer mat. My journal and Bible lie untouched. I rush my prayers. I have 5 minutes for everything: thanksgiving, for all the goodness I have received; prayers for my pastor and the church; prayers for God to raise godly leaders for Nigeria; prayers for my family scattered around the world, the new babies we have, and their mothers; prayers for wisdom, grace and favour; prayers for patience, lots and lots of patience.

I read just a verse of the Word today.

“There’s a way that seems right to a man but the end thereof is destruction.”

It gives me shivers.

6.55 am

I dash to the bathroom. I brush my teeth while doing squats. Brown love handles wobble and wriggle by my sides, I ignore them and keep squatting. I bath in two, dress in three. Ten minutes later, I am guzzling down cereal like a refugee. My wife, Mfoniso looks at me, snorts and shakes her head. I focus on the food, on making sure it doesn’t go the wrong way.

“Is the commissioner coming again?” She asks.

“Maybe.” I reply.

She walks over to me and gives me a peck. “Take it easy soldier. This too will pass.”

“Amen.” I say closing my eyes, drinking in her lavender and mint scent.

In a blink it all comes back to me. The life I led before everything imploded.

Snapshots of : lounging around the house in boxers, tending my plants, reading the papers, flick past like a pantomime. Those were good days, good times.

Everything changed when the fire nation attacked –sorry– health commissioners were swapped.

I want to hold her closer and get a full kiss. I want to drink the mint and lavender in, but my eye catches the clock on my phone and I grab my keys and run. I jog to the car, tucking in my shirt while I am at it.

7.10 am

I take deep breaths as I ease my Benz 190 down the street. The potholes are craters that I sink in and out of; sometimes I imagine I am driving on the moon. Soon I am on the dual carriage road that was resurfaced last week. It’s only in Nigeria that some roads get ‘resurfaced’ six times while some others are made of mud and craters.

I fly past the serene green of the playgrounds. Egrets jostle atop dying palms, white rollers in a balding black woman’s hair. Three black birds cackle among them and I wish I had the time to stop and stare. I wish I could google them, these three brave black birds in a gaggle of white.

7.15 am

I am almost at the crossroads. I have to think fast and decide which route I’ll take to CassavaLand. It takes forty minutes to get to CassavaLand if I drive through Obasanjo Way. CassavaLand is an ancient semi-urban town. I work as a medical officer in its general hospital. I apply for transfers every year. The director of medical services just laughs “All of you doctors want to stay in Sound City, the capital, ehn?” He says and tosses my letter  back in the file, transfer declined.

Goodluck Way will get me there in thirty minutes, the road is new, dual carriage, made by Julius Berger. When I’m on it, I think of Germany and the autobahn; and making a giant I love Julius Berger billboard. I am tempted to turn left and blaze down Goodluck Way like a Jason Bourne clone, but I don’t. It’ll gulp more gas and there’ll be less to see: just coal tar and grass. Obasanjo Way is where the fun is, and I know it like the lines that criss-cross my palm , so I head straight on.

Obasanjo Way has also been resurfaced. My tires roll on the uneven lumps and I almost regret choosing this route. I imagine the millions of Naira that this will cost the state coffers, it nearly screeches me to a halt.

Soon we are at the flyovers, another Julius Berger marvel. We never had theses sort of wonders in my part of the Niger Delta. God bless democracy.

A red Kia Picanto zooms past me and my eyebrows flip into my hair.

“You are losing touch man.”

It’s Alan. My ‘other self’. He’s silly like that. Sometimes you don’t hear a thing from him for days then when you least expect it he pops out and starts prattling.

I keep my eyes on the road while I answer. “What do you know about touch. Loser.”

That keeps him quiet for a while. He thinks he is something special. Just because he can bake and play professional chess and write novels. When we were kids, he wanted to go to Russia and become a real grandmaster, West Africa’s first. Somehow Mom got wind of it. That was the end of that.

“Akan, don’t say that to me that again. I am not a loser. I have dreams and I get joy out of what I do. You and your World champion worrier mother wouldn’t let me live them but they are still here. Soon I will find a way to make it happen. What can you brag about? Bottom cadre doctor in the civil service. Ha! The civil service Akan. I thought you were better than this–Watch it!”

A motorbike swerves across the road, inches from my bonnet. The rider makes a face that says, “What are you looking at? Are you blind?”

I exhale through clenched teeth gripping the steering wheel and quelling the volley of abuse that is at the edge of my lips.

Alan starts laughing and holding his sides. soon he is breathless and tears are streaming down his face.

The irritation I feel morphs into cold white anger.

“Oh lord, oh dear,did you see the guy’s shoes. Lawd have mercy! He must have stolen them from a museum.” He giggles some more and I find myself chuckling. The anger ebbs, I realise he isn’t laughing at me.

Ahead there’s a crowd in a circle. Young men form the core, women and older people are at the fringes craning for a better look. A young girl’s corpse is on the ground. Her pink dress is soaked with blood. We all slow down. Everyone. Even the commercial drivers that act like they have appointments in Heaven. The wreck is grotesque, metal mangled into a steel tomb. the carcass of an orange tricycle peeps out from the belly of the ex-Jeep. The ex-Jeep is empty. The driver must have fled for dear life.

In a moment, someone fetches fuel and a match. The young men work in tandem like they have rehearsed this; like it is just normal, setting a ten million Naira SUV ablaze. Maybe they have, it is the norm here, once a car kills someone it has to be burnt, preferably with the driver in it.

Billows of black smoke rise into the air and vultures begin to circle. I look away from the rear view mirror. I want to shout at the young men to stop. I want to take the other victims with me to the hospital where they can get help. I don’t do anything of the sort.

I look at my dashboard, it’s 7.40 am.

I bear down on the throttle and keep a straight face.

7:47 am

Relief settles on me like dew. I am going to make it. I won’t be late. The odd of queue of vehicles jostling along on the single carriage way isn’t bothersome anymore. I take my time to savour the rustic beauty of shops, shrubs and mango trees. Then Kuku the lunatic floats into focus and my spirits dips again.

It is hard to ignore his state of total neglect. The clumps of congealed hair that flap behind him, his dirt brown clothes, the ever-present vapid smile that dances around his lips. Kuku is a nickname; something I made up on one of the more leisurely drives before the madness began….

“Crazy isn’t it.” Said Alan with a smirk on his lips. “One would think science would have found a cure for manic schizophrenia by now. Or a vaccine. All they care about is beauty products and performance enhancing drugs. Viagra and stuff shame. That Kuku would have made a fine athlete.”

It is true. Kuku has the build of an athlete. His illness causes him to pace without rest. Morning noon or night, if you drive past that bit of the road you’ll see him prancing along the edges with his high stepping gait, like a gazelle. Or like model on a runway.

7.50 am

My trusted ride eats up the miles. I am making good time and I am sure I will be there before Dr Eduwem draws the red line.

He never used to do that before. But since the commissioner paid us a surprise call and someone told him he was being considered for a promotion, everything changed. Now he jogs across the road from his flat at exactly 08:00 to draw the red line.

Some people like Dr Akpan don’t care. He still saunters in by 10:00. Sometimes he signs 08:00 under the red line. Other times, he finds a spot to squeeze his name in the early bird section. Folks say the governor is his in-law. I don’t have any influential in-laws. I step harder on the gas.

7:52 am

I am cruising past my favourite stretch of the road. Four other cars bop ahead looking like they are heading somewhere important. Everyone knows it is a ruse. Unemployment level are higher than 30%. It is part of our national culture– struggling, we are used to scarcity and it shows in our driving.

“Don’t” Alan says.

“Why not.” I reply

“Cos you don’t need to. You’ll be there on time.”

” Yea, but this is more fun.” I say, slouching in a corner of the seat, a pilot about to take off.

Then we soar. It is dizzying, whizzing past the other cars, gauging their speeds, keeping an eye ahead. It’s a lot of mental math, but the thrill is electric. Beside me, a woman ferries a cage full of dogs, I wonder if they know they’ll be dog meat within a week.

7:55am

I drive into the premises humming to myself. Then I discover I have forgotten my tie. A low groan fills the car and for a moment I don’t know what to do. I scrap through my pigeon hole and find a wretched one with pink boxes. I toss it back it. I’d rather look casual than stupid.

I walk-run down the corridor to the Medical Superintendent’s office where the staff time book is. You can’t trust Dr Eduwem. Even though his car isn’t there he might be at the muster point: red pen in hand, trousers hoisted to mid abdomen, spectacles dangling dangerously close to the tip of his nose.

That’s when I notice the nurses. Gathered around the empty table with their arms folded making clucking noises like hens.

The time book is missing.

Alan starts laughing again. This time I know I am the clown.

Monkey Business

He smiled as he read the text. Twenty million naira had been deposited into his account. Fantastic! He could hardly wait for morning. Finally he had escaped poverty and hustling. He could now taste the champagne and the strawberries. When he slept, he dreamt of pretty plus size women, fast cars and exotic holiday resorts.

By 8am he was at the bank. He felt bad selling the fake cosmetics to the woman. But life wasn’t fair and it wasn’t his fault. He could imagine how shocked she would be to find out that the ‘original American products’ she had paid for were cheap fakes. He had to hurry, he didn’t want to be around when that happened.

He signed the cheque and passed it to an ebony brown cashier with red lips and a tight blouse. He smiled as he handed the cheque across. She smiled back showing small, white teeth. Hmm he thought, this looks nice. Maybe he would ask for her number before he left. He now had all it took to host a girl. He was rich!

She frowned at the computer and looked up at him.

“Were you expecting a deposit?”

“Yes, it came in yesterday. I have the alert on my phone.” His words were rushed. No, there was no way, the girl must have made a mistake. He thought. Hadn’t he received an alert? He began to sweat despite the air-conditioning.

“Can I see the text?” She asked.

“Sure” he replied. His fingers trembled slightly as he passed her the phone.

The cashier studied the text for a moment. “I am sorry. There has been a mistake this is a dummy. This wasn’t sent from our office. If you look at the address of the sender you will notice–” She looked up, “Mr Ofor?”

Mr Ofor was lying in a heap on the floor.

How To Write A Caine Prize Story (Whatever That Is) Part 2

As promised, you are about to receive the second part of your instructions on this treatise. Heed them well and very soon, your name shall join those being celebrated in print,on air and online. It has been noted that some of you have already begun applying these nuggets in earnest . This is most commendable, the shortlist seeker must be a person with their wits about them. Time is of the essence. Now to business.

7. Avoid Technology .

When crafting such an important story, you might be tempted to mention some of the latest communication gadgets: mobile phones, laptops, Ipads,Tablets and the like . This temptation you must resist. However the mistake you must never make is to mention the internet! You are also not permitted any hint of the Social Media world, space may not permit to list them all but surely you understand. Yes, Facebook and Twitter are not allowed. This is an absolute. So when you feel the need to have characters sending email,pinging on blackberries, and skyping remember–you have been warned. Telephones are allowed though, provided their connections crackle with static. Also no guns, you can use sticks, stones and occasionally a machete for your violent scenes. Don’t mention any of the anti-aircraft guns possessed by insurgents. Be silent on the sophisticated assault riffles used for election violence. Don’t even let a character wish for them. Care less about how this might hinder the plausibility of your story, or render your narrative unauthentic. Ignore this at your peril.

8. Never Write A Heterosexual Romance

The quick learner you are , you must have read through the shortlists of as many years as are on the internet. You must have found that any kind of love is well received except the old fashioned type that exists between a man and a woman. (i mentioned this in a in 5 above but it bears repeating)
So let ladies touch jambullas or get caught by their mothers or men face trials for love. Just make sure it is not a man-woman thing. You will be on prize story ground.
If you must include any heterosexual romantic liaisons it must be in the context of a Fable or an affair. Forbidden love like forbidden fruit always sells.
You would better off without it though. This is to assist, if you insist.

9. Use Your Story To Highlight Political Issues

Here corruption is an instant winner. Crude oil spillage, bad governance, inefficient civil servants will come handy, arm yourself with a lot of them.. You must be quite expansive here, ensure no one is innocent. Everyone must have a trace of corrupt even the expatriate embassy staff. It is a guaranteed winner. Political issues create a resonance in your readers. It reminds them vividly of the Africa they see on television. Don’t you dare enlighten them. Take a clue from the stories shortlisted in the past. Never mind the “new” African focus. The new is silent.

10. Get Your Story Published Overseas

Of course there is a 20% chance of making it on the shortlist by getting published by a home based outfit. This you can in no way guarantee. The easier matter is to be in the 80%. That should be quite self explanatory. Besides it would be quite the task to convince a local publisher that children’s bodies are black with crude oil in Port Harcourt or that you need 3000 words to describe a fictitious healing. Western publishers however would be delighted. Besides where exactly would you find a publisher to accept just a short story from you ? Not in Nigeria definitely and not in Serria Leone. Simple statistics, get the story published overseas.

11. Be Blind To Other Races.

You might have observed first-hand some fascinating yarn that involves Indians, Chinese and Lebanese living on the continent. You might even have gotten a fast moving authentic story written and under the word count too. Unfortunately this you would have to discard. A shortlist story must not feature any of these, ever. There is a picture of Africa in your reader’s mind, your duty is just to highlight it. Zoom on it if you will. Any attempts at radical,rebellious,experimental, what-if thinking will meet the fate of the 92. And like them your story will languish in the endless literary cosmos, unread and un-appreciated, soon to be forgotten…. A most unbearable thought.

12. Limit Infrastructure.

This point you know already so it will be brief. Write only of the kind of infrastructure all the other writers have written of. Again this is reminiscent of
7 above but a slightly different matter. Transport for instance. Your story must never feature aeroplanes. Private jets are anathema as are any air conditioned vehicle. Bicycles,canoes, leg breaking motorcycles and rickety buses with smelling women are allowed though, so make good use of them. Note that the roads must always be bumpy, “sandy and brown ” and bumpy.
Also any mention of the following in your stories will be deeply frowned upon : fast food outlets, universities, cinema theatres,shopping malls, picnics, carnivals and parties. Forget your ambitious entertainment industry and their like. You must stay within the boundaries set from old. As in E.C.Osondu’s Waiting, Monica Arac De Nyeko’s Jambulla Tree, Noviolet Bulawayo’s Hitting Budapest, you must paint a bleak picture and do that deftly.

At this point you are ready to produce a shortlist story. Of course you would not attempt to set your story in a futuristic context. What? This is not genre fiction! There are other concerns like the liberal use of mosquitoes, nauseating smells and the ubiquitous eye disorders and the absence of banks. These you will discover in time and be all the more shortlist worthy when you do. There are other matters of course, punctuation, continuation, omissions ( now known as typos). These are minor matters that the help of a first rate editor can easily solve, another reason to examine with care where you send your story. It feels bad to let you go now, but all good things must end. Go, put your name on the Caine Prize shortlist roll call, 2014 is just months away. Best wishes. Adieu.

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How To Write A Caine Prize Story ( Whatever That Is) Part 1

Nta Bassey

First you must know, that this is not a guide on how to win the Caine Prize. Rotimi Babatunde, Noviolet Bulawayo or Olufemi Terry and co would do well to write that. This is merely concerned with getting you on the shortlist , and for that you must be grateful. For if Sir Michael Caine never did have a prize, your name would still be deeply ensconced in Africa’s jungles known only by your town crier. Now, back to business.

1. Choose Your Title Carefully, Two Words Max.

You might love a long title like Romie Scott’s ” A Robot Walks Into A Bar And Says” or Laurie Kubuitsile’s “In The Spirit Of McPhineas Lata” ( She made the shortlist in 2011 but that’s old school now). Those might get you gung-ho fans and instant interest; but remember it is global recognition you crave. Make your title simple and to the point- Bayan Layi, Miracle, America, Whispering Trees, Foriegn Aid.
You see? Two words max. Forget all those editors that insist that a short fiction title must not be a summary but a revelation. Forget anything that would arrest a reader’s attention. Think economy, think simple-minded, think bland.

2.Renounce Your Faith

As a African it is very likely that you believe in God, gods or goddesses. Well,that has to stop now. As a Caine prize hopeful, you are only allowed to believe in ghosts. If your writings show any respect for things that can not be explained and experimented, woe betide you. Islam is only to be mentioned to justify man’s inhumanity to man or to declare one’s independence from it. Christianity can feature but only to show how deceptive and manipulative its clerics are. You may also mention it while alluding to homophobic parents,nothing else. Don’t venture into Traditional religion. Ghosts though are welcome, witches and wizards too. Yeah, they love Harry Potter that much. An utterance should suffice for the shortlist seeker.

3.Bring Out All Africa’s Dirty Linen.

Pa Ikhide and Binavanga Wainaina have spoken extensively about this. ( C’mon, don’t be lazy,google it!) Don’t dare to present Africa in anything but her shabbiest. And if though shabbily dressed she attempts to stun with her wit ,courage or resilience then slap her, better still hack her with a sharp machete or shove on the forehead –DOWN! Dig out the most depraved and contrived of her vices. Turn your hungry cousins to urchins, your broke friends to beggars, your street kids to mafia men. Whatever you do, keep the propaganda pumping–Africa, is a country,one of poverty,stupidity,ignorance, corruption, bigotry and disease.

4. Break EVERY Short Fiction Rule You Ever Heard Or Read.

This is one is simple. Dawdle your words, triple your adverbs, let adjectives litter your prose like confetti. If you can tell a scene with four words use forty. Tell everything as if you are writing for prehistoric preschool children that can’t google broom or slum or snow. Pour in Simile and Metaphor by the handfuls, make sure everything is like something.  Leave all your fillers in as well. Take this qoute from this year’s shortlist for instance “an orange tree grew,and a guava tree, and a mango tree…” see? You are three words closer to three thousand ,for free! If that fails then just vacillate, give people titles like Saint, use that to get a ten word bonus. If you are stuck , just imagine camera crew on a Nollywood film site and describe the same scene through each of their lenses. Yeah, that should do it, works best for church scenes though. Good, now you know.

5.Find The Western Angle, Flog It Till Your Readers Faint.

Again this works best when you are reffering to religion. The judges can not have enough about a character’s crimes being passed on as the will of Allah. They go wild when you tell them how you faked a miracle you didn’t get. Allude to it, at least in the parents of your gay partner, or better still let your main character do it Jonah style–one man against his Maker. If that isn’t your style you could go for second best which is homosexuality. Glamourise it, romanticize it, fantacisize it , demonise it, just do it. Every major global  literary prize has had healthy doses of queerness in it from the 2012 common wealth pacific region winner–Two Girls In A Boat , to the 2012 Caine Prize shortlist tale– S. Kenani’s Love On Trial . The odds are in your favour, write with them.
If you are still squirming about those, at least, this should be doable– Glorify the immigration experience. You can do it obliquely, directly, subtley, or glaringly( remember peppering your work with adverbs as stated in 4 above), but make it count. Turn America into a bank where a hundred dollar bill is mistaken for two twenties. Make her a Snow Wonderland where even “fruits glisten”. Paint her as a  generous haven of broke African Charlatans. The choice is yours. If you can’t do any of these, then perhaps you are on the wrong web page. Log out now, time is money.

6. Write In The First Person.

Forget what your writing workshop teacher said or what you read, the Caine prize short list is serious business and you must do drastic things to get on it. So throw away all those works in the third person limited or the All Seeing Eye Of God (eww! how religious!). Discover your voice. Afterall isn’t this all about you and your winning story? Exactly! So even if you’ve never attempted walking around with a blindfold you can become quite the authority on counting footsteps from your house to the nearest bus stop. Moreso, you can tell us about road trips form Port Harcourt to Lagos that last just eight hours done on your visa interview day. You can also speak of miracles forced on the unbelieving, afterall, its not like the judges read their bibles. In the first person you can also let your author’s voice roam free. Instead of a street child thinking of survival, he can calmly philosophise on Allah and his strange ways. Even a final year medical student’s mind can be reset to avoid nightmares on differential diagnosis, prognosis, probable opthalmology surgery or anything like that. You are the boss remember? Now go and act like it! Don’t forget to mention me in your BBC interview though. That would really hurt.

At time of posting I was visited by my muses, they whispered various other secrets to writting a Caine Prize story, so keep a date with us on this blog. We promise new content everyday, who knows tomorrow part two may be out. This enough for your first draft though , so go!

Naijawriter warns that heeding any of the above advice can prove harmful to your writing career. The statements made are the sole preserve of the author. 😉