AT THE DAWN OF THIS CENTURY, literary jurists in Europe and America committed what many in Africa considered an act of deliberate contempt. On assessment of the "100 best" or most influential books published in the previous century, not one was from Africa. Even Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, which had sold over 6 million copies and had been translated into many major languages, did not make the list. The fury led Ali Mazrui, an elder African political scientist from Kenya, to counsel that as long as the selections were made in Europe and America, with their instinctive cannons, contempt would be Africans' fodder.
He therefore suggested that Africa made its own selection. The continent's literary connoisseurs obliged and in consequence the popularity of the selected 100 African books of the 20th century soared. Since then, there has been an increased confidence in the institutions of literary prizes by African ist organisations in Europe and companies in Africa. As well as The Noma Award for Publishing in Africa, instituted in 1979 in memory of a Japanese-Africanist (with a monetary value of $10,000), there has been The Caine Prize for African Writing since 2000 (with a value of $10,000), the Commonwealth Book Prize instituted in 2011 ($10,000), and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize ($5,000).
In addition there are some domestic and less endowed continental prizes. But far more prestigious is the Wok Soyinka Prize For Literature in Africa, which comes with a medal and a $20,000 reward, and has become a symbol of knowledge, creativity, courage and justice. The Prize is administered by The Lumina Foundation, based in Lagos, Nigeria. Since zoo6, the Prize has been awarded biannually in honour of the continent's first Nobel Literature Laureate, Wole Soyinka, whose sense of environmental preservation led to a major prediction in his 1958 play, Swamp Dwellers, that the Shell Oil Company's pursuit of oil and its effects would one day lead to an Ogoni crisis in the Niger Delta.
This was followed in 1965 with Kongi's Harvest premised on the effect of bad governance on Africa's development and the coming violence upon its leadership.
Since then, Soyinka, now 77, has become a man of the people in his homeland, especially so since the issues dealt with by these two plays have become an affliction in Nigeria and other parts of resource-rich Africa. Judging by the praise-singing poetry that attended the recent fourth edition of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and the dramatic adoration and enactment of his plays of varied themes, Nigerians are not yet tired of Soyinka as a bogeyman.
Meanwhile, the Lumina Foundation, which gives the Prize, continues to encourage reading in Nigerian primary and secondary schools through 63 Wole Soyinka Reading Clubs in the country, and by working with 84 libraries.
The Foundation was originally brought into being by Ogochukwu Promise, who had to resign from a lucrative banking career to do so and who gave out the first literature award on the 20th anniversary of Soyinka's Nobel Prize, given in 1986.
"I could not condone illiteracy or pretend it was not harming the people I met and greeted, or still meet and greet," says Ogochukwu. "Illiteracy is the architect of poverty, including poverty of mind, which is the worst kind of poverty really. …