Sierra Leonean Wins Caine Prize: Olufemi Terry's Short Story, "Stickfighting Days", Won This Year's Caine Prize, Otherwise Known as the African Booker. Uchenna Izundu Went to Meet Him and the Prize Committee

By Izundu, Uchenna | New African, August-September 2010 | Go to article overview

Sierra Leonean Wins Caine Prize: Olufemi Terry's Short Story, "Stickfighting Days", Won This Year's Caine Prize, Otherwise Known as the African Booker. Uchenna Izundu Went to Meet Him and the Prize Committee


Izundu, Uchenna, New African


MANY EMERGING WRITERS take up a sideline to pay the bills. For Sierra Leone's Olufemi Terry, journalism is the full-time paying job--fiction writing is the fun part, which will lead to the publication of his first novel. So, winning the [pounds sterling]10,000 Caine Prize, dubbed Africa's Booker, is a mile stone to helping achieve that ambition. His achievement is particularly commendable considering that "Stickfighting Days" is only the second short story that he has written. It was inspired whilst living in Kenya and written over 10 days.

"There was very little that was fixed in my head when I began writing and it came out of me in a flood," says Terry. "Stick-fighting Days", published in the South African literary magazine Chimurenga, follows a group of boys who sniff glue and fight each other with sticks in a dump. "Mormegil is as long as our regulations allow, a lovely willow poke, dark willow--that's why I chose the name. It means black sword in Tolkien's language," says Terry's narrator. "Mormegil is a killing machine, even though I've never done for anyone yet. But I will. I like Markham, but I'd like to kill him. I dream of doing it in front of a huge pack of boys. Clinically."

Fiammetta Rocco, chair of the judging panel, described Terry's entry as having "a heroic culture that is Homeric in its scale and conception. The execution of this story is so tight and the presentation so cinematic, it confirms Olufemi Terry as a talent with an enormous future."

The award for the Caine Prize, which recognises African talent for a short story in English, also includes a month's residency (with all expenses) paid at Georgetown University in Washington DC. Terry was shocked when he won and wants to take advantage of the profile to publish his debut novel The Sum of All Losses. It is a coming of age story in New York involving two young men from Cameroon and Nigeria. One is yearning to return home whilst the other feels estranged from everywhere that he has been. It is a testing friendship that culminates with one trying to save the other and failing.

Terry was born of Sierra Leonean and Vincentian heritage. His father's role as a research scientist means Terry lived in Nigeria, the UK, Cote d'Ivoire, the USA, Kenya, Somalia, Uganda, and South Africa. His next home is Germany where he will join his partner. His name Olufemi is Yoruba and means "God loves me", but the 38-year-old Terry is an atheist. It was his realisation as a young man that he didn't speak any of the major languages that triggered his sense of disconnect from Nigeria despite feeling Nigerian as a child.

"I felt sad about it," he says. "As long as I'm speaking English I can pretend to be Nigerian. I don't feel I belong in either camp: those who were born to African parents abroad and grew up calling themselves Nigerian or Sierra Leonean or those who grew up in Africa but schooled in the West and stayed there. I moved around a lot in Africa and lived in Kenya. I feel like I'm in a middle place."

Obtaining his undergraduate degree in political science and a masters in interactive telecommunications in New York was challenging as the city's culture was alienating. "It applies a lot of pressure on one to conform despite presenting itself as being liberal," Terry reflects. "I find England much more idiosyncratic in the way that people dress and their viewpoints on a range of issues."

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Perhaps this journey of resettling explains his drive to tell stories of Africans in the diaspora, who Terry feels have their own unique challenges and perspectives. Although he started writing at the age of 10 in boarding school in the UK, Terry was not seriously writing until late 2006 when he was preparing to move to Cape Town to fulfil his dream of writing a novel. …

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Sierra Leonean Wins Caine Prize: Olufemi Terry's Short Story, "Stickfighting Days", Won This Year's Caine Prize, Otherwise Known as the African Booker. Uchenna Izundu Went to Meet Him and the Prize Committee
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