20 Apr 2013

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The Kwani? Manuscript Project, a new one-off literary prize for unpublished fiction from African writers, has announced a longlist of 30 from over 280 submissions it received.


The names of the authors were not disclosed.
The Kwani? Manuscript Project was launched in April 2012 and called for the submission of unpublished novel manuscripts from African writers across the continent and in the Diaspora. The prize received over 280 qualifying submissions from 19 African countries.
The longlist, which represents 10 African countries and showcases literary fiction across and between a range genres from fantasy to crime to historical fiction, was selected by a panel of 9 readers, made up of writers, editors and critics from East, West and Southern Africa, as well as the UK and the US.

Kwani Trust’s Managing Editor, Billy Kahora said, “This longlist begins the actualization of a long-held Kwani? ambition - to build a significant novel series of new original voices across the continent. To replicate the work we’ve been doing for the last 10 years with the short fiction form, creative non-fiction, spoken word and poetry in East Africa when it comes to the novel form.”

The list has now been passed to our panel of judges, chaired by Sudanese novelist Jamal Mahjoub. Working with him will be deputy editor of Granta magazine Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, leading scholar of African literature Professor Simon Gikandi, Chairman of Kenyatta University’s Literature Department Dr. Mbugua wa Mungai, editor of Zimbabwe’s Weaver Press Irene Staunton and internationally renowned Nigerian writer Helon Habila.

The author of THE COLOUR OF OIL is this columnist. The problem, however, is that since the submission months ago, I have updated the manuscript considerably. Let me use this opportunity to share the first chapter with you.


The scream rolled across the night, as acrid and toxic as the air the captives breathed.

Peter Abel, an experienced investigative reporter, remained his stoic self for the benefit of the young man who sat on the hard ground across the tent from him. The young man pulled his knees up tightly to his chest, wrapped his arms around his legs and let his chin drop. He parted his mouth but said nothing.

But Abel knew exactly what the handsome young American was thinking because their thoughts were identical. Whatever was happening to the man in the second of the two tents deep in the forest would soon happen to them.

And the chances were good they would not survive it.
Abel recognised the young man from newspaper photos of him on his arrival in Nigeria from the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in Kenya. He had been the toast of environmental activists for his interest in the conditions in the Niger Delta.

Had Abel not recognised him from the publicity surrounding his arrival, he could have guessed his identity. Jones Canaday was a 30-year-old clone of his father. He had caused a huge stir when he announced plans to move from St. Louis, his family home to study environmental conditions in Africa. No one of his stature had done that before. But adventure was typical of the Canaday family. They all proclaimed a stake in improving the condition of their planet and all of its inhabitants. And they did everything they could to live their words.

It was this attitude and a record of accomplishment that won Jones Canaday’s father, Malcolm, his several terms at the US Senate, a hot bet to be president. Canaday was riding to the White House on the twin issues of Big Oil and western dependence on it. It made him few friends in the oil industry in general, and in Nigeria in particular.

Abel suspected their captors knew about Canaday all too well to keep him.

“Who are you?
The voice, somewhat shaky, came from the other side of the tent. Abel looked up to see Jones Canaday watching him closely.
“Peter Abel,” he said. “I’m a journalist with The Zodiac.”
“How do you come to be here?”

“I was researching a story on the environmental damage caused by an oil spill here when I was captured.”
“Where’s here?”

“Somewhere in the Niger Delta… I don’t know exactly…”

“Is that where we are?” Jones paused to cough. “In the Niger Delta? Some men in military fatigue seized me, blindfolded me and put me in their speedboat. I don’t know what’s happened to my guide.”
“Yes, Niger Delta.”

“And who’re our captors. Militants?”

“I don’t think they’re militants, no,” Abel said. “I think they’re crude oil thieves or imposters, taking advantage of an opportunity. The militants have very real and very serious grievances with the oil industry in this country. The environmental consequences of oil exploration threaten their health and the survival of every creature in the Delta. They fight for their lives. The people who took us, they are interested only in people they think are intruders. What happens to the Delta is of no concern to them.”
“How do you know this?” Canaday said.

Abel smiled. “I’m not only a journalist; I’m a good journalist,” he said.
Canaday returned the smile.
“So tell me, Mr. Abel …”

“Peter, please…”

“Peter, what are our chances of knowing  freedom again?”
Abel had been considering that.

“Yours are perhaps better than mine,” he said. “You’re worth a lot more money, and your father can afford to pay.”
“You know me?”
“I do,” Abel said. “Your arrival in the country made headline news.”
“The United States doesn’t negotiate with terrorists,” Canaday said.
“But fathers do,” Abel said. “Don’t lose hope.”

After a fitful night in which neither slept much, Peter Abel and Jones Canaday were given a breakfast of tainted water and somewhat mouldy bread and cheese. Their hands were bound behind their backs, and they were marched deeper into the swamps. The area looked like a kill zone, an occasional dead bird mouldering in the dust, the distinct odour of rotting fish in the air. And soundlessness. Abel could not get past the fact that the only sound he could hear was the shuffle of human feet along the ground.

Their captors, two tall, muscular men for each captive, stopped them for no apparent reason. The world fell into total silence.
Then a sound from their left. Abel and Canaday turned to it and saw four more men carrying a naked body. It was a white man, horribly mutilated, covered in drying blood. Another of the captives. The source, no doubt, of the previous night’s screams.

Abel looked at it more closely as the body moved past him. Jones looked away.

As the body was carried past the two living captives, the guards prodded Abel and Canaday to follow. Farther on, about a kilometre into the thick mangrove forest, Abel thought, they were assailed by a new stench. He recognised it as decomposing flesh. If Canaday knew what it was, he gave no indication. But he stopped, gagged twice, and threw up the meager breakfast he has taken.
The guards laughed at him and prodded him again to move.

They came to the edge of a shallow grave with water at the bottom. The water table is high in the Niger Delta country, and one does not have to dig very deep to hit it. In addition to the water, Abel saw some decomposing bodies in the trench.

As the tallest of the captors was mean-looking. He simply tossed the body into the pit that served as a grave.  It made a mushy, stomach-turning thwack when it hit the rotting human flesh. Canaday moaned and turned away. He was hit with a staff over his right kidney for his sensitivity.

“You two, cover them up,” the apparent leader ordered the two captives. Someone else handed them shovels and pointed to the mound of dirt beside the grave, the result of the excavation. “And don’t get ideas about fighting back. You have shovels, but you are weak, and there are eight guns among us. It would give us nothing but pleasure to add yours to the pile of bodies accumulating in there.”

The ramifications of Canaday’s death could be enormous, Abel thought as he drove the shovel into the dirt. If the death of an American hostage became public knowledge, the United States would not be able to shrug off the loss. Some sort of sanctions would be inevitable. And whatever action was taken would all be about oil.


Later in the day, when they were returned to their sweltering tent, filthy and exhausted, Canaday commented on Abel’s prolonged lapse into silence.

“You haven’t said anything for hours,” he said. “Is there something new troubling you?”
Abel shook his head. “That body we just buried was a White man’s. He looked like a Pilipino really. God knows who the decomposing bodies are,” he said. “Seeing what the captors did to him could very well get me killed.”
“And me?” Canaday said.

“As you can imagine, your situation is much more complex. Last night when we discussed this, I thought the fact of your identity would keep you alive and relatively healthy until your government determines where you are and finds a way to secure your release. Now I’m not so sure. And I think if these people are militants and if you should be killed, they will find a way to ensure your government knows of your death and recovers your body. By killing you, they might precipitate a hostile reaction from your country. That might be exactly what they want in your case.”

“I’m to be a catalyst for this? Because of who my father is and what he stands for?” Canaday asked.

Abel shook his head again.
“Don’t mistake morality for opportunity,” Abel said. “These people care nothing for your father’s positions on any issues. Not even if he participated in the Oil Shockwave exercise in the US that predicted militancy in this area.”

“Yes he did,” Canada said. “But is this part of it?”

Canaday had bitten the bait, but Abel fought back his excitement about that disclosure. He pretended it meant nothing to him and continued, “I think so, and you are simply a means to an end. You are simply the pawn. If the death of any US citizen makes the US put pressure on the government here, the better for the captors if they are indeed militants.”

Canaday thought about that for a moment, and nodded. His full hair was surprisingly neat.
“We can’t let that happen,” he said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have ventured into the creeks alone. Some oil companies offered to fly me around in a chopper, but….” He stopped.

“No we can’t,” Abel said. “But you have to wonder how a journalist and an environmentalist can turn a tide that may become a tsunami.”
Canaday’s face became red as his anger flashed.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t even try?”

“Emmm,” Abel said. “We definitely will try, although the first step will be among the most difficult.
“What’s that?”

“Escape,” Abel said. “We must get away, remain alive and find our way back to Lagos. And if we can pull that off, then we’ll think about Step Two.”

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