Read the Africa Day 2017 writing competition winners

The African-themed short story and poetry competition is designed to showcase emerging talent and established writers

Irish Times Africa Day writing competition winners. Pictured with Books Editor Martin Doyle are Boitumelo Ntsimane (Portlaoise); Matthew Price (Rathfarnham) and Florence Olufemi-Ojo (Tallaght). Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Irish Times Africa Day writing competition winners. Pictured with Books Editor Martin Doyle are Boitumelo Ntsimane (Portlaoise); Matthew Price (Rathfarnham) and Florence Olufemi-Ojo (Tallaght). Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Florence Olufemi Oju’s account of an eye-opening trip to visit family in Nigeria and Lind Grant-Oyeye’s poem connecting the Niger river to the River Nore are this year’s adult winners of the Irish Times Irish Aid Africa Day writing competition.

Matthew Price’s short story, Penumbra, about the challenges facing an African mother and daughter in Ireland, won the secondary school prize, while poems celebrating Africa by Jimmy Omokuba and Ireland and Africa by Boitumelo Ntsimane won the primary school award.

The winning entries were selected by Martin Doyle, Books Editor of The Irish Times, and Máirtín Cronin of Irish Aid. Winners will each receive a selection of books to the value of €50. The African-themed short story and poetry competition for writers of all ages marks Africa Day 2017 and is designed to showcase emerging talent, as well as established writers. This is the third year that the competition has taken place.

Highly commended were (adults) Etienne Muller, Deirdre Toomey, Patricia O’Connor and Mary Sorohan; (Secondary) Anna Maya Pawlowski, Hazel Kevlihan, David Garvey, Michael Dake; and (Primary) Lara Ekaldi, Reme Otuos, Caroline Wall and Lucy Maxwell Guinan.

Irish Aid hosts its flagship Africa Day event today, Sunday, May 21st, in the grounds of Farmleigh Estate in the Phoenix Park, Dublin 15. This free family-focused event will feature the sights and sounds of Africa, through performances by well-known African and Irish musicians; children’s entertainment; traditional African drumming and dance workshops; and much more. africaday.ie.

Primary school winners

The Irish African Fields
By Boitumelo Ntsimane

From the back garden of my Irish home; on a beautiful lovely bright Spring day,
I see the blue skies of Ireland; the same blue skies as that of Africa,
I see the small and the huge birds roaming by; the same as the birds of Africa,
I see the aeroplanes going by; the aeroplanes that ferried my parents and my grandparents,
I see the aeroplanes full of hopes, dreams, aspirations and ambitions,
I see the aeroplanes that deprived Africa of its talents and its children,

I see the green fields of Athenry, the same as the fields of Africa,
The fields full of crop, sheep, cow and pig; the same as the fields of Africa;
The Irish fields full of crop that nourishes my people in Africa,
The fields that enriches the dreams and aspirations of Africa,
The fields that brings life to Africa,
The fields that brings hope to Africa,
The fields that unite my African people to a dining table,
The fields quench the thirst of my African people,

This is what African fields feel like,
From South African fruits to Kenya’s coco,
The fields that provide the world with diamonds, gold and platinum,
From Zimbabwean and Botswanan diamonds to the gold of South Africa,
The fields with minerals that makes the world connect with each other,
From The Democratic Republic of Congo to Rwanda’s tantalum,
Now the world can communicate with each other with ease,
We thank God for the African fields; we thank God for the Irish fields,
God bless Ireland, Nkosi sikelel iIreland,
God bless Africa, Nkosi sikelel iAfrika…

Africa
By Jimmy Omukuba

You are a question mark in the sea
Everyone wants to visit you
The Kibera slums of Nairobi,
We all want to witness the eighth wonder of the world
The pink flowers of Lake Nakuru are breathtaking
The butterfly forests of Kakamega are home to me.

Africa,
You hold such a rich history
Yes,
You are the cradle of mankind
Tales about you are sweet like honey
Little children gather around the fireplace
To listen to the sweet tales of their grandfathers and grandmothers
Never to depart from them when they grow up.

Africa you are so blessed with natural resources
Like a playful calf your people move freely
Spreading love beyond their borders
With open arms and a warm handshake
They even have an endearing name for the white man: Mzungu

Africa,
Without you the circle of life is incomplete
So blessed with beautiful people; from the inside to the outside.

Your rivers’ flow is an echo to the playful children
Emichera chia Africa emikhongo munane (the eight biggest rivers of Africa):
Niger, Congo, Orange, Limpopo, Kasai, Nile, Ubangi, Zambezi.

Beloved Africa,
God Has blessed you
The whole world loves you
I wish you were my pet
To look at every day
I wish I could hold you whenever
I wish I could steal you just for myself
But I can’t
My love for you Africa is like a waterfall
Forever present.
May God bless you Africa
Without you Africa I will die!

Secondary school prize winner

Penumbra
By Matthew Price

A smile is squirming on his face. “So, can you start Monday then?”

”I can’t, I’m sorry.”

”Tuesday?”

”Thank you, but I can’t.”

His eyebrows knit together then, in what I suppose is sympathy. “Diola,” he says, like the name’s a heavy thing. He always uses my name, even though I told him when we met to call me Dee. He says it all the same, stretching the vowels out like he’s torturing them on a rack. “I’m only after offering you a job. And you’ve been volunteering at the museum for three years now; it won’t be much of a change only we’ll be paying you. Of course, you’ll accept.”

I sip my coffee. Its taste is bitter and familiar. Beside me, a little girl drinks hot chocolate the way a hamster might. I would smile at her, but I am meant to respond. “I’m sorry. No.”

He looks hurt, so I force a friendliness over my face. I project the stale, bitter warmth of the coffee. “I just don’t understand you, Diola,” he says. As he says it, I see the understanding stray into his eyes. It stains his expression.

He doesn’t let me pay for my own coffee like he usually does. And he doesn’t say he’ll see me tomorrow either. He leaves in a polite hurry. I turn to the girl. She’s gone already. The half-drunk hot chocolate gives off small tendrils of steam.

The bus drops me a short way from home. There’s a chill to the air, but it’s not too cold as long as I keep moving. The walk takes about as long as it always does.

Inside the gates, I pass the old man whose name I have forgotten, or never knew. He’s still limping from a month ago. As he shuffles by his roving eyes wash over me but take no notice. The drugs have quietened him. His face is like a stopped clock.

I unlock the door and step inside. The little one is not home yet, so I sleep for a while.

I wake too soon, with sunlight in my eyes. The blinds are drawn, but bent and broken and out of shape so that ribbons of light come through the gaps.

I open the door of the bedside locker and move aside the stack of books until I can reach in and take out the contraband. It’s illegal here and if they knew about it, we could be sent away. I plug it in; it is still full from the last time. Its sound gradually invades the silence. Whispering at first, then spluttering, now shrilling as it comes to boil. I touch the steel with the backs of my fingers. I let the sudden, fierce heat sting the flesh; let the sharpness of pain soften the edges of everything else. I am focussed. I take them away at the last second before the skin blisters. It’s finished then. I put it back in the drawer and pile the books tightly in front of it and its silent again but for the soft ticking of the clock.

She arrives home sometime after that. Full of stories about the day and its many happenings and the cruelty of her teacher and the cleverness of herself and her friends. Saoirse is her name. When we got here, she was only two and I thought it would be a good idea to give her an Irish name so that she’d fit in better. Sometimes she asks to hear stories about Abebi, the girl in Nigeria, not understanding that Abebi is her, and she is Saoirse, and Saoirse is Abebi.

“Mama.” She twists one of the buttons on her uniform.

“What is it, child?”

“Ms. O’Brien says we have to make a poster about Ireland and it has to be really colourful.” She is standing awkwardly, one small foot on top of the other like a clumsy ballerina. “But we don’t have any colouring pencils.”

I think of the bus journey to town and the bus journey home, and imagine the bus journeys and treats that tomorrow will demand.

“I’ll write you a note.”

She takes out her copybooks, starts to write. She’s practising her cursive. Her brown eyes following the pencil across the page, her wrist moving slowly, deliberately, tracing big curly capitals. I watch her and think for a moment about how time can move at a hundred miles an hour and stand still, all at once.

I put her to bed. We read a story. She likes princess stories now. She tells me goodnight and how she loves me in the beautiful mongrel accent that’s all her own. The little sounds out of her tell me she’s asleep. Soft murmurs, voiced breaths. Her tiny eyelids flutter like the wings of a moth. When I’m certain she won’t miss me, I step outside.

I walk to the place where the coils of barbed wire atop the gate scrape the clouds. A month ago, a gang scaled the fence, painted on the walls, and beat up the old man for no reason other than he happened to be passing. The next day, the wire went up and the wall was painted over so that now you can hardly read the words anymore.

The sun is still up, just about, but a yellowish moon is already high in the sky. It’s that strange time when it’s not day anymore and not yet night. The setting sun stains the sky purple: a hundred hues layered over one another, like a wildflower, a bruise. The purple stretches as far as I can see and I know farther still. The sun steps in behind the hills then, and the violet tinge is rinsed from the clouds as they streak by overhead in no hurry at all.

I turn to walk back. There’s no light to guide me now, except that of the jaundiced moon, but it is enough. I know the way well.

Adult section winners

Mother Tongue
By Lind Grant-Oyeye

I borrowed these deep words from my mother,
while we sat at the bank of the Niger river.
The evening sun resting on the silhouette of our past.
Filled and fulfilled for the day, her breadth scattered
on errant molecules of water;
“bless this child. Let her rise as the wave that greets
a lost seagull and brings it back home to the Centre.
It floats while holding unto old and new dreams”.
My reverie has brought me here –
to the banks of the River Nore. It meanders like
the zig -zag journey of a bird lost in transit.
I watch like a merchant ship, a man: his harp and a smile.
He sings of loving; speaks of a girl who seemed lost in the
milling crowd in Galway city. He sings of birds –
how they learn to fly before and after a storm;
he whispers words like “fáilte”
but I feel my mother’s tone,
in the voice of a man, that used to be a stranger
while I speak to the evening breeze, blessings from my mother,
upon the child in me, in a new language that speaks of hope.

A snapshot of Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Florence Olufemi Oju
A snapshot of Lagos, Nigeria. Photograph: Florence Olufemi Oju

The Feeling of Being Home
By Florence Olufemi Oju

I travelled to Nigeria recently.

I finally got to see it for myself!

Initially, I was not buying the idea of a family trip back to Nigeria. I left Nigeria when I was 5 years old. I was not in contact with any of my family members from both my parents’ side well except for my mum’s sister and her children who have been a part of my life. I had not stayed in touch with any of my childhood friends which is the norm with most five year olds unless the relationship proceeds into secondary school. So let’s just say I had a hostile feeling of going back to Nigeria, I just couldn’t picture fun at all.

As we landed in the Muhammed Muritala airport all I could see was Africans! The first thing that came to my mind was ‘wow everyone here is black’. It was overwhelming. The only other place I remember seeing so many Africans was in the Nigerian Embassy in Dublin ( if you’ve been there you would know what that is like!) The change of weather was quite drastic; it seemed almost as if there was no air to breathe, as if the air had ceased. I felt almost suffocated. There was a smell of sand, hot sand and I didn’t particularly like it.

In the midst of these overwhelming emotions I had a feeling that I had never felt before; it was the feeling of being around my own kind. There was no need to pretend. No need to try and fit in, no need to try and make sure I was understood or to check if my accent was still in tune to the majority. This feeling was very much the feeling of being at home. It was so beautiful.

Outside the airport, as we struggled to exit with over 10 big suitcases. I noticed my mum’s sister, her husband and one of their children.....my cousin. My first reaction was a pause, because while I had met my mum’s sister and her husband. I had never met my cousins. So many things were running through my head when I saw her “Wow! She is so pretty!”, “She isn’t as dark skinned as I expected,”, “Are we going to get along? Do we have the same interests?” You can imagine - I had never had a real discussion with any of my cousins up until this point other than the typical “hello, how are you doing today?” . We lived in different worlds.

The trip from the airport to the hotel was interesting. In such a short period of time, we quickly saw both the developed and undeveloped side of Lagos city. The streets were still very much alive even at 12:00am. It was full of people selling, buying, bargaining and chatting. We saw people selling ‘ suya’- roasted corn - and many other foods that I still don’t know the name of. I could not wait to get out and explore the nightlife. Despite my negative attitude throughout the journey from Ireland; at this stage I was smiling. All of a sudden I could picture ‘ fun’, there really was a special feeling attached to this place. It truly was home!

Culture is my thing!

The African native attire- the Nigerians who live abroad wear the regular top and jean etc. This could change if there was an event or party that requested an African theme - aso ebi . There were odd days when one would feel quite African and would dress as so. But in Nigeria, wearing a native cloth was just as fine as choosing a regular English outfit. It created such a colourful scene. I wish this was the same in Ireland. In Nigeria Friday was set apart for employees to dress in their native clothes to work.

Languages- There are over 100 languages in Nigeria. English is communicated in different ways. The majority speak to each other in what they call Broken English. Don’t be fooled by the term Broken English .This is very much its own language which is not to be confused with Pidgin English (basically English in an African accent). Broken English is one of the ways of overcoming language barriers because there are over a 100 languages. As you can imagine, I felt lost in conversations most of the time.

Speaking of communication, I saw it break down spectacularly whenever we got stuck in traffic in Lagos. Instead of cars in a single file, like you’d see during bad traffic on an Irish road. You have drivers creating their own lanes at all sorts of angles, screaming at each other...

“Ori eh ope!” (Your head is not correct!)

“Oloshi!” (Idiot!)

Mumu!!!” (Daft! Fool!)

...and many other things that I won’t repeat! You’ll also regularly see cars driving towards each other in the same lane, then the drivers stop and curse the lives out of each other. In my head I’m thinking ‘would you not have stayed in opposite lanes in the first place?’. As you’ve probably guessed, the road system there is a lot less formal. Although there are road taxes and rules, often you can buy your way out of trouble. True to the Nigerian spirit, we just get on with it - but like any good passionate person in a traffic jam, we can get angry!

There are a lot of markets in Nigeria. The top 20 markets are in different States. I went with my mum and her sister to the Balogun / Dosumu market in Lagos Island. It was huge! There were so many people, so many options to choose from, and everything you could imagine was there - hair extensions, clothes, food, make -up and the list goes on. Whenever we passed the food and fresh fish stalls there was a funny smell that could throw one off, but I didn’t mind.

During the trip my cousin and I went to other markets like the Computer Village in Ikeja and Yaba market popularly known as Tejuosho market. The computer village market was also pretty big, you could get any technical gadgets here - phones, laptop, chargers etc. You’ll just need to be sure of the vendors you choose from. I found the way the vendors operate over there is a bit different to what you’d see in my adopted home in Dublin. Electricity was all powered by generators. You also had many young dropout workers who were looking for any means of living by repairing phones, laptop etc.

During my adventures at the Yaba market in Lagos, when stall owners tried to sell me something, I’d say ‘ no thank you’. And I got stared at as if I was abnormal. My cousin laughed and stated ‘yes, they will know you are not from this place!’. Apparently, the normal thing to do is just walk past and ignore, or even worse- hiss! If you don’t, you risk getting physically dragged left, right and centre by vendors. Luckily, my cousin turned into a bodyguard and kept a close eye on me. This wouldn’t tend to happen in Ireland - well, not unless you’re on Moore Street (a street filled with different ethnic backgrounds, with plenty of Africans!), and even at that, people are mostly trying to lure you in with compliments. That being said, the market was so much fun it was a different type of experience than I was used to.

Once I got the hang of the weather, I decided it was time for something a little more dangerous - at least, that’s how it felt whenever I used public transport! In Ireland motorbikes are not a form of public transport, but in Nigeria an okada as it’s called is a pretty popular way for up to 3 people to get around. Risky? Yes. But they’re the fastest method of transport around. God love the first okada man who gave me a lift. I remember holding on to every part of his body for dear life as he speed down the really bumpy Onike road, “ Aunty!” he shouted, “Wetin now! why you dey grab me like that !?” . My cousin laughed as I held on even more tighter, by the time I got off you’d swear I had been a part of the Olympic race - and won, that’s how bad I was panting. I was like: ‘Fam, I’ m not gonna be killed while on holidays! I will make it back to Ireland alive!’ (If motorcycles aren’t your thing, you also have the Maruwa or Keke, a tricycle which can carry four people and it’s significantly slower).

And then you have the ‘mo-lue’ or ‘danfo’ – a small bus. My bodyguard cousin wisely only brought me onto the danfo once or twice. I laugh everytime I think about it. They have bus conductors who called customers onto the bus. To give you an idea of what they do: Imagine this in Dublin: no bus stops, no indication of where you are, except someone holding onto the handrail screaming: “CLAREHALL, CLAREHALL, CLAREHALL!”, Just so you’d know where you’re going. This was the routine for all the stops along the way. The bus moving at a break-neck speed on bad roads, - I don’t know how the conductors don’t fall off the bus; if they did , it could be instant death or serious damage.

We were lucky to make amazing friends through family. I have to say, making friends made such a difference to our trip. I wouldn’t have seen any of Lagos’s night life without them. We went to the Ozone cinema. We went on long night walks and got a feel for a different view. This was important because we got to mingle with our age group. I also got to learn much more about Nigeria. We even got an Uber Taxi, I had no clue this existed in Nigeria.

They showed and told us what the younger version of the country looks like. At night depending on the areas you live. Movement was not always allowed for security and safety reasons. Like every regular young person in Dublin, Friday and Saturday nights happen at clubs, cafe bars with live bands and what not. In quote from a friend ‘night life depends on family background, location and the specific day’. Oh! Before I forget to mention the legal age is 18.

I had a negative or should I say downgrading image of the country prior to my trip! Meeting new friends and going on mini adventures has helped me see how beautiful Nigeria is. It helped me to see the cultural aspect, which was amazing.

Based on my past experience when I travel would normally feel homesick. In these scenarios I would miss home - Ireland. However, this time I was not homesick, it was the feeling of being at home. This trip has made me more appreciative of Nigeria – my own people, my own roots.

About the winners

Florence Olufemi-Ojo is a 22-year-old from Nigeria who moved to Ireland as a child, 16 years ago. She lives in Tallaght, Dublin. She works with homeless people and performs with Ireland’s leading multicultural choir, Discovery Gospel Choir.

Lind Grant-Oyeye is Irish-African of Nigerian descent. She enjoys writing and use poetry as an artistic medium to highlight social justice issues. She is the recipient of the UHRSN human rights poetry award, for her work M-moments, bringing attention to the world refugee crisis. She calls Kilkenny and a few other places around the world home. 

Matthew Price is a 16-year-old Transition Year student in Terenure College. He has lived in Rathfarnham, Dublin all his life. He chose to enter the competition because he has a passion for writing, a great admiration for African cultures, and he wanted to highlight the struggle the current Direct Provision system poses to asylum-seekers from Africa and, of course, throughout the world.

Boitumelo Ntsimane is a nine-year-old Irish girl, born to South African parents. She lives in Portlaoise and attends Portlaiose Educate Together National School.

 Jimmy Omukuba is a 13-year-old Kenyan primary school pupil from the village of Shirali in Kakamega County. He is in standard eight and will be sitting for his Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations this November to join secondary school next January. He goes to school at Munyanza Primary School in the neighbouring village of Ebulakayi.

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