Commentary - Glittering prize

Jason Cowley, in Zimbabwe, reports on the inaugural Caine Prize for African fiction

The inaugural Caine Prize for African Writing - won by Leila Aboulela, who was born in Sudan, but is resident in Aberdeen - promises to do for the African continent what the Booker did for Britain and Russia: namely, to use the mechanism of a prize to create a thriving literary culture and thus encourage a new generation of both writers and readers. The prize (worth $15,000) was established by Emma Nicholson, the former Conservative and now a Liberal Democrat MEP, in memory of her husband, Sir Michael Caine, the former chairman of Booker plc who died last year, after a series of medical errors had left him in a coma for several weeks.

More than 30 years earlier, Caine had helped set up the Booker Prize in Britain and later, in 1992, the same prize in Russia. As Nicholson sat at his bedside, "despairing" at what had happened to her husband, she found herself "searching for an ember that I could blow into flame from the ashes of what medical incompetence had done to us". Caine's two great enthusiasms, in later life, were Africa and literary prizes. "So, after speaking to his close friends and business associates, we decided on a prize to encourage the growing recognition of the worth of African writing, by bringing it to a wider audience."

It was a brilliant idea; there is nothing quite like it in world literature. The Caine focuses on storytelling, as reflecting the oral and contemporary development of African narrative traditions, and has as its patrons the three African winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature: Wole Soyinka from Nigeria, Nadine Gordimer from South Africa and Naguib Mahfouz from Egypt, each broadly representing the three main groups of the continent - black, white and Arab. Africa has more than 2,500 languages, and it is interesting that four of the five shortlisted authors, in order to reach a wider audience, write in a second language. Charles Mungoshi and Shimmer Chinodya, both from Zimbabwe, are native Shona speakers; Abdourahman Waberi grew up speaking one of Djibouti's vernacular languages, but writes in French; and Aboulela's first language is Arabic. Only Rory Kilalea, the third Zimbabwean on the list, writes in his native language - yet he publishes as "Murungu", which translates from Shona as "white man".

Meeting these five writers and listening to their stories of cultural dislocation, of long struggles against censorship, of poverty and of inner and actual exile, it is striking how much easier the writing life is in the west, and how important the Caine Prize can be in alerting us to other people, distant lives. For instance, as Zimbabweans who lived through Ian Smith's unilateral declaration of independence in 1965, the bush war of the 1970s and now the wilful chaos and economic deprivations of the Mugabe regime, Mungoshi, Chinodya and Kilalea have found that, as the last puts it, "extreme situations inspire creativity". Equally, they have discovered that government censorship, racist or otherwise, is the enemy of creativity, and that the freedom to write in Africa must often come second to the "struggle of earning enough money to eat and live".

Aboulela's winning story, "The Museum", is a semi-autobiographical (and comic) study in cultural confusion and dislocation. A young Muslim called Shadia moves from Sudan to Aberdeen, much as Aboulela herself did a decade earlier. At the university, where she is reading statistics, Shadia meets a young man, Bryan, who is intrigued by her exotic difference. What he fails to realise is that, for Shadia, Aberdeen has its own perplexing exoticism. Slowly, as the strangers discover more about each other, a partial understanding emerges from their mutual difference.

There was no rivalry between the five writers in Harare, merely a sense of solidarity and the hope that they were at the beginning of something special. As Aboulela said when collecting her award in front of an audience of publishers, politicians, businessmen and writers, understanding Africa and one another is about "fog lifting, pictures swinging into focus, missing pieces slotting into place. It is fragments gelling, a sound vivid whole, a basis to build on." The audience was left in no doubt that, even as, on the streets outside, Zimbabwe was tearing itself apart as it prepared for a general strike, Aboulela's journey from the dry heat of Sudan to self-discovery amid the winds and rain of Aberdeen is certainly something to be hopeful about - a basis, like the prize itself, to build on.

"The Museum" is published in Opening Spaces: an anthology of contemporary African women's writing (Heinemann, £6.50)