The JRB presents the winning stories of the inaugural Kendeka Prize for African Literature.
The winners of the 2021 Kendeka Prize, a literary contest for ‘the best stories written by people with citizenship to an African country’, were announced in September. The prize ‘aims at encouraging Africans to tell their story without influence from forces from other continents’.
From a shortlist of five short stories, Jenny Robson of Botswana won the Kshs 100,000 (about R13,500) first prize for her story, ‘Water For Wine’, while Fatima Okhousami and Okpanachi Irene Ojochegbe, both of Nigeria, won Kshs 50,000 and Kshs 25,000 for their stories, ‘The Women of Atinga House’ and ‘Au Pair’, respectively.
Chair of judges Lucas Wafula (Kenya), was joined by authors and literary activists Edwige Renée Dro (Côte d’Ivoire) and Rémy Ngamije (Namibia-Rwanda) in selecting the winners.
Read the winning story here:
Water for Wine
Almost sunset and Kelebogile’s day-shift is done.
One last time, she puts her head around the door of the male non-surgical ward. And yes, Rre Senamolela is sleeping now. Not peacefully. His breathing is strained, each intake a struggle. But at least he is sleeping.
‘Will it be tonight, Sister? Will it be tonight that he passes on?’ asks his tiny wife. Mme Senamolela has been at his bedside, faithful through the long days and nights. Through the several moments of high emergency when Dr July had to be called.
‘Nyaa Mma, not tonight I don’t think so,’ Kelebogile lies.
At home, she never lies. At home she teaches her children that honesty is the pathway to dignity. But here, at work, here at the hospital, she lies whenever it is necessary. Which is often.
Kelebogile has given up explaining to the wife that she is not a Sister. Not even a registered Nurse. Just a lowly nurse-aid, a carrier of a bedpans and one who mops blood spilled on floors. But she understands: to the tiny wife from a far-flung village on the desert’s edge, all the white-uniformed women walking these corridors are Sisters.
‘I am going now, Mma,’ says Kelebogile. ‘I will see you tomorrow. Yes, for sure.’
The wife in her traditional blue-patterned dress and with her feet bare and her greying hair in cornrows, looks unconvinced. No matter what Kelebogile says. No matter, even, what Sister Agnes says. Sister Agnes who is a proper trained Irish Sister, registered overseas in Ireland, who has her own office beside the office of the Matron, besides also being a nun of the Anglican Church. A double Sister!
‘Nyaa, Sister. I will not be here; I don’t think. No, Sister, when morning comes, I will be in a taxi home. To tell his brothers. They must come for his body.’
The desert village has no cellphone coverage.
And what can Kelebogile say? She believes the same, that Rre Senamolela will not live through the dark hours to see another sunrise. Despite what Sister Agnes says.
Kelebogile takes off her paper nurse’s cap, pats down her hair. The proper registered Nurses and Sisters have caps made of proper cloth material. She doesn’t change out of her white uniform, though. It needs a wash and the hospital laundry doesn’t clean the uniforms of nurse-aids, only those of proper registered nurses. And the white dust coats of the doctors, of course.
Besides, it makes her happy walking home in her hospital clothing. Especially walking beside her Cousin Dora. Cousin Dora who is beautiful and fun-loving and sparkling and a stealer of all eyes. But Kelebogile knows that in her uniform, she will at least get the second glance. A glance of respect.
Her three children like it, too, when she comes home in her uniform. Especially her son Moabi.
‘You see?’ he says to his friends. ‘My mother, she is a nurse!’
Most of his friends’ mothers, most of Kelebogile and Dora’s neighbours, are spaza-shop vendors or sellers of airtime from old Coke crates. Or without jobs at all.
‘You see? I told you!’ says Moabi who wants to be a doctor when he grows up. And won’t that be the most wonderful thing? The most glorious thing in Kelebogile’s whole life! A doctor like Dr July in his stern white dust coat and with his stethoscope slung over his shoulders as if it is an item of small consequence.
Dr July spoke to Kelebogile. Just the one time. But she remembers it clearly. He stood at the bottom of a hospital bed, requiring information.
‘Nurse, has this patient had a BA today?’
And she knew exactly that a BA meant Bowel Action and that was the hospital term for a poop. And she managed to answer without stuttering, even lifting her head a little, ‘Ee, Doctor. It was nine-fifteen. Sharp.’
And Dr July nodded like her answer was a good one before he turned away. Afterwards she realised that he had called her Nurse and not Nurse-aid and that made the memory even sweeter.
Moabi enjoyed the story. Afterwards, for many days, he kept asking his younger sisters, ‘So Nurse, has this patient had a BA today?’
And he got annoyed if his sisters didn’t answer correctly.
In the hospital kitchen, Kelebogile collects her weekly packet of spinach, fresh from the hospital gardens. It helps, the spinach. Even Cousin Dora has to admit that. Since most of Cousin Dora’s pay from Nando’s Chicken Take-Away goes on clothes and her hairstyles. Sometimes nearly 150 bucks for braids! Imagine!
But of course, Dora doesn’t have children so she doesn’t have schooling costs.
The night-staff begin to arrive. Kelebogile can hear them calling out cheerful greetings to the patients, even to sleeping Rre Senamolela. Cheerful and fresh and eager to watch the evening TV soapie with the women in the surgical ward.
And yes, the opening theme music starts up, chords swelling. At top volume. It must be that Sister Agnes is not on duty. Maybe she is out leading Bible-study in the church next door? Sister Agnes doesn’t understand that noise is good for patients, that it lifts their hearts and makes them feel part of the community still, despite their problems. Chattering visitors, soapie stars arguing at loudly and with passion on the surgical television, vendors laughing through the open windows as they offer sweets in brightly coloured wrappers, metal bedpans clanging!
Sister Agnes insists that a hospital must be a place of quiet. When she is around, Kelebogile is careful not to clang bedpans against metal bedposts.
Kelebogile heads for the front veranda now where she will wait for Cousin Dora. And hopefully, Cousin Dora will appear on time as she promised. But Cousin Dora doesn’t always keep her promises. Especially not where time is concerned.
The veranda is silent and empty now. The day’s out-patients have been seen to and given their pills. Or given advice and promises if their pills aren’t available. Which happens often these days.
Silent and empty—except for Sister Agnes! Too late, Kelebogile notices the nun in the far corner gazing out at the sunset beyond the dwellings.
‘Aah, Kay! Is that you, my dear? Good evening.’ Sister Agnes speaks in a quiet, voice in her strange accent. It is the voice of someone who knows she will be heeded—and obeyed—no matter how soft her words.
And it is too late to go back inside.
‘Sit beside me while you wait for your cousin, dearie? It is your cousin, not so?’
Wishing things were otherwise, Kelebogile does as she is instructed. Telling herself that it is kind for the Irish nun to invite her thus. And to remember who she is. Even though the nun calls her Kay because she finds her full name tricky. Kelebogile sits on the footstool beside Sister Agnes’s chair.
All Kelebogile can do now is hope that Cousin Dora will arrive soon and not be popping into a shebeen on the way, for a beer or two or three with her fellow workers.
Sister Agnes breathes in deeply. She lets out a long, slow, peaceful sigh.
‘Aah, how beautiful your African sunsets are,’ she says. ‘You are so blessed. Where I am from, the sky is mostly grey.’
Kelebogile glances up at the nun’s face. The pale white skin is touched by a reddish glow, the wisps of auburn hair gleam. But she looks away quickly, down at the concrete. Feeling awkward, ill at ease. It is how she usually reacts when she is too close to this foreign woman with her foreign smells. And her disturbingly light eyes. And her strange accent that is sometimes tricky to understand.
She murmurs politely, ‘Ee Mma. The sky, it is beautiful.’
But she is thinking that soon darkness will come. A darkness that will make dangerous the wide waste ground she must cross on her way home. Which is why she and Dora always walk home together.
Sister Agnes asks, ‘And did you check on Moses, dearie? Did you see how much he has improved?’
Kelebogile knows the nun is talking about Rre Senamolela. She finds it strange to think of him as Moses when he is an elder. And headman of his village too.
‘Ee, Mma, I checked and he was sleeping.’
‘Excellent. He ate a little today as well, Sister Jacob says. You see, Kay? There is nothing to fear for him. Just as I told you, just as we explained to his wife. We caught the meningitis in good time. By next week he will be ready for discharge.’
Kay says nothing, offers no contradiction. It is better this way.
When Rre Senamolela was first admitted, with his tiny wife weeping into her shawl, Kelebogile was there to help translate. She tried to explain the situation to the nun.
‘He is bewitched, Sister. The wife, she says the spell was buried there by the hut door—the feathers, the herbs, the vulture claw. It was his brother-in-law, maybe, because he is jealous of his herd and jealous of his position, you understand? So there is nothing to be done. Rre Senamolela, he will die.’
‘Bewitched? Come, come, Kay! ‘ The nun frowned down at Kelebogile, shook her head sternly. ‘You surely don’t believe such mumbo-jumbo? No, dearie, this patient has meningitis. Plain and simple. Meningococcal meningitis, I would guess.’
And then the nun was calling for Sister Dube to get a lumber puncture done so the spinal fluid could be analysed. Instructing Sister Jacob to start an IV stat.
Moabi finds it very funny that men who are qualified nurses are also called Sister.
‘Why not brother?’ he asked his mother. ‘Ao! I’ll never be a nurse. Not if people must call me Sister Moabi!’
‘No, you will not be a nurse,’ Kelebogile agreed fondly. ‘You will be a doctor, isn’t it, my firstborn?’
The tiny wife sat on a white plastic chair at the bedside, bewildered by the fuss, by the array of medical interventions to which her husband was subjected. Kelebogile understood: all the wife wanted was for her husband to be made comfortable and pain-free while he waited, with dignity and acceptance, for his fate to claim him. Not manhandled and undressed in front of young women and stabbed with sterile needles.
Then, after lunch a few days later, Sister Agnes came looking for Kelebogile amongst the sharp smells of the sluice room. Amongst the rows of rinsed bedpans dripping.
‘Come, Kay dearie. I want to show you something.’
Kelebogile followed as instructed, feeling awkward behind the nun’s quick strides. Followed down the unfamiliar side corridor—to enter the hallowed kingdom of the pathology lab manager, Mr Rebagamang Maphakwane. Mr Makwakwane who owned his own car and wore a tie to work always beneath his white lab coat.
Mr Rebagamang Maphakwane glared at Kelebogile through his strange spectacles that covered half his face. He was not pleased to have his kingdom invaded by some bedpan-cleaning nurse-aid.
‘Show her, Rebs,’ Sister Agnes said cheerfully, unaware that Mr Maphakwane was not happy. ‘Show her the culture.’
Unwillingly he slid a small glass rectangle beneath one of his prize microscopes.
‘Have a look, Kay dearie. That’s the bacteria from Moses’s spinal fluid. Neisseria meningitides. That’s what is making him ill. See? Bacteria! Not witchcraft. Not spells or magic. Not a bunch of herbs and claws and feathers!’
Kelebogile peered through the microscope, just a quick glance because of Mr Maphakwane standing so close by, breathing out his indignation. All she saw was a bluish-pinkish blur.
‘Did you see it, Kay?’
‘Ee, Mma,’ Kelebogile lied.
Sister Agnes escorted her out, an arm round Kelebogile’s shoulder. Which made Kelebogile feel even more uncomfortable, made her long to be back in the sluice room amongst the scalded bedpans. But maybe she was being too sensitive?
Dora often teases her and tells her to chill out and live a little.
At the sluice room door, Sister Agnes said, ‘All Moses needs is good strong antibiotics. They will kill off the bacteria and he’ll be right as rain. Back home in no time. That is the wonder of medical science, Kay.’
‘Ee, Mma. Thank you, Mma.’
But Sister Agnes was already moving off toward the secondary theatre. Leaving her strange colouring and smell like a mist behind her.
So there on the veranda as the sun sets and as, out across the close-packed dwellings beyond the fence, smoke rises from many supper-fires, Kelebogile stays quiet. She does not say how Rre Senamolela is struggling to breathe. She does not say that the elderly headman will not see out this night. Nor that his wife has already accepted this.
Meanwhile Sister Agnes has taken out her Bible. She leafs through the thin pages. They rustle. And that rustle is a sound that hurts Kelebogile deep in her heart. It is a sound that reminds her of Father Francis and of her dear friend Malebogo. Even after all these years.
‘Shall I read you something, dearie, whilst you wait? I always like to read a short passage before suppertime. Aah, here! The Wedding Feast at Cana! That is one of my favourites. Do you know this story?’
‘Nyaa, Mma,’ says Kelebogile. Which is true. Back at school, when Father Francis used to read to them, it was always about great battles and powerful kings and terrifying natural disasters. The boys in the class, who were mostly younger than she and Malebogo, enjoyed those stories.
Kelebogile finds herself wondering why Sister Agnes wants to read about a wedding when she has no hope of marrying herself. Or perhaps she does? She is an Anglican nun and it may be that Anglican nuns can marry—unlike Catholic priests. Unlike Father Francis. Kelebogile is not sure.
In the twilight past the razor wire fence, people are heading home in both directions. Some stop to chat and laugh for a while. But Cousin Dora is not amongst them. The veranda light switches on suddenly.
‘Aah, that is better,’ says Sister Agnes. She blinks her pale lashes a few times. ‘My eyes aren’t what they used to be.’
She begins to read: And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. And both Jesus was called and his disciples, to the marriage …
From what Kelebogile can gather, the wedding wasn’t going well. The wine had run out. But there was no mention of offering the guests beer or Chibuku, which is what is usually drunk at weddings.
There was no wedding for Father Francis and Malebogo.
Father Francis and Malebogo were two people in love. Real true love, Kelebogile knew that for a fact. The kind of love people write about in books. Not the cellphone-for-sex kind of love like Mr Hastings the Maths teacher had with a different girl each term. If the world was a good place, there should have been a wedding feast for Father Francis and Malebogo.
‘But I can’t be without him, Kelebogile,’ Malebogo said.
They were alone on the far side of the school’s dusty soccer field. Her beautiful eyes filled up and shone with her tears. ‘If we can’t be together, then I will rather die a virgin. You understand? I don’t want any other man, not ever.’
Kelebogile was taken aback. ‘Ao, Malebs, but he is white! And he is old! Nearly thirty, maybe.’
‘Why must we care about such things? Our hearts, they are the same colour. Our souls, they don’t have a birthday.’
‘And him, Malebs? What is he saying?’
‘He says I must forget him. Forget him and forgive him. He says it is his fault about kissing me that night after the concert. He says we must fight the feeling between us or it will destroy us. But I know this: our love is too strong to fight.’
It saddened Kelebogile. Malebogo had been her closest friend since Grade 1.
She watched in class how Father Francis tried not to look Malebogo’s way while he rustled the thin pages of his Bible and read to them about Gideon and his brave three hundred men, or drew a map on the board to show the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
Meanwhile, beside her, Malebogo stared down at her hands where she was tearing paper into smaller and smaller pieces.
In the end, both of them were no match for the world as it is. Both of them were left with broken hearts, just like lovers in sad books. Father Francis was recalled to Italy. He wasn’t even given time to pack the African art he had collected with such passion. And four days after, Malebogo was found by the groundsman, hanging from a tree outside the Library. With her beautiful eyes closed for ever. Kelebogile stopped going to school after that.
Sister Agnes is still reading. Something about the wedding guests getting water and saying it tastes like the best wine. Something about the water being changed into wine.
Without care, Kelebogile demands, ‘Ao! That is nonsense! How can that be? How can water change into wine?’ And perhaps her tone sounds rude? Disrespectful? She doesn’t mean for it to.
But Kelebogile knows things about water, even if she stopped going to school too early. Moabi did a science project with beautiful neat drawings, five pages long—even though he was only instructed to write two pages. And then he explained to his sisters, making them sit at the kitchen table so that they could listened properly.
‘H-two-O. That is the proper name for water because water isn’t water really, okay? It’s two hydrogen atoms and they join up with one oxygen atom. Then altogether it makes a molecule that is called H-two-O. I’m telling you.’
And now, when he wants a drink at supper, he asks, ‘Mama, please can I have a glass of H-two-O?’ Which makes his sisters giggle and makes Kelebogile smile fondly as she turns on the tap. She can almost see the atoms and molecules dancing through the flowing liquid.
But wine? Now, that is something different. Even the smell of it. Dora has a boyfriend who visits sometimes, bringing a box with silver foil inside. And inside the silver foil is wine. The two of them sit outside drinking it and getting sillier and sillier and making jokes that Kelebogile doesn’t understand. Or sometimes, they get angrier and angrier and shout at each other.
Kelebogile refuses the wine. She will never drink wine or beer. She doesn’t want to get silly or angry, not with three children to look after.
But mainly, water and wine are very different things from each other, even if they look alike. Still, she shouldn’t have sounded so rude saying, ‘Nonsense!’ and ‘How can that be?’
After all, Sister Agnes is a good and kind woman with a good and kind heart. Kind enough to treat a bedpan-scrubbing nurse-aid with respect. Even if she makes Kelebogile feel uncomfortable.
Perhaps it was the thoughts about her dear lost friend that made her suddenly angry deep down. Should she apologise?
But it seems Sister Agnes is glad Kelebogile asked the question. She closes the Bible and she is smiling.
‘How can that be indeed, Kay, dearie! Good question! This is what we call a miracle. Our dear Lord worked many miracles. He isn’t bound by natural laws. Our Father God made those laws in the first place, so, his Son has complete power over them. One word from him and even the wildest seas will obey and be calm. Another miracle!’
Kelebogile doesn’t remember Father Francis telling them about miracles in the six months he taught them. Maybe he was supposed to explain about them in the second half of the year? Except by then he was in Italy and she was out of school for good. And her dear friend Malebogo had passed away.
Still, Kelebogile is intrigued by the idea. Does that mean anything can be changed into something else? No matter which atoms or molecules they are made up of, at the beginning? Imagine! Imagine if all the tiny stones lying around in the hospital yard can be turned into pills! For when the dispensary runs out and out-patients must go away empty-handed and worried. It happens often these days.
Or—or imagine if all the leaves on the trees can turn into money. Paper money! So that people without jobs can pick them and buy food. Or poor people can buy blankets for their children when the winter comes.
Before she can ask Sister Agnes about this, she hears her name being called.
‘Kelebogile! Hey, girlfriend, hurry up! What’s keeping you? Get that big butt of yours moving!’
It is Dora of course. At last!
So, Kelebogile says a polite goodnight to the nun, grabs her packet of spinach and runs across the hospital yard to the gates.
‘Forget about spinach,’ says Cousin Dora when she sees the packet. She holds up her own packet. ‘Tonight we eat free Nando’s, girl. Chicken and chips! The new manager gave me stacks. Let’s get home while it’s hot.’
Kelebogile doesn’t ask what the new manager is getting in exchange. Some things are better left unquestioned. There are some answers that don’t need to be said out loud.
And so, Kelebogile is gone from the veranda when the non-surgical night Sister comes out to tell Sister Agnes that Rre Moses Senamolela has passed away.
Kelebogile will only find this out tomorrow and she will be sad for the old man. Sad for his tiny wife who will already be in a taxi. On her way back to the desert village and her brothers-in-law, to relay the sad but expected news.
For now, arm in arm, Kelebogile and Dora head for the dark wasteland. And for the lights of home beyond it. Where Moabi and his sisters are waiting.
- Jenny Robson was born in South Africa in 1952, but has lived most of her adult life in Botswana where she works as a music teacher. Much of her writing is for children and young people. To date, she has eleven YA novels published. One of these novels, Because Pula Means Rain, was awarded the Unesco Prize for Youth Literature the Service of Tolerance. Robson also writes short stories for adults and her work has been published in magazines both locally and abroad. Some of her work has been translated into other languages including Kiswahili, German, Spanish and Korean. Her stories and novels are set always, firmly and with love, in Afrika.