From novice writer to winner of prize in Kiswahili literature

Tuesday March 3 2020

Lello Mmassy awarded for winning the

Lello Mmassy awarded for winning the Mabat-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature. PHOTO I COURTESY 

By Salome Gregory

The interest in reading and writing in Tanzania is growing at an exponential rate. From book reading clubs to literary competitions that see hundreds of writers submit their works for consideration, the future has never looked brighter for the literary field in the country.

As part of this encouraging rise, last week, a writing competition was held which saw some of the best writers in Kiswahili go head-to-head to vie for the prestigious Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature.

Success Magazine got in touch with the overall winner, Lello Mmassy – an economist and author of a book titled ‘Mimi na Rais’ meaning ‘Me and the President’. He shares with us his literary journey and latest achievement in the competition.

Tell us what your book entails.

‘Mimi na Rais’ is a fictional story where politics and diplomacy are blended together with intelligence and good governance. It is based on a revenge plot between the sitting President of the Republic of Stanza and one of his leading diplomats.

The plot thickens when the president misuses his office for personal gains and the diplomat tries to go against him.


It is a story that brings on a new perspective on the role and accountability of the civil servants, diplomats, government agencies, and the general public in setting the agenda for their nation.

It is a mind-provoking story, full of suspense that will put a reader on the edge of their seat.

What prompted you to submit your work for consideration in the literary awards?

Any author who knows the value of the Cornell prize would not skip such an opportunity. I only had one book printed but I had faith in it and new it would go all the way, that is why I took part in the contest. Courage to put your work up for consideration in such an award, for someone with just one title, says a lot about the amount of confidence I must’ve had with my work.

Tell us about your experience being a part of the Cornell prize for literature.

Being part of this important award made me believe that whatever we do in life needs a lot of commitment if we want to get better results. It is also important not to focus on the problems but finding a better way to solve them. It was not easy for me to access the information that I needed when I was researching for my book, if I had given up easily I wouldn’t have been a winner today. So, this is a lesson to everyone out there not to lose focus on the ultimate goal in all your pursuits.

Why is this win so important to you and what do you think is the impact of the Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize?

The win and the entire process is important as it challenges authors to write books which are good enough for consideration in such a remarkable contest. The entire process helps the growth of Swahili language. As a plus, the cash prize given to the winners helps them cover some of the costs which are part of the literary world, such as printing of their work in form of books, and publicizing. It helps authors expand their contacts through meets and greets. This opens up a whole new world of great possibilities for us authors.

For how long have you been writing?

I started writing at the age of 12. As time went on I started writing for newspapers where they used to publish my stories. However, ‘Mimi na Rais’ is my first official book published last year.

What inspired you to become a writer and how has writing impacted your life?

Writing is a talent. I did not derive inspiration from anywhere, I just found myself wanting to write everyday. To make a successful author one has to read a lot from others in order to learn more about different things. So, writing has made me a different person stemming from the fact that I do read a lot. From novels to newspapers and any written material which can benefit and shape me as an author is a perfect read for me. Sometimes I just think I was born to write because I get utmost satisfaction and fulfilment whenever I write.

What keeps you going in your writing journey?

Over the years I have been receiving a lot of positive comments regarding my work, this gives me more energy and encouragement to keep writing. Despite the widespread notion that Tanzanians are not avid readers, I still get to hear a lot of feedback from them regarding my work. This makes me believe that there are people out there who do read and my work helps them in different situations in life. However, writing in Tanzania is still not a highly paid job compared to some other parts of the World. But this isn’t stopping me from writing.

Your book has won a prestigious award in literature. Tell us some of the hurdles you faced when doing research for the book.

Due to the nature of the content in my book, it wasn’t easy getting information from sources. Most of the people I’d interview weren’t forthcoming with information. This made the entire process very hard for me. I am glad that I was finally able to finalize the book. But the process wasn’t easy.

What are your future plans as a storyteller?

I look forward to writing more books that will leave a reader in awe and wondering what a great mind can do when it comes to writing. I also plan to have a book turned into a film in the future.