This is the third installment of my thoughts on the stories on the Caine Prize’s shortlist – an activity my readers are gamely enduring as part of a collaborative effort with the blogger Aaron Bady. I have previously blogged my thoughts on Rotimi Babatunde’s Bombay’s Republic here and Billy Kahora’s Urban Zoning here. What do I think of Stanley Kenani’s story, Love on Trial? Well, I must start on a sincere and positive note: I must thank the Caine Prize and Aaron Bady for fostering an exciting discussion of literature by African writers this year. It has been great fun so far; it has also forced me to think hard about why things are the way they are about the stories written by African writers. As for Kenani’s story, Stephen Derwent Partington, blogging his thoughts here, speaks my mind down to the last full stop including all the gracious things he said about Stanley Kenani. You should read it and perhaps not read my post. What follows does not really improve upon the silence, but I am too opinionated not to burden the world with my obnoxious views. So here goes.
In this story a drunk stumbles upon two men making love in the latrines of a certain village in Malawi. One escapes, leaving the other (a young law student) to face the ridicule of the villagers and a homophobic press, and the wrath of the law. Under cross –examination, the young man is defiant and haughtily lectures the bemused village and the press about sexuality and prejudice. His utterances are laced liberally with quotes from Plato and the bible to assure the peasants of his higher intellectual and moral ground. He is convicted and he goes to prison flashing the V-sign. The wrath of Karma is visited on his accuser, who is saved from his alcoholism by the ravages of AIDS. The West, enraged by the audacity of this uppity homophobic country declares it an economic no-fly zone by stopping all economic aid. It is a farce of course a variant of the same one playing in black Africa – all knowing African intellectual comfortable with his sexuality and taken by his superior intellect thanks to Western education, pitted against a community of ignorant savages.
It is a cringe-worthy tale; preachy social commentary roaring into town wearing the unctuous toga of a short story: Let’s call it Culture clash goes to Malawi. For those not following Africa’s new obsession with homophobia, here is the context for Kenani’s story: In 2010, a Malawian gay couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga were sentenced to 14 years in prison for being lovers. Thanks to an international outcry and threats of cuts to international aid, they were eventually pardoned. The new president of Malawi has rightly and wisely agreed to repeal the obnoxious anti-gay laws enacted by her predecessor.
In Kenani’s re-telling of this mad saga, a drunken tale-bearer and witness to the deed (Mr. Lapani Kachingwe) extorts drinks from an eager audience to tell a story over and over again of what his eyes saw. With each telling and with increasing inebriation, stuff gets lost in the translation:
“Mr Kachingwe prefers to begin from the beginning. He does not remember what he must have eaten, he says, but he was coming from Mr Nashoni’s, naturally not very sober, when his stomach was terribly upset beyond what he could bear. He saw a line of toilets outside the Chipiri Primary School, those brick iron-sheet-roofed pit latrines, about ten or so of them, right at the beginning of the school compound if you were coming from the western side. It was a Saturday, so there were no pupils at school. He ran for the toilets, burst into the first he came to and had relieved his stomach of its burden in one monumental effort when he realised he had company. Charles and a boy Mr Kachingwe failed to recognise were so engrossed in their act it took some time for them to become aware somebody had entered the toilet, by which time Mr Kachingwe had seen ‘everything’.”
The “everything” is two men furtively loving themselves away from prying eyes. Kenani unwittingly brings all of my anxieties together in those lines, which happen to be my favorite lines in this story. Welcome to Africa. Everything stinks. Subtext: In the West gays come out of the closet, in Africa, they are outed screaming and kicking from stinking latrines. How an undergraduate law student ended up making love in a stinking latrine (never mind the voyeurism and the poor judgment) can only be explained by a need to contrive a plot ahead of a morality tale. The awkwardness of the position strikes me, pun intended.
There really is not much to this story that I like, there are many structural issues with the story starting with the strange assertion that it is not technically a story. For one thing, the medical research on AIDS was poorly done. The tale bearer suffers the debilitating effect of AIDS within a few pages, it’s a perverse miracle. The bad guy had to be killed off in a rush as the story canters off like a diseased horse galloping to an ungainly full stop. My pet peeve: Why italicize Malawian words? Let the reader google it. Nsima is a word. Google it! By the way, who writes love letters in 2010? How quaint, who remembers those? What happened to texts, chats, etc.? In 2010, how would two law students have communicated? Definitely not via love letters.
The story’s preachy, condescending tone got on my wrong side. It bears strong hints in style, tone, and proselytizing to Lauri Kubuitsile’s In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2011. There must be a formula out there somewhere for writing preachy tales; Kenani almost bursts with the excitement and overzealousness of a crusading evangelist, the story’s eyes twinkling gentle mischief, out to get unbelievers. The protagonist captures his derision for alternative views in lush patronizing condescending lectures to the amusement of lowly peasants. This is an engaging story for all the wrong reasons.
Kenani deploys a predictable formula; demonize the opposition (make them simpletons, in this case Malawian villagers are simple savages cheering and jeering at what they don’t want to see) glorify the victim with a halo, and the resulting clarity in conflict becomes the burden of a short story. The story could have used more sophistication in the analysis. The hypocrisy, the curiosity and disbelief are shocking. But then this unsophisticated analysis fails to explore cultural aspects deeply. Kenani sets up a conflict and attempts sharp contrasts to make his points. The nexus with the new Christianity is touched upon but not robustly explored, by which I mean that this hatred is not in these people, what little is there is exaggerated by the Christian right and their odious laws.
It is predictable, there are no twists, we know where this story is going. It is written from a particular viewpoint, sympathetic to the protagonist’s circumstances. I would have loved more complex narrative that allows the reader to ponder the nature, consequences and implications of the culture clashes playing out in much of today’s Black Africa. It is also about the politics of advocacy and literature. Would this story have made the shortlist if it was written by someone with the opposite view point?
The unintended brilliance of Kenani’s story is to out the mediocrity and lack of vision of the African intellectual and political elite misruling much of today’s Black Africa. They are bungling change with spectacularly devastating results. It is their self-love, their narcissism that is on trial here. As with everything engaging the passions of many African intellectuals these days, the advocacy is pure mimicry – of the West. It is also an eloquent testimony to the skills of Africa’s intellectual and political elite in deploying the avuncular strength of the West to execute a no-fly zone over the poor of Africa just to get their needs met. The blatant looting going on today in Nigeria’s government circles for instance would be impossible, if it was not declared a “democracy.” The vagabonds in power and their intellectual friends are protected by the pretense of civil governance – sanctioned by an avuncular West. Meanwhile, in most of these societies the structures are not even robust enough to protect the thieving rich, not to talk of the poor, children and women and vulnerable minorities like gays and lesbians. That is where we should start from; you don’t build a house from the roof down when you lack the technology. In many parts of Africa, gay rights activists are now racing through broken communities armed with NGO dollars demanding same sex marriages, and other accommodations, because this is what obtains in the West. The result has been tragic in a few instances.
I am a passionate civil rights activist, one who believes that we are what we are; our sexuality is genetically determined and we should celebrate and nurture each other and reject the bigotry that we see in our communities and temples against those whose only crime is that they were born different from us The issue I am worried about lately is the increasingly reckless and uncritical militancy of many gay rights activists in Africa. The gay rights movement is moving its axis of battle to Africa and I am all for that because in many communities, the prejudice against homosexuals in Africa is beginning to rival the savagery we witness in the West. We should be careful however that we do not goad people into coming out in societies that do not have the structures and laws to protect the vulnerable. There is no week that passes when I don’t think about David Kato who was brutally murdered in Uganda. The struggle for rights must be strategic. We should fight for good laws, seek sanctions against evil leaders and priests who preach and legislate hate. The way we are going about the struggle needs a re-appraisal. For now, this comes across a middle-class battle for privilege, just like what passes for “democracy” in many African countries.
There is a curious parable at the end about what happens to mute witnesses too indifferent or cowardly to address an injustice: A rat was caught in a trap; he asked various animals for help and they would not help because they did not see it as their business. Their indifference ends up having tragic consequences for each of them. I would be very interested in the origin of this parable. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the statement by German Pastor Martin Niemöller on the world’s indifference to the holocaust, First they came for the Jews
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
There is a good analysis of the origin of the statement here. I wonder if Niemöller was inspired by Kenani’s parable. Niemöller died in 1984.