Launched twelve years ago, the Caine Prize celebrates short fiction from Africa. And judging by 2002 Caine winner Binyavanga Wainaina's scathing satirical article "How to Write About Africa," it's about time. In collaboration with The New Inquiry and a horde of like-minded bloggers, I’ll be writing about this year's five finalists—and linking to each story so you can read it yourself.
Part 3: Malawi's Mavericks
Stanley Kenani’s "Love on Trial" [PDF] is the story of Charles, a gay man caught in flagrante delicto, and Mr. Kachingwe, the man who caught him. In a “kingdom lost for want of a nail” sort of way, the subsequent trial ends up angering donor nations and reducing the country—and Mr. Kachingwe himself—to penury. Kenani, who's already been a Caine Prize finalist (for a story from the same book that features "Love on Trial") is from Malawi but resides in Switzerland and publishes in South Africa. There’s evidence of his multiculturalism in the increasingly large scale of events told here. And the irony of a rumor hobbling the people reveling in its scandal is brilliantly enacted on every level.
Malawi is repeatedly described here as a “God-fearing nation,” a notion Charles dismisses calmly and immediately: “Only an individual can be regarded as God-fearing, but the collection of fourteen million individuals that make up Malawi cannot be termed God-fearing.” According to its 2008 census, 82.7% of Malawians are Christian, while a full 13% are Muslim, and 4.3% are of another religion none at all. At the same time, Malawi has been ranked ninth in the world for prevalence of HIV/AIDS, a fact that holds greater currency for the characters in Kenani’s story.
This is a story that implicates its individual readers in its telling. Charles repeatedly explains that his homosexuality is unexceptional, and refuses to consider it scandalous. If there is any Malawian law forbidding it, he says, or “designed to suppress freedom, then it is a stupid law that must be scrapped.” There is no reason, Charles implies, that his audience should pay any attention to the particulars of his life, except when his dignity is challenged: Nyenyezi, the daughter of the President of Malawi, suggests that Charles’s orientation is a psychological problem, which she could resolve with her love just as her father could resolve his legal problems. We might read this failed courtship as a substitute for the successful and wholly veiled relationship between Charles and his lover, but the vignette is still a story that damns its readers for caring about its tawdry details.
And what of the larger story? Kenani has declared that he wants to inspire other Malawians “to dream big, to have the continent and the world in mind while telling our stories, the stories that make us Malawian.” What does this story say about Malawi? Consider the proverb Mr. Kachingwe’s friend tells him at the story’s end: no matter how great a change may be, whether of a city or an entire country, it is all due to the action, or inaction, of individuals—in this case an alcoholic and HIV-infected man named Mr. Kachingwe, and a single-minded, calm, gay law student named Charles who insists on honor, love, and truth without judgment.
Here's the story as a PDF: Stanley Kenani's 'Love on Trial'
Check back for a list of the other bloggers also contributing to the discussion on this story.
image credit: Stanley Kenani, storymojaafrica.co.ke