Saturday, May 26, 2012

Long Drawn out Departures

La Salle de Depart written by Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is another story on the shortlist of this year’s Caine Prize for African Writing.
It is the story of Fatima and Ibou her brother. Ibou lives in America with his Egyptian lover (she’s a fine woman who accidentally happens to come from a rich and enlightened home). Ibou loves this woman who seems to understand his fears and longings. She is also extremely intelligent and apparently has good taste. Her family was everything his family would never be.
Fatima, a divorcee, lives at home and takes care of their half-blind father, she has one male child. She hoped her brother will take the boy with him to America, but he refused point blank, the problem was not financial but a lack of space. According to him “... we have no space for him in our lives.”
Fatima of course was bitter and words burnt at the tip of her tongue, but years of conditioning made her not to spit the words out. She remembered how her father had sacrificed her own education at the altar of furthering Ibou’s because he was supposed to ‘save’ the family and bring good fortune for them. She remembered how an uncle had taken Ibou to America with him, no questions asked. Now he looks down on them. Their way of life was not ‘classy’ enough for him. They leave globules of shit floating in the toilet (is there something about toilets and the Caine Prize this year?)
It was very difficult getting a profile on the writer of this short story, I spent about two days and God knows how many hours trying to discover who Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is. I still don’t know much except that she read comparative literature at New York University and she lives in America. She has also published a collection of short stories Jacaranda Journals published by Macmillan(South Africa).

This is a typical story of another marginalized African woman. A woman who was denied an education because she was the wrong sex. She had been kicked out of her home because her husband wants more children (what’s one child when you can have 20?). Victimhood suits Fatima to her dainty little toes.
In spite of the fact that the writer tried to give an insight into what made Ibou, Fatima’s brother, behave the way he did, you came away with the feeling that he is just selfish and suffers from a severe case of inferiority complex. His sister like I said in the previous paragraph suffers the same affliction, both characters are as dull as dishwater.
I must be frank I struggled with this story, it was precise,with hardly any editorial flaws and the language was great but man the story was boring. I took the longest, most long-winded taxi ride, I’ve ever had when I climbed in the backseat with Fatima and her brother Ibou on their way to the airport. I was rather hoping that something really exciting would happen at the airport (a terrorist attack, maybe? That would have stirred things up a bit, but then Africa is the hunger capital not the terrorism capital of the world).
There was too much thinking in the story and too little talking. Resentment simmered underneath the conversations but neither side had the guts to actually speak their minds. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder on whose side the author really is because her impartiality did not shine through.
Who is the villain of the piece? Is it the family that waits on their son to bring them trashy, touristy gifts from ‘abroad’ and give them money which never amounts to much at the end of the day? Or is it the son who gets suckered into the ‘great’ American way of life and does not look back? Or maybe it is even our hardworking victim, Fatima, who expects too much of her brother.
One thing though, if the brother is not broke why then is his father half-blinded by cataract? Does that mean the boy doesn’t even send money home? I’m just wondering out loud.
I tire of writers who make African women appear to be washed out and gutless. The part that really got my goat was after Ibou told Fatima that he cannot take her son to America with him(and in a very snide and hurtful manner) I thought that for once she was going to show some spirit or in the least blackmail him with good old ‘you owe the family’ diatribe, all she could say was “I am the one who waits always and watches others come and go. I am the one who always remains behind so that you can go.”
I wanted to slap her upside her head and afterwards ask her who has stopped her from going? After all she’s a divorcee and has only one son. A woman who is strong enough to make a life for herself after a divorce and creates a business out of nothing should be strong enough to tell her brother to take a leap off the closest cliff.
The African women I know are strong resourceful women. They always find a way round things. They do not sit down and wring their hands when things don’t work out for them, they find alternatives.
I’ll be the first to admit that women, generally don’t find life easy and this not only applies to Africa, it cuts across the whole world. Yes, women who live in Africa struggle twice as hard as women from other parts of the world, but they do not see themselves as victims. Up till the 19th Century European and American women faced almost the same challenges so why are we making out like all human problems originates from and ends in Africa?
Why do some writers portray ‘African’ women as victims? And since we are fond of generalizations may I ask Ms Melissa Tandiwe Myambo ‘Who is an African woman’?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Who’s on Trial?

It is no longer news that the shortlist of this year’s Caine Prize for African Literature is out. On the shortlist are Bombay’s Republic by Rotimi Babatunde; Billy Kahora’s Urban Zoning; Love on Trial by Stanley Kenani; Melissa Tandiwe Myambo’s La Salle de Depart and Constance Myburgh’s Hunter Emmanuel.
This is a review of Love on Trial by SO Kenani, hopefully I will be reviewing the other stories on the shortlist over the next few weeks. The stories shall be reviewed in no particular order.
Love on Trial is from a collection of short stories written in 2011 titled For Honour and other stories published for Random House by EKhaya.
The story is set in present day Malawi. It is about the African and homosexuality, international politics, foreign aid (aka charity) and religion. Ultimately, it is about the powerful West and powerless Africa.
The writer, SO Kenani weaves the tale around a young man, Charles Chikangwe, who was caught in a primary school toilet having sex with another man. This discovery was made by no other person than the illustrious Kachingwe, the village drunk. And like any lush who is worth his salt, he was able to milk the juicy scandal for every drop of local gin he could get by entertaining tourists with the story and taking them to the very place where the ‘crime’ had been ‘committed’.
The scandal, through word of mouth and then the press, eventually got to the authorities who promptly arrested the accused (without any other evidence than the word of a drunk), arraigned him and threw him in prison.
Surprisingly his father was supportive but, as expected, the Malawian government and religious bodies came out in arms insisting that homosexuality was ‘unnatural’, ‘un-African’, ‘devilish’ and that the young man only needed to ‘give his life to Christ’ and then do a ‘deliverance’ and all his troubles will simply melt away. A female friend of his even suggested that his ‘unnatural’ desires will melt away once he tasted the love of a woman.
The accused eventually went on trial, which was quickly wrapped up within one day and he was sentenced to 12years imprisonment. Of course there was only one witness, the infamous Mr. Kanchigwe who was suffering from a case of DT at that point in time, while the accused stood alone.
It is interesting to note at this point that Charles Chikangwe did not waste his breath denying the accusation he only wanted to prove that he had the right to love anybody, it was his choice.
While the Malawian government and most of its people were the villains of the piece, the international community were heroes. They breathed down the neck of the Malawian government and withdrew aid when they stubbornly refused to toe the line and release the incarcerated young man. It was a sad period in the lives of the citizens of Malawi.
At the end of the day the economy fell apart and this affected everybody, including the man that started it all, Kachingwe, who was unable to obtain his anti-retroviral drug supplied by one of the super-powers. A case of what goes around comes around I suppose.
Homosexuality in Africa is a very touchy subject. Recently, in Nigeria, the government passed an anti-gay marriage bill which led to public discourse and nearly split the Nigerian writing community into two halves, one side accusing the other of being homophobic, while the other side retaliated by calling the lot homosexuals.
A lot of writers ended up calling one another all sorts of other unsavoury names and some even went to the extent of ‘unfriending’ and removing people from their Facebook pages and groups.
This story is therefore relevant to the current situation in Africa. With a lot of African leaders coming out to state that homosexuality is an ‘abomination’ or something to that effect.
Ironically a few days ago, Joyce Banda Malawi’s new president declared that she was going to repeal the anti-gay law.
It is rather unfortunate that the story was not as tightly woven together as it should be. It dragged on a bit especially in all the parts that Kachingwe, the village drunk, appeared. There were too many repetitions and a lot of inconsistencies, which were especially glaring due to the fact that it is a short story.
For example when Charles was interviewed on live television it was as if the author zoomed into that part with a camera, the careful way every word and expression was documented contrasted sharply with the way other scenes in the story were described. Even the court scene went by so fast it made your head spin.
One major thing that baffled me about the story is the point SO Kenani was trying to prove by choosing to have the two men caught in a toilet, a primary school toilet for that matter. Are primary school toilets in Malawi that clean? Because I know for a fact that if anybody tried to have sex in a primary school toilet in Nigeria they would have gotten more than they bargained for.
Another thing that makes his toilet story unbelievable is the fact that the two men have been lovers for many years, does that mean all this while the two men have been having sex in public toilets? Or was it that they were so desperate to have sex that they threw caution to the winds?
The tale got fatalistic towards the end, the way the Malawian government watched helplessly as their economy fell apart beggared belief. As bad as African leadership is I doubt if a government will simply fold their arms and announce to their people that they are losing grip and have no intention of rectifying the situation.
Every character, from Charles Chikangwe to Mr. Kachinga, was flat and one-dimensional. They behaved predictably and we did not even get a glimpse into what made them behave the way they did. Everybody was a caricature. I would have loved to know why Mr. Kachinga decided to tell Charles story to the whole world (aside from the obvious of course), since both of them are from the same village, I’ll expect that there’s a level of familiarity between the two men.
Why did Charles stubbornly refuse to reveal who his lover is? Why was he so hell-bent on being the poster boy for ‘Ten reasons why coming out of the closet in Malawi is a really bad idea’? He had every opportunity to refute the allegations because his accuser is a well-known lush.
The fact that all through his tribulations the man Charles claimed to love so much he was willing to go to jail for did not even turn up once does not correlate with what we know of human nature. The absolute absence of the lover is totally unbelievable. Why was the man not even around to watch Charles go on air to put the noose round his own neck?
It was as if the story was designed specifically to reinforce the African ‘single story’ syndrome. Usually writers who engage in this kind of writing portrays her in a single light. Africa is a great mass of land full of hungry children with kwashiorkor impregnated bellies, tse-tse flies, tyrannical leaders, abused women, misogynists and more recently, homophobes and religious fanatics.
The superpowers came out smelling like roses while another African country has been put firmly in its place ... in Africa.

Monday, May 7, 2012


It was all
in my head
Just a part
of my dreams
Ramson Nouah
his wifey
It was all
my fault
For it happened
On my watch
But not Aso Rock
When blood
Just like the sea
That straddled
My dreams
good luck was
Everything but...
rue ben
his story
Die zenie
the djinnie
Full of
It was all
in my head
Out of it
Deep inside
When Iwe – Ala
Banked the world
Paupers R Us
Pee eitch See Hen
The light
It was all
about you
Not ever
about me
got married
To Paw paw
his pretty
both of
My closet
the yoots
lay the blame
on me
for it happened
while I dreamed
it was all
about you
it was
me ...