177. SHORT STORY: Love on Trial by S. O. Kenani

Love on Trial is the last of the Caine Prize Short I am reviewing. The story was published in the For Honour and other stories anthology by the author. Love on Trial extracts from a real incident that took place in Malawi. It is about the arrest and sentencing of two Malawian homosexuals to fourteen years in prison; an incident that got the whole world shouting and cutting aid to the country which led to their pardon. 

In this story, Charles is a third year law school at the university. He has been stumbled upon by the village drunk, Mr Kanchingwe, when he was having an affair with his lover in a school lavatory. Charles was seen and had to face the villagers whilst his lover bolted not to be seen or heard of in the story again. Mr Kanchigwe has become something of a cult-hero for having stumbled upon the two and so, for a tot of the local gin, Kanchigwe will give some details of what he saw. For, the details more tots have to be provided for him and his growing crowd of friends. The author explored society's reactions to what is normally described as 'evil' and 'foreign'. Charles hardly had any sympathisers as most saw his actions as ungodly, though none question the numerous corruption, bestiality - as someone was quoted to have slept with a goat - and other evils that go on in the country.

In an interview with the MBC, the nation's broadcasting corporation, Charles was outspoken and argued with the host, showing maturity in thought and in observation. It was there that he refuted the argument that he had become homosexual because he had at a point in his life come into contact with a westerner; to him, he was born with it and that was his natural orientation. Whereas the host quoted the bible to speak against him, Charles also quoted the story of David and Jonathan to support his sexual orientation. He gained some support after this interview, though his enemies were immeasurable. This argument sought of put the writer  on a higher pedestal, pointing accusing fingers at everybody, telling them they are hypocrites and that they either be with the accused or suffer, which was the direct import of the fable at the end of the story. The argument in the dialogue between Khama, the interviewer, and Charles was dogmatic and trite. It was ineffective in carrying out what it was meant to do and will do more harm than good. For instance, in presuming that everybody in the society was evil, he implicitly quoted  evil to support his quest making it seem, in the text, as if homosexuality is evil. A quick glance at the characters showed how Kenani put them below Charles: the villagers were in torn shorts, the adults were mostly drunkards, the pastors were sleeping with their flock, some of the villagers were sleeping with animals, etc.

Whereas a story like this plagues most countries on the continent and therefore unique with few authors like Tendai Huchu writing about homosexuality in his novel The Hairdresser of Harare, Kenani's prose is too journalistic and jarred at certain points. The author depended too much on the real story instead of using it as a canvass to paint his, taking away the plot and tension that could have been part of such a story. For instance, what happens if the main character isn't a Law student and therefore capable of quoting and refuting? What happens if he is an illiterate in the village? Again, we are told that Charles, the most brilliant student in his class - have been approached by several female lovers - an issue that usually comes up in such discussions; but including the daughter of the President? I think stretching and overstretching sometimes make stories difficult to take in. During Charles's interview he relied mostly upon the text-book western-natural dichotomous argument that plagues any discussion of homosexuality.

So great was the effect of what happened on the story that the author went further to describe breakdown in the economy due to aid-cut and how the country struggled and almost became bankrupt due to the sentencing of Charles. In fact, Kenani suddenly made Kanchigwe got infected with HIV so that the cut in aid (in cash and in kind) meant no provision of retro-viral drugs and hence a decline in his health and possible death. This part of the story was not necessary as part of Love on Trial. For instance, donors can threaten to cut aid on any issue not only on a breach of human rights. They could and have chosen to do so even if governments refuse to do something of great importance to their countries that is against the interest of the donors. As much as every individual's right has to be respected, so must countries be left to decide on whatever they want to do and not be coerced by aid-cuts. This threat of aid-cut has cajoled countries on the continent to act in line with donor-countries' prescriptions.

Following the death of Bingu wa Mutharika and the assumption of power by his vice Joyce Banda, the rights of gays and lesbians - in general LGBTs- has been almost granted as she has pledged to repeal the law and donor aid has started to flow. The issue is, would Banda surrender to donors on every issue when aid is threatened? And would Kenani write in support of a threat of aid-cut by a foreign government that wants to purchase a mining-company the country owns, assuming Malawi has one?

The story itself, not the theme, is plain and had it not being a short story would have been boring to read. It was predictable at several places; for instance, I predicted and was shocked though when Kanchigwe became a victim of a story he helped popularised. That should this be chosen as an exemplar writing - prose-wise - of African writing? No. It is what others have referred to as polemic and this does not necessarily make it a stellar prose. Though I wish it doesn't win to avoid other writers thinking that writing on mere polemics translates into stellar writing, Kenani has written a story on a theme that few has written about but which everything points to its eventual crowding. Kenani as a writer seems - as two (those I've read) out of many (those he has possibly written) is not enough grounds to make a sure judgement - to hover around stories of love as shown in his story Happy Ending which was included in the Caine Prize Anthology A Life in Full and other stories.
About the author: Read about the author here. Read the story here. For a deeper analyses of this story visit here. The author share most of my views.


  1. Interesting and fine review, Nana. I dare say however, that Kenani's success probably lay in his treating a taboo subjet as his theme. Homosexuality is sitll a no-go-area in Africa and though he may not have been good at what he wrote, he dared to touch on an area that most would dare not. He may also have capitalised on the furore that the real story may have created.

  2. do any of you know where to find this kind of analysis for things are hard

  3. I really love reading it over and over again, just that Kanchingwe got infected abruptly with HIV


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