Friday, January 17, 2014

More on Nigeria's Anti-Gay Bill

Following up on my post yesterday considering the public health angle on the anti-gay bill (hint: it's terrible for public health), I saw the version of the bill the Senate passed. This may be the same version the President did as well, so it merits attention.

Lawyer and blogger Ayo Sogunro did some great analysis over at his blog on the human rights and constitutional issues inherent in the law. As he points out, this bill has nothing to do with marriage, even targets civil unions, and is more of a witchhunting law than anything that seeks to deter bad behavior. After expanding on how the law should be of concern to all Nigerians -- not just LGBT ones -- he rounds up with how the law is lazy, even by Nigerian standards:

Just take the basics, simple definitions: the definition of “civil union” isn’t closed, and can legitimately mean two girls sharing an apartment; “amorous relationship” is not defined and so even heterosexual greetings can be maliciously interpreted as the expression of a homosexual relationship; words like “support”, “meetings” are used carelessly without defined categories and exceptions; the burden of proof is not stated; the law does not provide for categories of unintentional or “inadvertent” offenders; and worse—it is a retrospective law—a type of law strongly disapproved of by our constitution. In summary, it’s a very lazy law—the kind a mob will hurriedly put together just to legalise their murderous instincts. But, you see, you can’t amend such a law to take care of these issues—because they deal with private matters that are difficult to enforce by the public without sacrificing people in the process.

Give it a read.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Nigeria's Anti-Gay Law and Our Political Leadership

The best policy-making is often a study in political leadership. 

In 1986, the UK government under Conservative PM Margaret Thatcher embarked on a national policy that raised a fair amount of opprobrium in a lot of quarters – its needle exchange program to provide access for injection drug users to clean needles.

A needle exchange program basically provides access to sterile syringes and other injecting equipment to reduce the risk of transfer of diseases by blood. Injection drug users are a high-risk population for such diseases as HIV/Aids, Hepatitis C, and other STDs. Public health experts who specialize in epidemiology of HIV/Aids would tell you that two highest risk groups for the illness are Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSMs) and injection drug users. At the time the law was program took effect, the UK was seeing a surge of new infections from drug users.  This needle exchange program was combined with aggressive safe sex education supported by Thatcher’s government, and today the consensus is that it worked. The current UK HIV/Aids prevalence rate from injection drug-users in the UK is 0.14%. Now, only 2% of new infections in Britain come from shared needles.

I never did know PM Thatcher personally, but I am quite sure that her support for this law had precious little to do with her inclination for drug usage. No one can say that needle exchange programs are not without its problems or that HIV/Aids dropped down to zero thanks to the silver bullet of the needle exchange program. After all, the cumulative number of new HIV diagnoses did double between 1987 and 1990, and peaked in 1999. The point is that her support for this program was grounded in the reports on the epidemiology of HIV/Aids that showed that, in addition to unprotected sex, drug use was a major cause of the spread of HIV. Her policy-making with regards to this public health issue was grounded in pragmatism, not emotion. It entailed listening to experts, taking on politically difficult solutions, and demonstrating leadership on them.

Pres. Jonathan is getting a lot of plaudits in the country for his signing of the anti-gay law, but I think these Nigerians are only seeing this as a moral issue, and not considering it in all its ramifications. Anyone who has bothered to cast a glance at the major public health issues ravaging the country would see the measure as the President’s display of a staggering ignorance of the facts and a refusal to take on the most important matters that face us today. As it stands, MSMs have the highest HIV/Aids prevalence rate for HIV/Aids after sex workers, and only around half of MSMs ever test for STDs. In the Nigerian mega-city of Lagos, the HIV/Aids prevalence rate among MSMs was 25% as of 2007. Lest we forget, a lot of these MSMs have sex with women as well, and are often even married to women. Ignoring an at-risk population is how diseases spread.

We are still not sure of what version of the anti-gay bill Pres. Jonathan signed two days ago, but from the early reports we can already see that this law will drive MSMs even further into the margins and render them harder to help. Also, the law’s attack on freedom of association in contravention to Chapter 4 (S. 40) of the Nigerian constitution would also make life harder for civil society groups to actively seek them out. And I do hope the law, when we do get a look at what was signed by the President, goes into a far more detail on what exactly constitutes a “public show of same-sex affection”, because that particular provision can be misread and abused in amazing ways. Does this mean that two men can't hold hands, as is currently socially acceptable in Nigeria? Does this mean that sisters at the airport can't hug? Short of seeing two men or two women kissing passionately in the corner of a bar, how does same-sex affection differ from, well, affection? 

It is easy to say “Oh, GEJ is wasting everyone’s time with this gay issue, and could have been signing more useful bills into law,” but I’m taking this on because real lives are at stake here. People have already been arrested for being gay just a day after the law was passed, and they would be thrown into prisons where they would be at even greater risk of STDs. Just as not simply throwing drug users in jail was not a condoning of drug-use under PM Thatcher, likewise dealing with the special risk that MSMs face and thus attending to an urgent public health issue need not be read as a call to morality. It is the job of the leadership of this country to be the Explainer-in-Chief, leading on difficult issues and guiding the nation aright while recognizing the plurality and diversity in the country of which he leads.

The passage of this law is a failure of leadership in more ways than even we realize.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

bell hooks and MHP on Feminism and Being Black in America

I absolutely loved this insightful and brilliant public conversation between bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry over at the New School in NY.

If you don't know who bell hooks is, do fix that. She's a feminist and intellectual who has written extensively on gender, politics and identity. MHP is kinda awesome as well. I'm a big fan of her show on MSNBC and fully intend to read her latest book. 

bell hooks was brilliant and insightful as always, but MHP was awesome. A friend and I talked about this event while I was tweeting it, and he's right that the atmosphere demanded intellectual honesty and rigor. 

I tweeted while I watched this, so check out the Storify of what I had to say (some tweets are missing, though). I bet you'll have a lot to say, too.

Monday, October 21, 2013

An Appreciation of Fela Kuti and Some Thoughts on Nigeria

I don't use this space nearly as much as I should, but I did get some writing done recently. Here's me in the Mail and Guardian blog Voices of Africa on Fela Kuti: 

Felabration, the annual two-day festival celebrating the now-late Fela Kuti, was held in Lagos this week at a time when Nigeria is in the most peculiar of situations. The country is in bad shape, to be sure, but its ruins are not the same in every home. Some of us have not had our entire worlds yanked from beneath our feet. Some among us have children who do not know a time when our walls saw a coat of paint. Others merely see the worst of pervasive lack on the streets while riding in air-conditioned cars. Our Africa is indeed rising, but with a tide that has lifted some boats and sunk many others. That so many of us are buoyed while most are sinking can distort our urgency, but it is at this time that Nigerians must find the eyes to see the bleeding body that has been dropped at our front door.

I should make a slight amendment to that part, though. Felabrations is a week-long, not a two-day, festival. Everything else, I stand by.


Saturday, July 20, 2013

Section 29 and the Personhood of the Nigerian Womanhood

Nigerian lawmakers have lobbed a curveball, and the citizens have responded by swinging in anger. Sen. Yerima, in a coup at the Senate during a routine vote on renunciation of citizenship, managed to argue successfully to maintain subsection 4(b) to our constitution (Do forgive the relative absence of links and wording of the constitution on this piece; I’m writing from an offline laptop and uploading the post on Blogger through my phone). Currently, Section 29 allows Nigerian citizens 18 and over to forsake their citizenship. At Sen. Yerima’s insistence, subsection to Section 29, 4(b) has been left in, stipulating that any woman married is to be deemed of an adult, and thus of age, using the justification that putting so high an age of adulthood is against Islam.

This, as you can imagine, is problematic for many reasons. My first thought was: how can one man hold the Senate to ransom and force a repeat vote, even with a constitution? His insistence on this provision in the constitution did not pass on the first round of votes, but did on the second. Mercifully, Nigerians have kicked themselves into gear; organizing petition drives and open letters and press statements, mobilizing to find ways to take the online passion offline, and reaching out to more and more people. I am encouraged by the attention that we have managed to sustain over the last few days, but I fear a missed opportunity to address the more pertinent issue of Nigerian women’s citizenship rights.

From the very beginning, politically-aware Nigerians on social media used the easiest, more emotional topic to rally around, with a ready-made hashtag that has been around for a while -- #ChildNotBride. I don’t think the discussion on child marriages was unnecessary, mind you; we all know Sen. Yerima’s antecedents as one not opposed to marrying minors and it is correct to point out that one of the implications of such a provision as Section 29, sub-section 4(b), passing muster is that the window within which one could persecute a man for marrying a young girl-child is only open in betrothal, after which she will be, according to the constitution, legally an adult. But if we are to properly focus this discussion, we will do well to take this as an opportunity to address the personhood of the Nigerian woman.

There are entirely too ways in which the Nigerian constitution shuts women out. The current iteration of the constitution does not allow women to pass on citizenship rights to foreign spouses. Even the federal character argument that seeks to balance ethnic diversity in political office does not extend this logic to gender balance. All this, and never mind there being no constitutional protections for women against prejudice and violence. Women are not alone in being without constitutional protections, though; youth and persons with disability are not either. There is no clearer indication that Nigeria sees itself politically as a collection of different ethnicities, and not a nation of men and women. We are then looking for our constitution, a document that does not recognize the individual as a political entity, for our protection. IF this is to be feasible at all, we would need to make the argument more broadly seeking the protection of personhood as a general matter. 

The Nigerian constitutional review process has not been as well covered as that of recent constitutional review efforts by our counterparts in Kenya and Ghana, so a lot of groundwork needs to be done in order to ensure that folk are aware and on message. Civil society groups focusing on gender wrote memorandum after memorandum on how best to make for a more woman-friendly constitution, very much in the shadows of larger issues such as state police and local government autonomy. One of the main problems observable with mounting a social media awareness campaign is just how easily the message can veer off in a direction that you don’t want it to take. We do not have a Melissa Harris-Perry on TV every Saturday morning to help us guide multi-media conversation in traditional media. We do not have a press corps that is always dogged in its work to champion the cause of the most vulnerable of Nigerians. Indeed, most of our media-houses would rather tell the stories of political soap operas in Rivers State than hard-hitting, insightful reportage on issues affecting vulnerable populations. What we have are strong opinions from an impatient people that are understandably cynical about their ability to change anything. Watching conversation on Section 29 has been instructive about how we can better channel our collective energy and the importance of finding ways to drive conversation in a manner that carries us all along. 

Given the context, then, Section 29 of the constitution to be amended with the offending subsection only adds further insult to injury on the question of Nigerian women’s citizenship. Generally, if a law pertains to only one slice of your population, a government’s job of ensuring an equitable society within which its citizens can thrive must be called to question. This troubling notion of “full adult” (as opposed to “half-adult”?) holds so many implications, most egregious of which is that a woman can be “half an adult” for the sake of the man that intends to use her. Aside from being at odds with Child Rights Act which has the age of consent for a child at 18, subsection 4(a) does not make clear what rights these half-adults have rights to. They cannot enter contractual agreements without parental consent, legally vote, or legally obtain a drivers’ license. These “half adults” are, in effect, not adults at all. If a half-adult enters a marriage, can she even dissolve it on her own, given that she does not have contractual consent? What is this half-adult citizen’s right, then? Who determines that? And where does this slippery slope lead to? These are the questions that our government must answer in this constitutional review process. 

I love that Nigerians are taking the activism offline at organizing; frankly, we need the practice for the greater battles ahead in the 2015 elections. I’m just concerned that we have allowed the question posed by the Senate’s actions (however reluctant) on Section 29 to be framed by something not directly linked to the topic at hand. If we’re going to win battles on issues that matter, we need to focus, ask for concrete, achievable things, and orient our message the right way. Taking on a topic that ever so slightly enters the realm of religion at the height of Ramadan in a politically and religiously polarized environment is not a good idea. But the important thing is this: we are right, and this battle can be won.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Blogging the Caine Prize - Pede Hollist "Foreign Aid" and the Diaspora Conversation

I am blogging The Caine Prize Shortlist with a coterie of bloggers. Check out the blog round-up for reactions to the stories on the shortlist over at ZunguZungu's. This week's review is of Pede Hollist's "Foreign Aid" (pdf).

I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. So here’s the story of Logan, a man who makes good in America, goes home with a head full of ideas as to how life is supposed to be, and wants to dictate to those he’s left behind in Sierra Leone what kind of life they should live. The title “Foreign Aid” is interesting, because it recognizes Logan’s interventions as from an outside source, as foreign as the Westerner with full of good intentions and soft-spoken superiority. The messages in this story, warning of the dangers in de-contextualizing a nation’s problems and playing know-all, are clear. Maybe even too clear.

As far as the writing goes, this story was hard for me to muscle through. For what this story was trying to do, I think it is fair to say that it was entirely too long. There were entire scenes that could have been cut out – like the hedging at the beginning to give Balogun aka Logan a back-story that does not do much to explain the man that we see in Sierra Leone, or that entirely too long scene with the suitcases and the ferry. rather, I would have liked, for example, to know more about what gave Logan, who had lived in Sierra Leone until his twenties, the level of remove from where he grew up that what he met at home so surprised him. How different was the Salone he knew as a young man and the Salone he’d probably heard or read about in his years in America from the Salone he met upon his return? Did he have no friends of African descent in the U.S.? I simply do not buy that he came home a tabula rasa and needed to re-learn his environment. Also, those conversations between Logan and the many uncles were so obviously playing into a point the author was trying to make that I wish he had just written us an essay and gotten it over with.

The trouble is that I actually completely understand the world the writer is depicting here. Aunties and uncles abroad always joke about how they avoid coming home because the expectation is always that they spray around the money that they’ve acquired from the Land of Milk and Honey. I know how irritated I get when I meet Nigerians who live outside the country that act as though they have all the solutions for Nigeria’s progress, because those of us who currently live in the country obviously couldn’t trace our wrists from our elbows. Lots of people who have spent time away truly no longer understand how a nation could make it so difficult for people to survive, never mind thrive. But I am not every reader, and the way that each character is influenced by their time abroad also differs. It does take a lot of effort and care, but there is indeed a way to tell well-observed, beautifully written stories of this world that does everything that a good story must do.

The tradition of writing set in Africa that addresses contemporary social issues hearkens as far back as  those folk tales and proverbs, and is meant to both entertain and make you think, just like these other forms of storytelling. African writers have always felt the burden to have their stories mean something more than just the sum its plot, and that is definitely not a bad thing. The burden some African writers have felt since the post-colonial era to create work that speaks to the cultural moment has allowed for the creation of some very beautiful work by writers whose names still ring a bell today, but we most always remember that the best stories also understand the importance of putting a good story – not a message -- front and center. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Blogging the Caine Prize - Tope Folarin's "Miracle"

I am blogging The Caine Prize Shortlist with a coterie of bloggers. Check out the blog round-up for reactions to the stories on the shortlist over at ZunguZungu's. The first story we're reviewing is Tope Folarin's "Miracles" (pdf), which was first published in Transition Magazine.

Its probably not possible to a church service scene and not recall James Baldwin’s “Go Tell it on the Mountain”. One thing about that book is how palpable the belief was, the very performance of belief, and how the certainty of that performance belied the roiling humanity just beneath the surface. Tope Folarin’s “Miracle” was full of the certitude of belief, but I got much less of the humanity of its main character and his family.

I did, however, get a good sense of who the Nigerians in the church were as a collective, and the helplessness that seems to embody their narrative. It was a nice contrast to focus on the church scene in the United States, and Texas seems a great setting in which to do this. It was subtle, but I like how this helplessness hung over them like a rain-cloud even in faraway America, where they – it does not say, but I’m sure – ran to for greener pastures. I would have liked to know why his family left America, why his mother left them. We got a good sense of what the Nigerians in the church wanted deliverance from, but not so much of what this main family wanted and needed. Yes, they are working hard to make ends meet in America, but I would have liked some more about how their poverty in America has affected them socially and emotionally.

Writing-wise, I think the piece well encapsulated the air that permeated the church and its many followers, and I could almost feel the anticipation in the church for a miracle. It was all so droll, watching these people hoodwinked by a pastor, the certainty with which the pastor performed these “miracles”, as though it were all some elaborate joke in which everyone were a part of. Droll, yes, but as a Nigerian living in Nigeria that feels like she is part of an elaborate joke every damn day, it was mostly very accurate and sad to read.

I’d have liked some imagery. I’d have loved to know what the church looked like, what the altar looked like, and some hints as to what the class of people in the church was. Were they just like the lead character in the family? Were people from different backgrounds, worked different kinds of jobs? Did they know the lead character well?

It has become quite the fashion to write stories about dissatisfaction with a life in the West, but I always would like some explanation. Not because I think this is impossible, but because the root of the dissatisfaction is almost always different and enriches the story. All in all, though, great story from Folarin, and I would definitely check out more of his work.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Taiye Selasi's Ghana Must Go and the Question of Magical Immigrants

I'm excited to be joining  a coterie of bloggers to review of Caine Prize shortlisted stories, just like I did last year, mostly because my mind has been primed for literature a fair amount lately. I just ordered A. Igoni Barrett's Love Is Power or Something Like That, am currently in the middle of Doreen Baingana's short story collection Tropical Fish. I also just finished reading Taiye Selasi’s much talked-about novel Ghana Must Go this weekend, and I can say right away that you need to do read it, too. 

As far as the writing goes, it does not get much better than Selasi's poetic prose that belies a deep emotional intelligence that makes her characters feel real. I came away thinking that I had met many Kwekus and Taiwos, and did not want to stop reading about their lives. From the very first page, there are some passages that you want to just scan and frame and mount on your wall for their lyricism and intelligence and honesty. her description is painstaking and detailed with a poetry and grit that reminds of Toni Morrison. She loves language, sometimes a bit too much, giving her this tendency to over-describe and launch into (albeit gorgeous) paragraphs that do very little to advance the story. Even so, I think you'd do yourself a great disservice for not reading because of that.

One thing that grated, though, is how Selasi missed some of the more Nigerian details. It is hard to get past her mixing up mainland and Lagos island (no, Ikeja is not on the island) and I don't know anyone that eats jollof rice and egusi (maybe some poeple do, but it's an unusual combination). Also, I don't remember a woman ever calling her son okunrin mi like Fola (I think) did; it is usually something like oko mi ("oko" can mean husband, so this means something like "my dear").

I know a book is memorable when it leaves me with more than just a story, but an idea that I am grappling with days after. It is hard to read Ghana Must Go without thinking about the burden that a lot of immigrants living in the Western world face to be great. The Harvard graduates, those with high-flying jobs, those that made good on the other side in the way that gets celebrated at dinner tables back in home countries, parents dropping nugget after exaggerated nugget of their sons’ and daughters’ success in classrooms or offices full of white people. I wonder if by focusing on the most successful among us we are not reinforcing the deeper minority problem of having to work twice as hard as anyone else to get anywhere, to achieve something, to be seen. Even among ourselves, we have internalized the notion that we must be extraordinary for our stories to count. The Western world teaches us what and who to celebrate, and because we must be extraordinary to get noticed, we in turn do not easily forgive ordinariness, and tacitly accept the idea that many of us need be ignored for the few -- and there are always too few -- stars who arguably do not see their due, their achievements often filtered through a racial lens.

Selasi may not have meant for this to be so, but I found her novel negotiating with the idea of the extraordinary. Kweku Sai was an extraordinary surgeon, but his life took a left turn and he fell from grace. Taiwo, the beautiful writer and lawyer, and her equally extraordinary artist twin Kehinde, are haunted by a horrific incident at the hands of an uncle in Lagos demonstrate in different ways a gift for self-destruction. Baby Sadie, a student at Yale, shares this gift with her siblings. Olu is the perfect son with anxiety issues that you can just tell will be the bane of his relationship with his long-term girlfriend-turned-wife Ling. None of the characters in her ambitious, well-done novel are insulated from life by their degrees and accomplishments. Even overachieving immigrants get in their own way sometimes. 

It was also very affirming to read a story of immigrants from a writer of African descent that deals with issues that many of us tend to see as Western. I grew up in a Lagos where want is laid bare: early morning strivers leave for work as early as four in the morning so as not to be late for a nine o’clock start at the office; the markets always teeming with people; the street children playing hopscotch between traffic jams and the police chasing them off the streets. The issues that are readily comprehensible, and therefore immediately deserving of sympathy, were those to which the matter of concern is not directly oneself; like being widowed, being arrested by corrupt police and without just cause, being battered by one’s husband, or being robbed of one’s possessions. It is not that too many of us are without human kindness, but many of us have trouble understanding more quiet afflictions that affect the self; issues of depression, bulimia, and suicide are often treated with a wave of the hand, a tired dismissal, more personal failings than real problems deserving of sympathy.

I don't read reviews of books that I plan to read, but I did go back and check out what some folk have been saying about the book. It has been amusing to see journalists marveling over her cheekbones and cosmopolitan upbringing, and bringing up her much-talked-about essay on Afropolitans. In a way, the hubbub made of her appearance and her background reinforces her depiction of the immigrant family in her novel, one that peels away the impressive armor and questions the humanity within.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Caine Shortlist Blogging - La Salle de Depart

Here's the fourth installment in my blogging of the Caine shortlist, along with others in a ZunguZungu-led coterie of bloggers. The story I'm reviewing is Melissa Tandiwe Myambo's "La Salle de Depart" (pdf).

This is the first of the Caine stories which actually seeks to thoroughly understand the characters that it depicts. Fatima is wonderfully drawn, and in beautiful sentences and fantastic imagery that is both tender and unsparing in its honesty. What you get is a real economy in the sense that we are told everything we need to know about the characters to neither excuse nor rebuke them, but to understand them. You can almost see the tension as Fatima seeks the words to ask Ibou about Babacar, you see the resentment and even the inadequacy that goes into Ibou’s rejection. In the salle de depart, Ibou does more than travel back to America; he emphasizes the differences between Fatima and himself. Even as he physically was in Senegal during his visit, he had left them a long time before, and would always feel that degree of remove.

One comes away with a sense of just how different we become when we leave our respective African countries to live elsewhere. Nothing looks the same anymore, and there is often this tug between disillusionment of greener pasture you have moved to that clambers awkwardly alongside this new vision of  where you have left. Sometimes home benefits from the distance, and other times, in many ways, it does not. Home did not benefit from the distance for Ibou, and you get the sense that Ibou flounders as he tries to explain, because to speak more eloquently will be to express how much he neither wants to be home, nor wants to be reminded of home. Myambo also alludes to Ibou’s shame of not being well-to-do in Senegal, compared to Ghada’s wealthier French-educated family. Where she and her mother speak classy French, his family is simpler, especially the sister he used to be so close to when he was younger,

When she reminds him of how her education was sacrificed for his, he does not say anything, mostly because there is nothing to say. It was never anything he had to think about. It was not among the list of annoyances that he thought of when he texted Ghada that he felt “like an ATM machine”. It was just the way things went. There was nothing he could say about that. It was not his fault, after all, that she was bound by her womanhood and sisterhood into such a sense of duty that, even as upset as she was, she would still stay in the airport until his plane had taken off. It was not his fault that he felt no similar sense of duty. They were the ones that had sent him away.

What I love most about this is that, even with the familiarity of this story for a lot of Africans, especially those in the diaspora, Myambo gives us a real story. She takes the time to give us imagery, to make us feel the words stuck in Fatima’s throat, to understand her confusion, to get a sense of Ibou’s relationship with Ghada, to stand there in the airport with Fatima and understand how hard her final words to Ibou must have been to say. She walks the fine line that African writers often walk between managing the weight of testimony and the skill of fiction. She does not for one moment forget she is telling a story, and this story is the better for it.

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Friday, May 25, 2012

Caine Prize Shortlist Review - S. O. Kenani's "Love on Trial"

Here's the third installment in my blogging of the Caine shortlist, along with others in a ZunguZungu-led coterie of bloggers. The story is S. O.Kenani's Love on Trial (pdf).

This Kenani short story takes on the issue of gay rights in Malawi, but Africa more broadly. There was a real effort on the part on the writer to go after the rationale for the holding back gay rights and the dehumanization of people based solely on their sexuality. This frustration for any progressive-leaning person living in an African country is understandable, but one must wonder how best to tackle it in fiction (hint: not like Kenani chooses to here).

I found the title a bit misleading. I understand where “Love on Trial” comes from, but there really is just one person on trial here: Charles. This is not like that the gay couple arrested in Malawi for attempting to marry; this is a man who people have found out is gay and not has to defend himself in the open (lucky he is a lawyer, huh?). I quibble with this, because I think it is unnecessary in its call to our conscience, but also because I find it strange because there is an actual trial which ends in his being thrown in jail, and it was not thoroughly dealt with. We’re given a TV show spectacle instead.

The sad part is that there was plenty of potential for the story to take a more subtle, more illuminating path. By starting off the story with the drunken Lapani Kachigwe who used his recounting of how he came walked in on Charles and his lover in flagrante to get free alcohol for his friends was, to me, brilliant. It was a subtle way of showing how unthinking Kachigwe was, how little he considered that recounting the story over and again would do to someone’s life, and a nice way of introducing the question of privilege. He could have used the omniscient point of view to put Charles’s actual trial as the center of the question and really spend time teasing out the cultural issues and to fully flesh out the frame of mind of the people who are putting the young man on trial. Kenani could have used his story as a thoughtful rumination of privilege, a consideration of how we apportion humanity in post-colonial societies. Rather, he used it to shake his fists at our collective morality. Hell, he even ended the story with the parable.

I think one of the hardest things for African writers is to balance a deep political consciousness with the discipline to prioritize the writing of a good story. Kenani, with this story, focused too much on former than on the latter. In focusing on the brouhaha gathering around Charles, he offers only a cartoonish version of the townspeople and no real reason why his family, unlike the townspeople, is tolerant of their son’s homosexuality. When we get to the TV show section of the story, the writer almost forgets about setting and the importance of characterization of the people he is depicting. Charles is the gentle, intelligent gay man who is faithful to his boyfriend and wants to be a lawyer, but all we know about the TV show host is that he thinks homosexuality is a sin.

African writers can write about just whatever they please, like any writer anywhere else, but African writers who know of their cultural setting enough to write about must know the length and breadth of the humanity of those (s)he chooses to depict. As complicated as it is, there are plenty of good, intelligent, even morally-upright people across who would blanch at the thought of equal rights for gay citizens. Kenani, however, makes no notice of this albeit-inconvenient truth. While I agree on full human rights for gay citizens in my country, I take exception to the writer's inconspicuous kindness only at characters who agree with him, and I remain unconvinced that the best response to unresolved cultural issues is to resort to the smugness that will not allow us to see the humanity in those we do not agree with.

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