Meet the triune Stanley O. Kenani

There are two Malawians on the list of Africa's top 39 writers under the age of 40 that are set to be part of the Hay festival. One of them is Stanley Kenani, the other is Shadreck Chikoti. Over a year ago, I interviewed the former for a magazine article. This is the article which, as well, is the first in a just introduced series that will be featuring Malawian artists:

Stanley Onjezani Kenani, the two time nominee of the Caine Prize for African literature, would rather identify himself as a Malawian first, and last. Questions beyond that, to establish his tribal or geographical space in terms of home district, will be answered of course but with a shaken confidence.

“I normally refuse the labels of tribe, district etcetera. I prefer to simply be called Malawian,” he says after saying, with an obvious uneasiness, that he comes from the Western side of Kasungu.

And, as a professional then he is three-fold. He identifies himself as an accountant, an auditor and – of course, well known – a writer.

The Malawian born writer who, at some point in time, was the President of the Malawi Writers’ Union (MAWU) possesses no academic qualification in writing, nevertheless. It is something that, one can say, runs in his veins.

The 38 year old father of two boys has academic qualifications in accounting and auditing – the two professions that have made him an international civil servant currently working with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

“I obtained a Bachelors degree in accounting from the University of Malawi’s The Polytechnic,” says he of his educational background, a route that started taking shape at Mtendere Secondary School in Dedza where he did his Secondary Education.

From the Polytechnic, the man who has ever worked in Botswana and Kenya among other countries across the globe, went further with his education through a bit of self-studying and attending classes at the Malawi College of Accountancy where he later got certified as a Chartered accountant. Still journeying on the road of education, he pursued further studies and became an Internal auditor.

Thus, in his documented script of education there appears nowhere where he is a certified and trained writer. However, the man not only boasts of being the President of the national writers’ body, having a book published or being the only Malawian nominated twice for the prestigious Caine prize.

“I have had literary agents coming all over Europe in droves to woo me, have recited in international audiences, I have been a judge of international literary competitions and these are some of the heights I have scaled in my writing,” he says of the satisfactions he has found in the field he never trained for. All these can be added to what he says matters to him mostly when it comes to writing:

“The research I do before writing, the in-depth understanding I do of the topic before me is really what matters.”

When growing up, Kenani was not the average person who has all these dreams cut out for oneself – this, he confesses:

“I had no idea of who I would become when I grew up. All I did was read, read and read.”

And, it was through those book adventures that the dreams he never had came to flutter before his eyes. It has been through the same book adventures that he has scaled to greater heights, broken barriers and transcended to spaces unimaginable such that for now, one can say that he is a development agent.

Kenani accepts that writers have a space in the development of the nation. His acceptance, however, comes with a rejoinder in clearing what he means by development.

If it is about the building of schools and such other things, he rushes to say this, then writers there have a little part yet when it comes to development meaning the philosophical development of the society then this is where the writers’ role emerges out clearly. He then mentions examples of writers’ who have influenced the philosophical development of the society and, like most humble writers, he deliberately omits his name yet his last story that got nominated for the Caine prize, Love on trial, tackled a new development sort of: homosexuality.

In a nation with an arguably weak reading culture the story sparked little debate of course yet online and in the social networking sites it managed to arouse some debate – both positively and negatively. And, it is debate that, one can argue, is the first step towards philosophical development.

Aside sparking debate with its controversial content, one in which the Bible is used to defend an act that is considered as not Biblical by many, the story was also adapted for the stage by the London based Birimankhwe arts. It has already been premiered in London, the story set in Malawi.

Thus, some of the successes of a Malawian reach that far. Successes that, he confesses are not anywhere beyond scope.

“I always write. I write everyday, whether bad writing or good writing,” he says of his skill in perfecting something he never sat in class for. It is a practice it seems many Malawians can learn from: to always venture on, even with a million thoughts and voices joining in discouraging you.

Maybe then, when we learn that not only those that we sat in class for can also be used to our advantage, the country can move forward and – of course – this has to be accompanied by the three things Kenani says Malawians should do:

“Read, read, read. We should be a reading nation.”        


Lucius’ subtle philosophies of two decades

If Lucius Banda, the musician cum politician (or the other way round), were to be releasing two albums every year since embarking on his musical journey then by the end of this year, Malawi could have boasted of a musician with forty albums appended to his name.

If he were to release one each year, as the practice is amongst many local musicians, his name could have been associated with twenty albums.

However, the path of Lucius Banda has been marked with some wide gorges and deformed by some deep gullies that by now, he boasts of seventeen albums to his credit. It is a rare feat still – yet to be beaten by another person in Malawi.

When he first appeared on the scene in 1994, two decades ago, Lucius Banda – before he had gotten the badge of soldier on the lapel of the jacket of his name – he was considered simply as a revolutionary musician. An angry politician, probably, using music to advance his agenda: an anger against the falling Malawi Congress Party.

Little wonder, some of the hits that people remember from the first albums of the veteran are nothing but political tales. Such hits as the ever-relevant Mabala, Mzimu and Ali ndi njira zawo among others are what sticks to memory from the old days.

However, with time, the past Lucius started giving way to let a new form of him emerge. A man who as well could sing of his experiences in such a beautiful manner that they resonate well with the majority’s experiences such that they have fallen in love with him and have decorated him with the title of Soldier.

His themes, and philosophies, have been varying but there are just some that are clear and yet subtle at the same time.
Fathers are human too

The life story of Lucius Banda, like most other life stories, has the traits of a beautiful yet sad fiction: dumped by father, raised by mother and then just as success is near, mother dies. That story is well recorded in that dirge to his mother, Mayi Zembani.

From such a background, one would easily expect Lucius to have a feeling that fathers are less human yet Soldier sails beyond that and, from his own pain, learns to appreciate that not all fathers are failures. Thus, in some of his songs he learns to give fathers a voice.

In the 1998 song, Toto ndakana, he takes the voice of a single father who has raised a girl child alone after her mother succumbs during child birth. The male figure is now busy wading off rich men who are ready to corrupt the young child. Soldier, in the song, understands that there are some men who are as kind as his mother was and – at the same time – there are other men who are ready to ruin the future of young girls. It is the former, however, whom he lives in through the song.

Six years later, he sang of fathers again. This time, a man so fond of his children is separated from them because of divorce. The elder child then writes the father to weep that their step dad is not a kind man – most are usually not except when viewed from the surface. He says that the step dad actually forces himself on the young child. This incenses the father and touches a raw nerve of fatherhood in him that he promises to come for the children regardless of what the courts imposed on him at the ruling on the divorce.

Soldier understands that the world has fathers with a human face as well. Such fathers as those he sings of in the two songs as well as Ulimbe mtima.

We all are our mothers’ children

The love, and influence, of a mother’s love in the art of Lucius cannot be overemphasized. It is clear as day. And the reason being the one he outlined in Mayi Zembani – the song that eventually influenced the name of his band.

However, the shocking thing is that years after her mothers’ death – in 2005 – Lucius comes to sing of his mother again. He recognizes the void and emptiness he feels living a life minus his father. Thus, he sings:

Musamanamizane/ kuti umasiye/ ndi umphawi wokha/ usiwa/ kapena njala/ ukapeza zonse/ banja, chuma, kutchuka/ udzawasowa mayi ako

For all those who traverse the world minus their mothers, Lucius sings, they know that orphan-hood does not have a certain limit nor is it hidden by success. Apparently, he appears to believe, success at times triggers that state of feeling like an orphan once again for when another round of success hits you in the face, there is no mother that you can go to so that you celebrate with; to let her know that her labour had not been in vain.

Blood is thicker than water

It is an open secret that the Balaka based musician, Soldier, attributes his success to his brother, another skilled musician, Paul. From the snippets of some of his songs, it proves that Lucius has learnt that there is no power strong enough to break the strings of love that bind brotherhood.

As he preaches in his post-arrest song, Nthawi, from the 2009 album, Freedom, one should never have the grace of forgetting his family for it is the shelter that one runs to when the howling winds of the world smite his soul. Lucius sings, with a better experience, that friends are but for the season when the sun is warming yet when the same sun reaches a peak, they flee.

It is the same philosophy he carries in M’bale wanga in which a cousin reminds another that despite his wealth, that has eventually earned him friends, it is them – the family – that he will need when trouble sets in.

Wealth is cosmetic, not happiness

Lucius has lived through the worst forms of poverty, that he concedes. And, he understands, there are many like him: people who, having had lived through the pits of poverty, thought that once you have wealth then there came happiness following as a faithful marriage partner to the wealth.

However, if his songs are anything to go by, at the peak of having the things he aspired for, Soldier discovers that happiness is beyond earthly pleasures. Thus, he sings in his 2002 song, Chuma sichimwemwe, that wealth is not happiness. To this philosophy, he appends the gospel hit of the 2006 album, Samueli, in which he finally declares that there is a single way to attaining happiness: walking in the path of the light – living by the decrees of God.

In the end, death awaits

Lucius is not a young man, in the world of music and even as per Malawian standards when weighed against the life expectancy. He has seen it all, has accepted that it is vanity. He puts this message across in his latest album through the song, Ndakonzeka. But Lucius’ lack of fear of death, the inevitable, is not a new theme in his music. It is old.

He first tackled it in 1999, in arguably his best album to date – Yahwe – in the very song he accepted the Soldier medal to be tied together to his name: Mzimu wa Soldier. In the song, he indicated his acknowledging of the fact that his death will come but then, he sang, only until after an equality has been achieved. Apparently, it appears ridiculous as the world appears to be running on inequality as its very tyres.

Lucius must have accepted that fact that equality is an illusion, but not death. Little wonder, the year after he sang Ndiobwereka, a song in which he proudly claims that this life is borrowed and one day it will be surrendered. It has to come to an end. 

*This article first appeared in The Sunday Times of March 9, 2014


What would Jesus do?

The sun was just beginning to burn the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Some weeks before, four fishermen had been fished from their trade by the carpenter’s son to be his disciples. They were now with him. Sitting on the shores of the sea they had always regarded as a home. Their past, forgotten; hope erected in the future.

Jesus, for that was the name of the son of the carpenter whom the church had denounced, was busy preaching to his congregation. His voice was small, his frame was little – almost frail. The cloth he had used to wrap his body in was dirty such that in within his congregation you could hear some little whispers of people wondering what made this man believe he was the son of God and not just Joseph, the carpenter.

His voice had no charisma. It lacked that magic and fire that John the Baptist (now in prison) had had in those days when he had baptized people in this very same sea, calling them of the wicked generation, calling them to turn away from their sins and – in instances – labeling them offspring of the vipers.

However, the carpenter’s son’s sermons were not that magical. They were more of philosophy. More of teachings.

“Happy are those who are humble,” he attempted to raise his voice. “They will receive what God has promised them.”

A murmur swept through. They were asking him to raise his voice. He made a vain attempt to raise it. He did but it was not enough. The people just learned that the best way to hear him was to maintain a silence within themselves and silent they went as he went about delivering his teachings.

Minutes later, he got up from the ground he was sitting on – not a chair or a rock. He did not bother dusting himself. He just rose and started walking around his congregation that had started swelling little by little.

“If you forgive others the wrongs they have done you then your Father in heaven will also forgive you,” he said lifting up a child from a ground. The child smiled. He smiled at it before proceeding:

“But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive the wrongs you have done.”

There was a lack of ease in the audience as his eyes swept through. Each of them remembered the neighbor they had vowed to never talk to while others remembered the time they were whipped after somebody had said a lie against them before Caesar. They had thought it best to just forget the man and place him in a cubicle. Of enemies. Now, this man was saying it was illegal – nay, a sin – to do such a thing? No! Some thought, this man does not know what he is talking about.

Those who had just been released out of prison on false accusations left. The man, the son of the carpenter, was insulting them.

“Do not judge others so that God will not judge you…” he said before a commotion interrupted him. He held the child tightly.

In the eastern direction was coming a group of church elders and leaders – they were called the Pharisees and Sadducees – in their overgrown beards and well-ironed robes. Before them was a man whom they were dragging by the shoulders. Another offender of the law.

Suddenly, the congregation that had been feeding on the simple and loving message of Jesus was stirred. They made way for the esteemed men who, every Sabbath, quoted the scriptures for them and told them to live in accordance with what it said so that they reserve a place for themselves in paradise.

Jesus gently put the child down, approached the esteemed men and freed the man who was being dragged by the shoulders.

“Teacher,” one of the Pharisees – he was a scholar at Capernaum University, a Professor – said with all the sarcasm a man of his education could master. Jesus did not respond.

“We found this man sinning,” he finished.

Jesus was focused not on the team of the well-read men of God but on their victim. He had helped him to a rock.

“This man,” said another of the Pharisees – a Professor of theology who had specialized in the Torah – “was found right in the act of sinning. Teacher, we want you to help us as to what we should do with him?”

Jesus stayed for a moment. For the first time, he surveyed the team of the well-read men of God and he saw mockery on their faces.

He shifted his attention and went to the accused sinner. His head was bowed down. He was overweighed with shame and an apparent fear.

“What did you do?”

“This man did the detestable,” a Sadducee was the one who spoke on his behalf. “If you have read your Bible well, teacher,” he emphasized mockingly on the word teacher, “this man belongs to that category of people found in Genesis chapter 19 from verses 1 to 11. They are the ones who made your Father,” he said with a sneer the words your Father, “angry that He had to let fire rain on this earth.

“It was after that that the good Lord writing through his servants wrote in the book of Leviticus in chapter 18, verse 22, and chapter 20, verse 13, warning us against these people. Actually, your own Father,” he certainly enjoyed the tease that the word father left his mouth with, “said that we should kill people like him by stoning. We should stone them to death.”

At this, Jesus noticed that the men already had stones in their hands and some of his congregation had gotten stones as well in readiness for the stoning feast.

“Now, teacher, what do you advise us to do with this man who was caught lying down with another man as he would with a woman?” asked the theology professor, hitting the nail on the head and sending the crowd on a rampage for they had now understood what the man was being accused of.

Jesus signaled the crowd to be silent and after minutes the crowd was silent. He moved over to the man: a handsome gentleman who was finely clothed as well.

“Is it true what they say of you?” he asked mildly.

The man cried and nodded his head. The crowd gasped all at once before falling quiet again at the silent command of their church leaders with their eyes. 

“What shall we do with him for the law plainly states that we should stone such a worse than a dog individual to death?”

Jesus knelt down. 

He wrote. 

In the sand. And then, he faced away.

The church elders read and, one by one, each of them left carrying their stones with them. They carried with them a huge part of the congregation that had been listening to the son of the carpenter who was claiming to be the Messiah.

“Where are those who accused you?” he asked after minutes.

“They are gone,” the homosexual said.