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: