Few would have understood Mzwakhe Mbuli’s poetry had he costumed it in the impenetrable language of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Marlowe, Milton and all the other dead white poets who never had to wage cultural war against a monstrosity called apartheid. On such basis, one understands why “The Moment to Decide: Breaking the Chain of Sexual Network” hews close to Mbuliesque minimalism. Like Mbuli, the writer, Kofi Acquah-Dadzie, can understandably not be too obsessed with the possibilities of syntax and wrap literary meaning in a wonder of riddles when he has to communicate an urgent message about HIV/AIDS to the masses.
Built of plain prose, this novel with a rather unusual title is about Malepa, a young man fresh from a college of education, who starts off showing a lot of promise and has a very good reason to keep strictly to the straight and narrow. AIDS has already claimed both his parents as well as his uncle and wife. Killer, a good friend of his is also HIV-positive and the previous occupant of the house he lives in at his new school was a man nicknamed “Sweetie” after the name he gave each woman in his harem. He also died of AIDS. Before Malepa leaves for his new work station in the city of Sojua, his grandmother and uncle, Oteng, hold for his benefit, a two-day HIV/AIDS prevention tutorial during which he is thoroughly schooled in the dos and don’ts of young adult life.
In Sojua he buddies up with Lekoba, an older next-door neighbour who bore witness to Sweetie’s self-destruction and buttresses the teaching Malepa received a few days earlier from Grandma and Oteng. In no time, Malepa acquires a car that this pair uses to paint the town red. Yearning for the bliss of matrimony, Malepa meets and marries Kaone, a receptionist at a Sojua hotel who proves herself the perfect wife material in the short period of their courtship. Malepa adopts Edisa, her nine-year old daughter and soon the couple welcomes its own baby boy, Malepa Junior. However, marital bliss soon eludes the couple and in an unexplained turn of events, Malepa Senior suddenly turns into a monster:
“In some cases, Malepa would come home late and appeared drunk. He would eat very little of the food on the dining table. When his wife questions him about the lateness and the fact that he has been coming late, he insults her [by saying] that she is a village girl and not as educated as he was.. At times, Kaone would remind him that they had to pay school fees for Edisa. Malepa would reply that he had no money. Malepa’s life appeared to have changed a lot. He would attend parties all night and forget that he had a wife and children at home. Sometimes they may not have enough food in the kitchen but he had money to buy drinks for himself, friends and sometimes, girls.”
He acquires a Don Juan reputation around town and the end comes when he succumbs to the wiles of Mina, an extremely beautiful carnal biological-warfare specialist who uses her weapon of choice – HIV – with deadly precision. Having managed to gain the ravenous affections of a nudist-colony of moneyed boyfriends, she has devised a fail-proof execution method that an unwitting Malepa describes to Lekoba during an after-the fact conversation. He had taken her to a lodge in town and after drinking half a bottle of Power brandy, “the two of them undressed almost at the same time and sat on the bed. There was a condom on the table for guests but Malepa said that he also had one in his pocket. When he was about to wear it, Mina saw it, she objected. She shook her head left and right. “Hey, my good friend, I don’t need a condom especially this type. I have two reasons. Look at me. I am healthy and not an HIV patient.” He obliges her, she returns the favour by infecting him and he, in turn, infects his wife.
Then again, he could have been infected by Lebo, his round-the-clock shift housemaid or anyone within his harem of “Kwik recharge” girlfriends. Acquah-Dadzie, who is Ghanaian, seems to have used his time in Botswana to gain a generous understanding of some sub-cultures and the attendant vocabulary. He deftly deploys this knowledge in the story.
There is no doubt that novel resounds with relevance for these trying times and readers hopefully, readers would take its message to heart. However, the writer loses points for not observing the most basic storytelling conventions and the net result is that what could have been a seminal HIV/AIDS story ironically suffers from its own viral load of literary imprecision. Take plotting. The most rudimentary aspect about a plot is that the fictional facts have to cohere. There is no such coherence when the writer awkwardly re-introduces Pinkie, Lekoba’s ex-girlfriend, towards the end of the story. This couple part ways way before Kaone came into the picture and so, for the record, the two women don’t know each other. However, much later, when Kaone has moved out of the matrimonial home, is living in another part of town and is out shopping, she hears someone calling out her name from behind. “She quickly turned and noticed that it was Pinkie. They were both happy to see each other.” In as far as the facts of the story go, the two women don’t know each other and there is no way in the world they would recognise each other when they meet in the street.
As contrived are the conversations between characters. Yes, the book is about AIDS but that does not mean that almost every conversation has to be about the disease. Then there is the laughing whose occurrence can strain the reader’s interest and comes even at the most inappropriate moments. At a wedding ceremony, the pastor quotes what seem to be fairly pedestrian quotes about marriage and “there was a lot of laughter and satisfaction about these quotations.” Interestingly, what is perhaps the funniest line in the book occurs under circumstances not permitting of laughter. Kaone intercepts a text message on Malepa’s mobile phone that reads: “Honey, u were so sweet. R u coming tonite? Luv Neo.” When she confronts him, he says simply: “I don’t know her. Maybe it’s a wrong number for another ‘honey’, not me. In any case, I don’t eat honey.”
Those who appreciate literature from a feminist perspective would also quarrel with the writer’s depiction of some of its main women characters. When we meet Pinkie she is living with Lekoba. Gorata, a friend of hers, is also living under the same domestic arrangement. Kaone, who had been employed as a receptionist at a hotel, stops working after her marriage and following the divorce, finds a new man whom she moves in with. The career live-in lover as a central character in fiction does not do much to advance the cause of women empowerment.
The book’s greatest failure is the characterisation of Malepa because questions about his transformation emerge at several levels of the narrative. He seems to have taken Grandma and Uncle Oteng’s teachings about HIV/AIDS to heart but in one of his frequent outings with Lekoba soon after his arrival in Sojua, he randomly picks up a girl at a bar; over time he ends up with two steady girlfriends (Kaone being one); on the day he collects Kaone from the hospital after she gives birth, he whispers to Lekoba: “My brother, now that she is in confinement, I may need a substitute.” Then there are revelations about Malepa coming home late, drinking too much and not providing for his family.
Literary investigation into his transformation is impossible because the narrative neither explains it nor provides helpful clues. Where it should have filled in the blanks, the denouement is a parallel story. At a point that the life of Malepa “the only light and candlelight in the family” is all but over, his sister, Lorato, asks Uncle Oteng: “Uncle, what brought about all these problems?” This is the question that every reader will ask. How did it happen that Malepa was a responsible family man when he went to bed and the exact opposite of that when he woke up the next morning? Even readers who want to appreciate this story at a superficial level will certainly yearn for a more psychologically coherent character because the novel doesn’t attend to the complexities of rendering character.
Prose fiction begins with character and three-dimensional characters would have fulfilled the most basic readerly desires. Readers want to be able to peer into psyche of characters and would prefer that much of the narrative occur on rather off the page. In that way, they are better able to establish critical authority over a narrative.
A British writer called Zadie Smith describes fiction as “a series of problem-solving activities.” On such basis, the reader’s expectation is that as soon as the wheels and gears of the plot engage, the essential core of Malepa’s character should be illuminated. At this level, plot is a function of character because how the protagonist deals with obstacles in his way reveals his long measure. However, that doesn’t happen in this book because almost everything is delivered to Malepa on a silver platter. Even before he leaves to start a new life in Sojua, his grandmother gives him part of her savings; Uncle Oteng bequeaths to him, a refrigerator and gas cooker he left under the care of a friend in Sojua; a few weeks after starting work, he buys a brand new car through a government loan scheme – on and on it goes. A conflict-resolution calculus would have offered a richer reading experience because he would have to struggle against hurdles every step of the way.
The blurb says that Acquah-Dadzie, who has published 12 books in all, worked as a legal officer in a bank and district magistrate in his native Ghana. He then taught law at a Nigerian university before coming to Botswana where he worked with the Administration of Justice in various magisterial capacities and as Assistant Registrar and Master of the High Court of Botswana. He was the first magistrate to preside over Botswana’s first Family Court in Gaborone.