AiW Guest: Ofonime Inyang.
AiW note: This week, we bring you two reviews of Billy Kahora’s short story collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle Wars and Other Stories – originally published by Huza Press (Kigali) in 2019 and made available in the US with Ohio University Press in 2020. Published in these turbulent times of the Covid-19 pandemic, the book joins on the shelf other equally therapeutic short story collections recently published by East African writers such as Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Minutes of Glory: and Other Stories by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Stanley Gazemba’s Dog Meat Samosa. Our reviewers, Ofonime Inyang and Wesley Macheso, present two distinct readings of the collection but that nevertheless merge into a sequence of intersecting ideas complementing each other. We hope you enjoy the reviews!
Today, Inyang reads The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories as a provocative narrative of becoming and unbecoming that does not only address the experiences of diverse characters in Kenya, but goes beyond arbitrary geographical confinements to become a story of Africans searching for meaning in an alienating world.
Billy Kahora’s collection of short stories satirically but fittingly entitled The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories (2019) reads like a long, episodic novel, brimming with cyclic stories that are thematically-connected and strategically too, a mixed grill of restless characters, some completely derelict, others opaquely ambitious but questing, sometimes in wrong terms, all seeking for the transformation of their lives and society. A clearly ambitious and voluminous collection (consisting of eleven short stories) that unarguably would have done better as a novel though this is not dismissing its generic significance as a segmented collection of contemporaneous narratives underpinning the malfeasance of political brigandage in post-independence Africa.
In the opening story, We are Here Because We are Here, Kahora carves a space for the past to meet the present. Two generations of the Ozi people represented by Komora Mzee Wito and Komora Kijana Wito replay the mythic promptings of their identity, culture amidst the challenges of a rapidly changing society open to new influences but tied to the apron strings of natural order and fragments of history. We see through this story, the connection between the Ozi people, their environment, history, battles with nature and the role that white people (the British and Germans) played in the future realities of the socio-economic life of the society. We are also led to the grounds that colonialism created for the festering misunderstanding existing in the society and the noxious inebriation of an ecological construct that now defies redolent cultural thinking.
The germaneness of a past where “All this place that we call home was forest and animals and all the peoples of the coast were one” (17) becomes furiously swallowed by the angsts of resource control. Although understanding the norms of ecological balance and natural resource appropriation is a key issue in the society but the onus of the agitations in that local community appears to linger around an unseen voice of disintegration that puts the different ethnic configurations at loggerheads with each other. How this society now seeks to define itself within an avalanche of changing dynamics restructures the thinking system and pushes the older generation to quickly induct the young ones into a difficult history that now requires documentation beyond the communal mental repertory. So, when Komora Kijana’s grandfather says: “There is nothing wrong between us and the Malajuur. I have been travelling to them for years. There is also nothing wrong with us and Kenya. What is wrong is always the message. There are many people talking. About us and them. About us and the Orma. About us and the Wakabira. About us as different peoples…” (18), we clearly can have a proper view of how change unsettles a once peaceful community and we also understand that the key issue at the heart of this once harmonious society is how it can survive within the throes of emerging vicissitudes of life. The imminent rubbings of a postcolonial legacy could be felt easily as we engage the thick layer of threat that informs the old man’s decision to get his grandson to suspend developing himself to write a book that will document the annals of the society for the future.
Furthermore, through this story, a foundation is constructed for our perception of the contemporary Kenyan society but that is largely representative of most postcolonial societies especially in Africa. So when we meet Kandle in the early part of the collection in Zoning, we meet him multiplied and reincarnated in many other characters in the collection such as Maish Boi (Joseph Mungai), Ahmed Hussein Ibrahim (Petro Kariuki), John Biko and many others. A large chunk of the characters in this collection live double lives and a great many of them have a relational connection with people who were once influential players in the politics and government of Kenya at different times. Most of the characters also retain the notoriety of being sons of former government ministers turning to negative ways in foreign countries in dashed hopes and expectations of their parents. So throughout the vast expanse that the collection is, we find ourselves in a riveting narrative journey that pushes your breath up and down, generating dark memories of bad governance obfuscating the lives of the ordinary people and suffusing the society in anger, frustration and dislocation. The spoilt children of power figures echoing the afterlife of political renegades befuddle your senses with nasty scenes of sex, alcoholism, terrorism in a stark composition of the inanities of failing or failed societies. Zoning regales you with corruption from different angles. It points to the many grafts bedeviling the financial systems and the silent culpability of the big men and women put in charge of these institutions, especially in Africa.
In The Red Door, post-election violence, a recurring issue in Kenya’s nay Africa’s political life is brought back afresh. So, we hear about “the last Maasai-Kikuyu election clashes” (39). Juli, Chiri and Solo bring a different dimension to the slush of youthful exuberance drowned in excessive drinking, sex, and violent lifestyle. We see also the deep issue of identity and culture appropriation that should have acted as the impetus to Africa’s development but rather the bane of the continent’s postcolonial progress. Race is played against race and ethnicity becomes yet again the doldrums of a people’s dreams. The story ends in yet another failure and isolation as Solo comes back from the UK with nothing except in Juli’s words: “a serious drinking qualification and too much English” (55).
In Commission, the voice of a Muslim female narrator weaves the story of a man, her husband, active as a whistleblower that exposes graft in the Central Bank of Kenya, is hailed locally and internationally for this rare feat and presents the promise of a new day in the political landscape but whose story, unfortunately, sees him back to the same position he left in the small rural community that he spent life in hiding from Moi before the national recognition. Jameni’s travails in the hands of the Moi government that we encounter through the narrative presented by his wife opens up once again the unpleasant situation in Africa where cases of corruption are often closed with the establishment of “a Commission every other year and the country had still not changed” (92-93). What is said here in the case of Kenya is obviously true in many other African countries saddled with heavy cases of corruption nipped in the bud of commissions or panels and cases oftentimes closed by killing the whistleblower. Commission presents a very interesting narrative in many ways ; one of which is the integration of the person and voice of the writer in a fiction-faction style that transforms the writer/filmmaker documenting Jameni’s biography into Billy Kahora, the author of this collection. Undoubtedly, Kahora’s innovation or self-immortalization in the Commission becomes evident when the female narrator and wife of the activist says: “He told Gogo and me that his name was Kahora” (102). Again, to substantiate the identity of the author further, we are told that “the writer’s eyes were very watchful Kama Chui even if his face was like a baby. Round and brown. We had heard my husband calling the writer Billy” (102). Integrating self into a work of fiction is a docu-dramatic attempt to recalibrate the narrative structure to accommodate the evidently factual realities of many of the stories in this collection that parades a coterie of real names, political actors, scenarios, locations, institutions and personalities already familiar in the Kenyan social and political environment.
In the other stories in the collection starting from The Gorilla’s Apprentice, The Unconverted, World PAWA, Treadmill Love, Shiko to The Cape Cod Bicycle War, the reader faces deeper realities of life in postcolonial societies represented by Kenya. The entrenched traditions of injustices, slavery of a modern kind, migrant woes in foreign countries, the poverty of good governance in societies, and the odium of profligacy and exploitation nails the textual significance of the collection. The thematic thread in the various stories empties themselves maximally in the last story that is also the title story. The Cape Cod Bicycle War, though hugely satiric and parading capricious and highly impressionable young adult characters is an enthralling and dark portrayal of the anthesis of humanity. Its significance as the title story lies not much in the attenuating connectivity of capitalist schemes that criminalizes modern foreign relational dynamics but more in the bland narcissism of degrading slave labour in ways to dampen the prospects of a better life in a place it never existed in the first instance. That the critical mass of those affected by this capitalist game happens to be young persons from poorer parts of the world speaks volumes about the situation confronting us in real life. John Biko’s near-death experience resulting from juggling jobs in America speaks to the dark reality of migration especially for young Africans in developed countries. The endless fight over “broken bicycles” that “big brother”, Mr. P employs in sustaining his business shines light on the tricky trap of an American dream that thrives on a racist trope. Structurally, this story is a continuation of Motherless and we are already seeing Joseph Mungai or Maish Boi about to join the rank of hapless young persons tricked into abandoning their education and self-development in search of a non-existing dream in America.
Billy Kahora’s collection of short stories, The Cape Cod Bicycle Wars and Other Stories is a provocative narrative of becoming and unbecoming set strongly on the canvas of a diversity of characterization that straddles Kenya but goes beyond the singularity of the geography on the surface. It is Africa’s story and clearly the story of many young Africans searching for existential meaning on arid soil and mythic crossroads. The stories create awareness about the realities of a continent threatened by many fronts without pointing to a future direction. Setting the title story in the US and leaving the African young people stranded there reads like a requiem to a continent fated to hardship. But these stories clearly highlight the inner recesses of the malaise that has eaten away the health of our continent for years. The juxtaposition of indigenous languages with English in the narrative structure will register more success for native dual speakers of English and Kiswahili but could present challenges for others especially as there is no glossary citing the meaning of these words and expressions. As a contemporary collection laden with the anger of an Africa expectant of change, the collection is worth a second round of reading if not more.
Billy Kahora is a Kenyan writer, and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol, UK. He is the former Managing Editor of Kwani Trust. His writing has appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale, Vanity Fair and Kwani?. He is the author of the non-fiction novella The True Story Of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower (2008). His short story ‘Treadmill Love’ was highly commended by the 2007 Caine Prize for African Writing judges; ‘Urban Zoning’ was shortlisted for the prize in 2012, and ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ in 2014.
The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories is available in Kenya at Prestige Bookshop: https://prestigebookshop.com/
Ofonime Inyang is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Theatre and Development Communication at the University of Uyo, Nigeria.
On the release of the Ohio UP version last year, we caught up with Billy Kahora for some of his Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A set initiated to connect up our books communities as the pandemic began to impose its restrictions. You can find those and connections to what became one of the first COVOID virtual launches that we attended here.
And feel free to join us in our “book club” style reviews and perspectives on the text – contact us with a submission or idea!