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.
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.
Our reviewers present two distinct readings of Kahora’s collection. We hope you enjoy the reviews! You can read yesterday’s review by Ofonime Inyang here.
The second review of Billy Kahora’s The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories is by our very own Reviews Editor, Wesley Macheso. He augments Inyang’s reading of the collection by pointing out that, through his stories, Kahora interrogates political establishments in Kenya since the official end of colonisation to demonstrate how successive regimes have contributed to socio-economic retrogression through massive corruption that leads to desperation in the masses.
Billy Kahora’s The Cape Cod Bicycle War is a collection of eleven short stories mostly set in Kenya, with only two tapping into the immigrant experience of Kenyan characters living in South Africa and the United States of America. The collection is versatile but focussed in the range of themes that it tackles – from political (in)stability, ethnic tensions, corruption, and exile, to questions of national development in post-independence Kenya. Throughout, Kahora drags into inquiry the concept of social progress on display in post-independent African countries styled after Western capitalism, which promotes individual advancement over communal mobility. This spirit has enabled corruption and the plunder of state resources by politicians and average citizens alike, who are desperate for economic prosperity to gain respect in the society. Kahora relates how this moral disintegration has severed human empathy and the consideration of the other, leading to a chronic form of social illness.
This sickness is vividly represented in the image of Mathare Mental Hospital, a facility which Maish Boi, the protagonist in “Motherless”, wants to study for his master’s degree thesis at Rhodes University. The proposed title of his study, “Mathare as Symbol of a National Mental Illness”, is suggestive of the plight of the nation as represented in the collection. In the titular story, “The Cape Cod Bicycle War”, the capitalism that has gripped Kenyan society with competitiveness is epitomised in the hunger for money that leads to the ill-health of John Biko Kamau, the story’s protagonist. Kamau is a Kenyan student who goes to Cape Cod, a coastal town in Massachusetts, to work away the winter in search of money. He ends up overworking and overexposing himself to the harsh weather that eventually leads to his sickness.
Kamau’s focus on his ambitions, disregarding everything else, is reminiscent of Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby whose tragic end is a consequence of his obsession with “the green light” as a symbol of success. With Jay Gatsby, the green light represents his longing for the American dream as symbolised in his obsession with Daisy on whose dock the light is located whereas for Kamau and other characters in The Cape Cod Bicycle War, it is their obsession with material success in present-day Africa that puts them on the same platform with the former. Both books bring to the fore characters desperate for success and preoccupied with “the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us” (Fitzgerald, p. 180). This Gatsbyian obsession with power and material success runs throughout the anthology, identified as the root of corruption in contemporary Kenya.
The city, which Achille Mbembe and Sarah Nuttall mention has often been represented in African literature “as a cesspool of vice” (p. 354), is the hub of this economic activity in The Cape Cod Bicycle War where Nairobi represents the rot in the society. Kahora’s stories cruise through the city – from morally corrupt youths like Kandle in “Zoning”, who represent “a national desperation” (p. 38), to a reunion of former schoolmates in “Shiko”, who meet to discuss ways of making money either by hook or crook. We also meet young women like Jemimah Kariuki in “World Pawa” who becomes a victim of fraud when Chinese “investors” capitalise on her gullibility to sell counterfeit products to unsuspecting Kenyans, exposing another dire consequence of modern capitalism which has done very little to improve the lives of Africans.
The central message that comes out in most of these stories is that in contemporary Kenya, an individual’s status is measured by their material possessions. This idea is summarised in the protagonist’s statement in “Shiku” who laments that, in the country, “kuna wanchi, Na wenyenchi. Kuna viatu, kuna watu” (p. 210). The literal translation of this Kiswahili expression is “there are citizens, then there are country owners. There are shoes, and there are people”: the wealth that one amasses determines the regard with which you are held. You can either be seen as a person or as a shoe – important or a companion of mud and dust – but it all depends on who you know and how much you are worth.
In his narrative style, the author does not forget to place his characters in the real world. He takes the reader on a ride across Kenya; from the coastal city of Mombasa to the farming outskirts in the Rift Valley, all the way to Nairobi where modernity and achievement is symbolised in Buru Buru Estate as a desirable middleclass neighbourhood that captures the motivations and aspirations of social mobility of most of the characters. The hope for progress, however, is frustrated and mobility is stagnated by the massive corruption in almost all sectors of the society that culminates in “a slow speed” (p. 95).
In capturing this frustration, Kahora interrogates political establishments in Kenya since the official end of colonisation to argue that politicians have not done enough to improve the lives of ordinary citizens but, on the contrary, that successive regimes have contributed to socio-economic retrogression in the country. Apart from fuelling ethnic tensions as narrated in “The Unconverted”, “The Red Door”, and “The Gorilla’s Apprentice”, politicians have also been at the centre of corruption. As Frantz Fanon argues in The Wretched of the Earth, the “fabricated elite” who take over power at independence do not have the economic capacity of their predecessors and as such they loot from state coffers in order to achieve a status of economic importance that will elevate them above the rest of the citizens. While his characters mostly mention the failures of the regime of Daniel Arap Moi that saw an increase in ethnic tensions and a surge in corruption in Kenya, Kahora’s eloquent painting in these stories extends the critique of this folly to regimes across the continent.
“Commission”, which is arguably one of the best stories in the collection, discusses how politicians and those in power ignore the masses who have fought for their positions once they are elected. This is portrayed in the nameless man in the story who is sold dreams of prosperity but ends up being disillusioned. The protagonist narrates:
He had cut his hair, he had shaved his beard and he looked like the old photos that I put away of him before we met. He no longer looked like us upcountry people but someone from the city. Becoming a hero had made him bigger and stronger. Even if he had been away just for two months he was now someone different. He was somebody in a newspaper like a politician. Someone to be listened to. (p. 100)
Here, the story not only talks of the man under discussion, but the narrative is extended to reflect on the character that African politicians assume once they get into power; becoming alienated from their people, turning into oppressors rather than the saviours they promised to be.
The Cape Cod Bicycle War is an engaging read that captivates with its honest humour and ingenuity of narration. The author’s use of language effortlessly blends English and Kiswahili in such a way that he never loses his reader. In this, Kahora matches Junot Diaz’s brilliance in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in which you can ably comprehend Spanish in an Anglophone narrative. The realism and the humorous rendition of ordinary lives in the stories recall the genius of Zakes Mda in Ways of Dying, Fred Khumalo’s Talk of the Town, and Ayi Kwei Armah’s The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, making this is a landmark text that breathes life into the canon of African literature.
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/
Wesley Macheso teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College.
See Billy Kahora’s Words on the Times on the Ohio UP release of The Cape Cod Bicycle Wars here.
Once again, if you haven’t caught it already, yesterday’s review by Ofonime Inyang is here.
And please feel free to join us in our “book club” style reviews and perspectives on the text – contact us with a submission or idea!