Book: The Cape Cod Bicycle War And Other Stories
Author: Billy Kahora
Publisher: Huza Press
Genre: Fiction/Short stories
Number of pages: 303
Publication year: 2019
Billy Kahora’s The Cape Cod Bicycle War And Other Stories is a collection of eleven short stories written over the last decade and a half set across Kenya, South Africa and the United States. Treadmill Love, Urban Zoning, and The Gorilla’s Apprentice which were either commended or shortlisted for the Caine Prize are all in there. Treadmill Love follows a man from a rich family who has to move from Limuru to Nairobi’s Buruburu suburb to save his sanity and life. Urban Zoning known simply as Zoning in the collection is the tale of a man confronted with the possibility of losing his job after absconding duty for a long time. The Gorilla’s Apprentice is about a young man who has an unhealthy love of wild animals with his focus being on the gorilla Sebastian at the Nairobi Animal Orphanage.
We Are Here Because We Are Here is about a coastal community that has to deal with flooding where the Tana River meets the Indian Ocean with a young man as its main protagonist. Then there is The Red Door with two men, who grew up in Buruburu, involved in the trade of growing wheat in Narok. Speaking of Narok, Commission is the fictionised story of the widow of David Munyakei who famously whistleblew on Goldenberg the biggest political scandal in 1990s Kenya. With World Pawa, we follow a woman who works in a government office who starts trading for a Chinese multilevel firm, while in The Unconverted, two brothers represent the two competing major religions in Kenya. The title story The Cape Cod Bicycle War is about immigrants, mainly from developing countries, who have moved to the USA and the challenges they endure.
Through the collection, many of Kahora’s observations strike home as he talks about Kenyan life over the last two decades that I rarely see in fiction. His ability to see Kenyans through eyes that have lived it as well as trained to see it is genius at times. Here is a sample from Alan the protagonist in Shiko;
“I work with numbers at Heidelmann. Polls. Statistics. Market research. I take apart these soon-to-be-forty men by recreating the last fifteen years. Ivy goes at me all the time about how nyama choma and beers bring about bad life calls, bad marriages, car accidents, death of parents and ageing. I can see the twenty-year hustle etched in the faces of those who were left behind. Waliowachwa. We should all be wearing T-shirts that say ‘I am a Moi-era survivor’. I can make out the dents – we look ten years older. But we are the ones who know how to get around the Ministry of Lands, the Kenya Police and City Council.”
The amount of work invested in showing many aspects of the life of Kenyans wherever they may be stood out. At times this reviewer would chuckle as he recognised someone from 1980s Buruburu which features prominently in this collection. While it is evident that there is a lot of learning to be had in this book, I can’t say that I really enjoyed it. The prose lacks a certain musicality that one would expect from a work of fiction.
One of the main problems with this collection is flawed continuity which is one of the key aspects of storytelling. The same characters seep into multiple stories leaving the feeling that one is rereading a story. Jemmimah the protagonist in World Pawa who lives in Kayole with a child in Nyandarua suddenly reappears as Kaume the love interest of Kung’u in Treadmill Love. In Shiko, Alan’s mother who loses her sanity ending up in Mathare Mental Hospital shows up as the mother of Maish the protagonist in Motherless. Both women were headed to great things before a traumatic experience led them to the loonie bin. Incidentally, Kung’u in Treadmill Love also spent time in the madhouse before he gets his redemption.
I’m not sure what We Are Here Because We Are Here was doing in that collection as it drags for pages and this reader was left wondering what the point of it was at the end. Also what on earth was Commission, the fictionised story of the widow of famed whistle-blower David Munyakei, doing in this collection? The writer takes liberties with a living person portraying her as a caricature of what a good Muslim woman moving to bara (hinterlands) should be. A woman who moved from across the country with little agency? I don’t know about this.
Should you buy this book? It will never be one of the “most important books to come out of Kenya” but it might be a useful tool for writers to learn how important it is to choose the genre that one writes in.
P.S. Sebastian the famous gorilla died in 1996; in ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ Sebastian dies during Kenya’s post-election madness of 2007/2008. Fiction needs to be fact-checked just as rigorously as nonfiction which makes me wonder how this went through the publishing process unedited in the age of Google.