• If you have to read one story in this collection, please let it be 'World Pawa'
Among writers, it is commonly said that writing one short story is more difficult than writing a novel. The short story is a difficult form because a writer has to pack a lot of intense things into a few words and ensure everything makes sense because fiction, unlike reality, has to make sense.
The margin of error a writer of short stories has is much smaller than the one a long-form writer would have in 300 pages of a novel. Readers don’t forget a short story. Billy Kahora has published 11 of them in a collection called The Cape Code Bicycle War. Most of them are unforgettable.
If you are a Kenyan born in the 70s and 80s and grew up in the 90s, there is a lot of you and your experiences in this collection. There has been a gap in Kenyan fiction for that period of time, and Billy has captured it in his stories, which capture urban and rural Kenya very descriptively. Everyone is represented. You see yourself in one or all of these 11 stories.
One story, We Are Here Because We Are Here, is about the war between the Tsana and the Indian Ocean, culminating in floods like the El Nino of 1997. Here you see how different generations understand their environment and react to situations of potential peril.
The older members of society want to be in control of their people, land and waters; want to ensure they preserve their history; want to maintain the freedom that that history guarantees them and have it written down and recognised so the younger ones can have autonomy over their land and their traditions. The younger ones are obsessed with the English Premier League and alcohol, and are very trusting of shallow politics that maintains the status quo.
The story is set in and with the Pokomo, and it leaves you wondering how western culture and socioeconomic history can permeate so fast and far wide, yet getting important information from our decentralised locations to our local centres of power requires walking, literally, towards mountains for constitutional conferences, where we have to explain ourselves to ourselves until we don’t make any sense.
This collection also addresses the complexities in family relationships in The Red Door, The Unconverted and Treadmill Love. Each of these stories has aspects of toxic parenting and unhealthy and unnecessarily vile sibling rivalry. If you grew up in the 90s, you will see yourself in the brother who was left behind while the other was given all the opportunities possible by your parents, including going abroad for further studies.
You were left behind to essentially struggle and try to succeed against a system that has it out for you. Only for the other one to return with nothing in his pockets, or with a religion, ideologies and a way of life that do not make sense to you or are unsustainable. The know-it-all returnees who think they can make great business deals off the sweat of your back, or who feel obligated to rescue you because that is what they do for strangers like you.
You also know about the one sibling who thinks he or she is much cleverer and can handle everyone’s money and make decisions for you but one day. an angry sister finds the guts to tell him off. In two of these stories by Billy, there is a clear cut self-liberation for the main victims of family toxicity, they find their way out. In one, it’s a compromise.
The love-hate relationship Kenya has with China is well illustrated in World Pawa. Billy references Kianshi. Reminds you of Tianshi. If you know, you know, what Tianshi was to our mothers. And then you start to see how long ago China came to Kenya and how creative and patient the Chinese are in their domination. They do not come fast and hard with guns and declarations.
The inverse of World Pawa is how we react to foreigners who come with shiny things. If you have to read one story in this collection, please let it be World Pawa. It is as relevant now as it was in 1999, 20 years ago.
Shiko is about a young man and the old boys of his former high school trying to invest, with their different financial capabilities being used as bargaining chips. It’s a microscopic view of how men who went to certain schools and were raised in certain middle-class settings view success. Their putting up of appearances, their dating of wealthier women they are not sure they love, their drinking to oblivion, their abuse of women and their uncanny lack of ideas and ambition. However, they make very good conversation, and the dialogue in Shiko is a true testament of how to talk that talk and not walk it.
Other stories in this collection are Commission, The Cape Code Bicycle War, and Motherless. Billy also published his Caine Prize-nominated Zoning (2012) and The Gorilla’s Apprentice (2014).
Billy is a very descriptive writer, and he pays attention to detail. In this collection, there is a recurrence of Buru Buru as a constant and dear place to various characters in different stories. El Nino also comes up a lot and these two references give the book a sense of time and nostalgia.
However, some of us will notice or decide that the sheng used by Billy in the book is a bit outdated, even for the time. There might have been punchier 90s sheng to use … or not. The sheng in Billy’s imagination sounds like what a young man who really wants to connect with the 'watus' would speak, 'cheers, baba' language. It could have been intentional or it could be that is how Billy speaks sheng to date.
There is also some curious translation of Kiswahili words like “viazi potatoes” that would be a good inlet into more discussion on why we should even translate African languages in stories set in Africa, and who should edit stories that have snippets of language that is specific to a country or even a residential area.
The book is published by Huza Press, based in Rwanda. And is available in all leading bookshops.