The Cape Cod Bicycle War: Stages of growing up in urban Kenya

Saturday June 22 2019

Louise Umutoni Bower, Billy Kahora and J Donnalee.

Louise Umutoni Bower, author Billy Kahora and J Donnalee in Kigali, Rwanda, after the launch of Billy Kahora's book 'The Cape Cod Bicycle War and other Stories'. PHOTO | EMMANUEL RURANGWA 

JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
By JEFFERSON RUMANYIKA
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Urban Kenya, with decades of decadence coupled with its tensions and the transitions of youthful folly to precarious adulthood is the focus of Billy Kahora’s new book The Cape Cod Bicycle War and other Stories.

A collection of 11 short stories, this book is a mix of published stories that have already received critical acclaim and unpublished ones set in Kenya, South Africa and the US.

The Cape Cod Bicycle War was launched in Kigali on June 14. It explores the wild promises of city life as seen for the first time; and its brutality once one has settled in. The author explores the lives of drunks and zealots, farmers and whistle-blowers, locals and migrants, rich and poor.

EXPERIENCES

Kahora’s visceral writing style coupled with his typical urbane Kenyans, is not very different from his personality. The wry sense of humour in his stories came out during the book launch where he did a reading. He is unapologetically Kenyan in his description of personal experiences that also poked fun at society.

The short stories are sequenced in respective order of their setting in the history of the country. The first story, We are Here Because We are Here, is a flashback to an era gone, in a rural setting as opposed to the rest of the stories in the collection which are set in a more urbane setting marked by excesses of indulgence, religion and the rat race.

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The story serves as a primer to life in pre-colonial times juxtaposed with current life as narrated to a young man by his ailing grandfather. It tackles natural disasters like floods with a background story of how these disasters came about as a result of exploitation by the colonisers in the Scramble for Africa.

It has great historical depth, testament to Kahora's industriousness as a researcher. Set on the Coast of Kenya, it explores the history of the Pokomo community of Tana River County, who we learn hail from the Comoros. It also explores the flooding of the Tana River, which causes starvation and displacement of families.

'The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories'
'The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories' book cover. PHOTO | EMMANUEL RURANGWA

The ensuing nine stories capture the hopes and failures of the youth trying to adjust to adulthood. It provides a critical social history of millennial Kenya from its widespread economic prosperity, organised crime, Chinese exploitation and cautionary tales of the decadence of the Kenyan dream.

SPEAKING TO YOUTH

Kahora said that The Cape Cod Bicycle War is an ode to millennial Kenya. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s meant surviving the challenges of nature versus nurture. He vividly describes the socio-economic context of the country with its class politics using local lingo that comes easily for him rather than high sounding English.

The story The Cape Cod Bicycle War, which lends the book its title, tackles the struggles of students from Eastern Europe, Latin America and Africa who are new in the US working long hours.

The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Short Stories adds to the list of literary works that explores themes of decadence, the idealism of youth, resistance to change, class politics, natural disasters, violence and excess, creating a portrait of what we would call the Kenyan dream.

Kahora’s fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Chimurenga, McSweeney’s, Granta Online, Internazionale, Vanity Fair and Kwani? He has written a non-fiction novella, The True Story Of David Munyakei, based on the life of a Kenyan whistle-blower. He wrote the screenplay for Soul Boy and co-wrote the screen script of Nairobi Half Life, which won the Kalasha Awards.

He is a former managing editor of Kwani Trust.

Kahora is currently a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Bristol and pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.