The JRB presents an excerpt from The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories, the much-anticipated new book by Billy Kahora.
The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories
Huza Press, 2019
The Cape Cod Bicycle War is a collection of eleven short stories, in which Kahora explores the tensions and transitions of lives in between youthful folly and precarious adulthoods across Kenya, South Africa and the United States.
‘Billy Kahora is a painter with words. He makes the reader see and touch and smell and feel characters and their inner turmoil as they try to survive, against the challenges of nature and nurture.’
—Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
‘Billy Kahora’s stories immerse us in a surreal, heady, wry, often beautiful, sometimes brutal, always surprising world. This is a millennial Kenya we’ve never seen in fiction before: drunks and zealots, farmers and whistleblowers, locals and migrants, mothers and brothers, the rich and the poor and those who slip in between. As one of Kahora’s indelible characters says: “Kenyans … It’s less straightforward than you would think.”’
Read the excerpt, from Kahora’s story ‘The Red Door’:
In the old Datsun 1200, Julius Rotiken Sayianka and Eddie Muchiri Kambo roared off the Narok Highway, just before Suswa, building speed to clear a small rise where it had all become patchwork from the ’97 El Niño floods. Juli took the Datsun into free gear heading downhill to the little seasonal Rift Valley Lake, now called Mwisho ya WaKikuyu after the last Maasai-Kikuyu election clashes. When the laga came into view, on the endless Savanna plain, a long boy lay under one of the Zebus. Juli shouted, ‘Fuck!’ from the safety of the cabin and hooted sharply. The boy’s mouth was stuck fast on a wrinkled udder, feeding like a long leech. The conjoined cow-boy sketch, canvassed against wide sky, broke into two, righting the world.
Juli glanced at Chiri, switched off Snoop Dogg on the radio. They passed the boy’s long form, observing he was at the cusp of manhood in his nakedness. Usually Juli would have stopped to find out which clan he belonged to but passing without acknowledgment was the right insult for the boy’s animal act. Before them was Leakey country, the laga once a prehistoric lake on the floor of the Great Rift. Juli saw the long boy in his side mirror recede, noting the long cloth over his mouth.
‘What’s with the facecloth?’ Chiri asked.
Juli peered into the side mirror. ‘Even me nashindwa. Maybe his people think they can keep him from cow tit by tying his mouth. Matiti.’
Chiri, still learning about the ways out here in the wheatlands, saw Juli was serious. A young donkey stepped away from the Datsun’s quiet roar, its jaws a metronome in the wind of the plain. Raising its head, the donkey brayed far into the northeast where the flat ended and the blue hills took over. The Datsun rumbled towards the other edge of the laga, a soccer field away from the long boy. Juli tipped the Datsun into the edge of the water to cool the tyres and let the makeshift blower exhaust slowly calm down.
Out in the open, Juli was tall, square-shouldered, hard and wiry, his head small and proportional, his face dark and firm. Chiri was shorter, lighter and leaned towards roundness in the middle. The long boy had shrugged off his shuka and was wading into the far shore of the laga. ‘Definitely hii ni kichwa mbaya,’ Juli remarked. Badhead. ‘This time of year, August, morans should be in the forest. He looks old enough.’ Juli sat on the water’s edge on the driver’s side of the Datsun, stuck his long thin knees in the air, slipped a Sportsman in his mouth, reached into his jeans and took out a plastic sachet full of stems. ‘Na amebeba,’ he said, squinting against the sun glinting from the laga. ‘Did you see the size of him?’ His mouth was full of miraa.
Chiri squatted to his left, furrowed his palm in the brown water, scooping it into his pits. Worrying the two-day grime he had picked on the road, he looked towards the far shore in response. Through the wet dripping from his face, Chiri saw the long boy had been joined in the water by his animals. Zebu horns and humps stuck out of the laga mirror. The donkey and goat-headed sheep dipped in and out of the water as if controlled by some giant hand in the sky. Chiri spat out the taste of Zebu from the laga water.
They’d been on the road for three days. Up and down the wheatlands, looking at potential farms to lease for the crop. Juli had been doing this for the last three years after school, banished by his father, Petro Sayianka, from Nairobi after his O-levels. Then, the two childhood friends had met again at Juli’s father’s funeral last March. Afterwards they started drinking into their common Buru past and one thing had led to another. Chiri had just walked out of his copywriting job at Ogilvy and Mather when they met at the funeral, and had been in limbo for three months. This was just two years after leaving Nairobi Uni in his second year. Juli told him about it all, this thing out on the road and the wheat farms in the Rift Valley and it started looking as good as any other decision Chiri had to make in the near future. Possibly Daystar Uni, maybe mtumba business. He didn’t quite know. Chiri now looked at the low, intimate sky and lay back, feeling the warm dust through the thin grass on his back. Juli’s voice played in his head and Chiri, his childhood friend who liked to talk up much more than he knew with a penchant for the fantastical. And so he had taken the percentages Juli had rolled on the harvest as added with a pinch of Kensalt. This Juli – who now lived in five-month cycles – in tune with the Narok wheat, which had two crops every year, and who still seemed to need the old illusions of their childhood friendship. Especially with his cold, smoothly shaven and imposing father in the ground. That evening, after the funeral, Chiri had listened to Juli speak with a freedom he had only heard in his friend’s voice when they were much younger. This made Chiri wonder about his own father, whose death had not freed any of his own dreams.
Juli now stood up and went to the Datsun’s back checking all the tractor and combine parts they had bought in Nakuru. He slapped the bags of seed, fertiliser and insecticide, ready for planting season. He came back to the front, opened the bonnet, poured water from the laga into the radiator. He stepped back as water shot up in an arc, fountain-like, and then lessened as the engine cooled. He cleaned off the deposits around the battery terminals, wiped the windscreen. Chiri did not join Juli’s ritual. Since Juli’s father died, Chiri noticed and respected his friend’s sudden silences, tense and abrupt. He wandered off, made sure there was no wildlife around, and peed in the open field. He watched his yellow, alcohol-heavy pee splotch in the dust, stain the earth and disappear. When Chiri saw Juli look over to him, he strolled back to the Datsun and opened the broken glove compartment. The Marie biscuits had gone soft but there was still some of the Chelsea Dry Gin. He handed over the miraa to Juli, the stems now black and curled like a small dead bird’s claws. There was also some choma left – mbuzi ribs crusted with fat, crawling with ants, hours-old tasty. Chiri wished aloud for some ugali.
‘Maasais don’t eat ugali,’ Juli repeated. ‘Spoils meat.’
Chiri skinned the ribs with his teeth watching Juli carefully pore over the miraa, talking all the while. They shared the gin between them and Juli stood up ready to get back on the road. But first he lit up the weed and that they did standing up, got their heads going for Narok, ready for the barmaids, the fights, the ugliness, the ujinga. The plan was to start planting over the next two weeks. Over their heads the July clouds were overcast, the rains would have started further south and west.
- Billy Kahora is a Kenyan writer, and lecturer in Creative Writing at Bristol University. 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 and was highly commended by the 2007 Caine Prize judges for his story ‘Treadmill Love’. His story ‘Urban Zoning’ was shortlisted for the prize in 2012, ‘The Gorilla’s Apprentice’ in 2014. As Managing Editor of Kwani Trust he edited seven issues of the Kwani? journal.