Readers born in the 1970s and early 1980s will easily recognise the middle-class Kenya or Kenyan-ness this collection portrays. The stories depict a kaleidoscope of young Kenyans trying to make it through life including farmers, employees, businesspeople, the well-to-do (mostly in Limuru), the middle-class (mostly in Buruburu) and students.
The book is clearly written for a Kenyan audience; it unapologetically uses Kiswahili or even sheng’, with no translations.
In the lives of the colourful array of characters we explore various themes including family dynamics, tolerance, corruption, belonging and coming-of-age. A main thread running through many of the stories is of young people stepping out from under their parents’ wings (or shadows), escaping from the past, taking risks, choosing for themselves what they will make of their lives.
‘Shiko’ offers a candid glimpse into the mysterious world of young men, with their grandiose and rather vague investment ventures and concern for image or place in the pecking order. The amount of alcohol consumption, as in most of the book, is to be gawked at.
‘The Commission’, a surprising inclusion in this collection, is a fictional account of the life of the wife of David Munyakei over the period of the Goldenberg Commission. Munyakei was the whistleblower of Goldenberg, Kenya’s largest economic scandal at the time. The story is very well-told from Mrs. Munyakei’s point of view which is not surprising considering the significant amount of time Kahora must have spent with the Munyakei family as he worked on the non-fiction novella ’The True Story of David Munyakei’. This story explores the conflict that can occur between duty to country and duty to family, the complexities in choosing between self-preservation and integrity and the impact of the choice.
“At times like this I feel that I am fighting for our family by taking care of Gogo and our two babies while my husband is fighting something else that is not with us and is far away.”
One of the things I did not enjoy about the book were a few odd or clumsy phrases, which broke the flow of my reading. In ’Treadmill Love’, one of my favourites, Maxwell Kamande emerges from a prolonged depressive episode and moves out of their large but oppressive family home to go live by himself in Buruburu, for the sake of his sanity. In my reading, I had to pause where “…the black rubber floor was full of indignant squeaks topped by a sky-blue ceiling that watched over old men with heaving man-tits from goat meat and 40 years of independence”, and also where Maxwell’s hair was “jangly with disuse”.
A few of the distractions were editorial issues, I would say. In ’World Pawa’, another of the stories I liked, the main character, Jemimah, is an employee trying to improve her lot by signing up for a Chinese multi-level marketing scheme. In one scene Jemimah is talking to Mama Jacinta, a food kiosk owner. In the very next sentence Mama Jacinta is making her way to the till when she sees Jemimah and it’s too late to hide.
I struggled to read this book in some sections; not all the stories called to me to pick the book up again, and I couldn’t wait to be done with it. However, the stories and readability improved in the second half of the book, with the final two stories, ‘Motherless’ and ‘The Cape Cod Bicycle War’ seeming to be the most well-written of the collection. What do I mean by most well-written? Simply that I got immersed in the stories; being in the created world and forgetting that I was reading a story while I was reading them. I enjoyed them enough to wonder if these stories are Kahora’s newer stories, written when he was a more practised writer.
Much as this book did not have me jumping for joy, I am glad that more Kenyans are writing books set in current time, contrary to the belief I stated here.
About the author
Billy Kahora is a lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at the University of Bristol. He edited seven issues of Kwani?, a Kenyan literary journal. His writing has been published in a number of notable publications including Granta and Chimurenga.
I am a dark chocolate lover, red wine lover, but most of all, book lover who lives in Nairobi and is currently looking for love in Kenyan books.
Many, many years ago, as a student, my impression was that all Kenyan books were set in the colonial period, were to do with the fight for independence or handled the political situation in the country shortly after independence. I didn't think there were books that wrote current Kenyan lives that I could identify with. I am now seeking them out.