Billy Kahora examines how the gaps, biases, omissions and misperceptions woven into the construction of the archive dehumanizes the characters in the stories we tell about ourselves, trapping us in a cycle of angst and chaos.
In The Unconverted, Billy Kahora’s moving short story, a pastor struggles to come to terms with his brother’s radicalization on his way to work. Set months after the 2013 Westgate terrorism attack, the story forces its protagonist, Pastor Kama, to revisit the Eastlands of his childhood, where economic stagnation, crime and a perpetual fear of the other, cleaved a rift between the brothers, as each sought peace in their own ways. The story is part of Kahora’s collection, The Cape Cod Bicycle War and Other Stories published earlier this year by Huza Press and set for launch in the US in April 2020.
Throughout the eleven stories in the collection and in much of his other works, Kahora is intrigued with how the various places and narratives that make up Kenya, creates in its residents a schizophrenic persona as a coping mechanism that further hides the individual from itself. In Buruburu, an essay published in Chimurenga Magazine in 2014, economic decline of what was once Eastland’s most posh estate works itself into the psyche of its residents. In some of them, like the central Mrs. K, the madness manifests plainly and is easy to track. In others, like the men going back home during the day to sleep with their house helps, the madness is a slower burn, all the more debilitating, as they remain oblivious of their affliction.
Nairobi schizophrenia product ya shamba la mawe. For Kahora, an award-winning writer and editor, and lecturer in Creative and Professional Writing at Bristol University, the inability of characters, be it genocidaires, childhood friends, business partners or wives of whistleblowers, to reckon with the gaps in their stories, makes for an interesting inquiry into the human condition in the fractured Kenyas Kenyans navigate. This, coupled with the attendant fatigue that comes with desensitization from a news cycle replete with political thuggery, violence and voodoo economics, leads to a collective deep-seated despondency and feeling of deprivation for that which is lost, as they struggle to reconcile the official narratives of the media and politicians with the truth kwa grao. Concepts like 6 per cent GDP growth, BBI, big four agenda and similar fictions fall short of the reality of WhatsApp fundraisings and long-graduated friends and siblings looking for anything, anything to get them out of the house. All the while, entrepreneurship, a popular trope long used to spin the narrative of a failed higher education system, has since lost its currency with the Kenyatta government extracting billions from the working class in an unprecedented debt and tax capper. The ruling class has mortgaged the country in exchange for consolidation of its economic interests in banking, consumer goods and massive land holding, where a private city by the president’s family rises on the outskirts of the capital city. Kenyans, particularly Kenya’s working class, knows full well the country is not working for everyone, but the exigencies of putting a roof over their families and paying school fees has bred a willful ignorance and selective amnesia that obscures the imagination of a better life.
BK: I find myself constantly curious about kenya and this started a long time ago. And I don’t mean Kenya with a capital K. I mean some of the places I know, grew up in or the places I read about. I set out to answer these existential questions. Why this (’82 coup for instance) happened? Why that place (Buru for example) was like that? And I wanted to write, to figure out these questions in writing. To be honest, if I am writing a short story now, I am less inclined to move towards History with a capital H, Kenyan history with capital K and H to become more individualistic and specific. That’s because I have always found official history wanting especially when tested against memory.
I remember going to shags in Muranga and I am sitting there with my uncle and I ask him,
‘where were you during the emergency?’ And immediately I’m regurgitating History—some recent Anderson and Elkins I’ve read, showing off. But the guy tells me, ‘Man, it wasn’t quite like that.’
I’m like ‘what do you mean? I know about the camps. How junguz came and put you in camps to work…’ but he was like ‘No man. It was much more complicated than that. First of all there were only like two junguz.’
I ask, ‘then who was controlling everyone?’
He’s like, ‘you know those guys over there, [pointing to a homestead across the ridge] those guys were part of those who were controlling guys.’
I am like, ‘Homeguards.’
He laughs. ‘Just people trying to survive.’
‘Then how do guys then live together afterwards?’
He’s like, ‘It’s not like everyone was happy with each other come Independence. But life goes on.’ He says, ‘remember this stuff is also happening over seven years. Things change. The situation is fluid. Today some guy is rushing to the forest to be Mau Mau. And then he changes his mind realizing these guys are going to get fucked up and decides to switch and starts informing. Survival.’
Actual events are much more complex than History makes them out to be. You’ve heard of narrative fallacy. A human tendency to think that all events lend themselves to a story. I like hearing about events that challenge dominant narratives. I then try and base a story on these new events that I’ve heard but at the same time messing around with the usual narrative.
But remember that this curiosity, this ability to find these stories does not mean that the story will work. You have to be very aware of form. Whether it is the short story, creative non-fiction or even the novel. You have to understand the form you are working with. I know a lot of people who know all sorts of interesting things, places, but don’t know form but don’t know how different forms work. To bring place to life you have to understand all sorts of other technical things i.e character in the short story and in non-fiction. If you get this right, the sense of place becomes convincing … place is brought to life through character and that is brought to life by thinking very hard about subjective experience. Just that way half the problem about rendering place is done through character.
I also find it quite useful to read historical books such as Louise White’s The Comforts of Home. In that excellent social history I discovered more about Nairobi than reading countless NGO reports. This kind of social history is important for the fiction writer because it does subjective research that tells you how real people lived and the minutiae of their place.
Saidiya Hartman asks: how does one recuperate lives entangled with and impossible to differentiate from the terrible utterances that condemned them to death, the account books that identified them as units of value, the invoices that claimed them as property, and the banal chronicles that stripped them of human features? As a writer who went through the journalism tradition, Kahora puts official national narratives in conflict with the lived experiences of individuals, often in places that fall outside the spotlight, as a tool of inquiry into what it means to be Kenyan. Here, place is used to uncover layers of identities within the character. In The Unconverted, Pastor Kama learns of his brother’s arrest from Page 3 of the Nation:
Kariuki, the Nation said, was Khalid Hussein Ibrahim, a 28-year old suspect. Then from somewhere in the traffic outside I heard Les Wanyika Sina Makosa.