We are still having the Caine Prize conversation, and the story on review this week is Billy Kahora’s ‘Urban Zoning’. You can read it here. Here are a few thoughts I thought I should add to what has already been said.
I am extremely proud of Billy Kahora for making it to the Caine shortlist, but I am not as thrilled by the story. Reading through Urban Zoning felt like eating a piece of half-baked cake,or taking a walk on the streets of Nairobi with someone who knows it very well, but prefers the shortcuts, denying you the full experience. Kahora has a really good story to tell, but he might have rushed over it. I must however admit that he is extremely good with his sentences. He begins by daringly exploring the element of language, and this he does beautifully, a bit too careful with his story telling though. Then as his story develops, he slips slowly and slowly away from the interest of the reader, and his skill suddenly proves just skin deep. What I mostly love about his story is that he does not indulge in pity art or invite his readers to the old and tired poverty pageant.
Billy Kahora’s main character is also not afforded the advantage of developing fully. He is merely introduced to the reader, and then taken away by the jungle of ideas and tenses. Kandle is his name, a representative of the Nairobi urbanity and its idiosyncrasies. Kandle is one of those lads who close their eyes to the realities, preoccupied with complacency and drinking down their ideas in downtown dens like Zanze Bar, and emptying them in urinals. Kandle reminds one of Shuga, a mini-TV series that hypothesizes the life of a group of young women, living on life’s fast track and constructing their cities in the slopes of Vesuvius, Nietzschecally speaking. There is money on the streets of this city, power, sex, speed, ignorance, and apathy.
Kahora describes the experience of walking in these streets as a Rugby game in a moving bus. It is a fast track of easy lays, speeding cars, traffic jams, hawkers on rainy days and all manner of disorderliness. It is a city of zones. The Good Zone is a calm place, “a breathless place he found himself in after drinking for a minimum of three days straight… swapping vices by taking up alcohol after the pleasures of casual sex had waned.” The good zone is a place of not caring. Ignoring. A place of an apathy that corrodes the society. The Kandles of Nairobi are apathetic towards the general socio-economic and political situation of the nation. These Kandles, the middle class and the youths choose to lapse into this zone, seceding from the matters that affect their society, they’d rather get lost in trivial things, like memories of shaking the hands of the president when they were in primary school, or plans of attending a friend’s funeral just so they can have a ‘change of environment.’ He is also part of the masses that have become impatient with the messy mechanics of democracy, not to a level of taking initiative. They choose to zone out!
The other zone, the Bad Zone is where Kandle finds himself any minute the alcohol in his system is watered down and he comes back to his senses. Kandle, the ordinary Kenyan, hates it. It is a place of bad roads, traffic jams, disservice by monopolized enterprises, insecurity, high cost of living, inaccessible healthcare, poverty, systems like Eagles Bank run by Gukas (grandfathers) who are well past their sale-dates. To escape this Bad Zone, the Kandles of Nairobi run for temporary solutions. They survive through this Bad Zone, one minute at a time, one sip at a time.
Billy Kahora’s reference to this apathy of the middle class reminds me of one if my favourite short stories, Africa Kills Her Sun by Ken Saro-Wiwa. He writes:
No doubt, many will ask the questions, but they will do it in the safety and comfort of their homes, over the interminable bottles of beer, uncomprehendingly watching their boring, cheap, television programmes, the rejects of Europe and America, imported to fill their vacuity. They will save their conscience with more bottles of beer, wash the answers down their gullets and pass questions, conscience and answers out to waste into their open sewers choking with concentrated filth and murk. And they will forget.
Unfortunately, Kahora’s story slips through the fingers the moment Kandle walks into Eagles Bank. I prefer Kandle out on the street. But we have to follow him into the Eagles Bank, a hunters’ den, where brown envelopes exchange hands, a different language is spoken, a language that Kandle seems to understand perfectly well. Here, a generation of old folks rule, old folks who used to work for the British in colonial Kenya. They still run the banks years after! Those who could take over and possibly change the systems are busy drowning in drinking dens.
You can check out these other reviews by other bloggers taking part in the conversation