Billy Kahora and The Gorilla's Apprentice / "A tale that is timely as news of bin Laden percolates ... unleashing horrifying jubilation, haunting anguish"

{ exclusive feature}

the earth is a living thing

is a black shambling bear
ruffling its wild back and tossing
mountains into the sea

is a black hawk circling
the burying ground circling the bones
picked clean and discarded

is a fish black blind in the belly of water
is a diamond blind in the black belly of coal

is a black and living thing
is a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean

-Lucille Clifton

Rent a car, should you ever find yourself visiting Chicago. Maneuver north on Lake Shore Drive until you spot the Fullerton Avenue exit, then make a sharp left. This will bring you to the entrance of Lincoln Park Zoo. If this excursion occurs on a sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon, then you will quickly be submerged in a crowd of multi-hued faces, swallowed whole by the eager eyes of nervous parents trailing behind cherubic children—tots with flushed faces, and cotton-candy filled mouths. Any travel guide worth its sticker price advertises the zoo as a city attraction. It’s as Chicagoan—as integral to the windy city’s tourism industry—as Giordano’s Famous Stuffed Pizza, Navy Pier, Buckingham Fountain, Willis Tower (formerly Sears), and Hancock Observatory. According to its website, Lincoln Park Zoo houses “1200 animals representing 230 species…on 35 acres of land.” Joy will abound as you delight in the jamboree-like ambiance. But what about the animals? What of the lions, and tigers, and bears?

I’m neither an avid PETA activist nor an animals’ rights zealot, so rest assured that that this is not evolving into a holier-than-thou-who-eat-game-meat rant. That notwithstanding, I’m someone who struggles to understand the rationale that justifies the captivity of breathing beings, be they two or four-legged. Zoos reduce animals to tragic things devoid of dignity. Enclosed behind annealed metal bars, animals become mere collectors’ items, like artifacts, artwork, or early model cars, polished and displayed for moments of fleeting amusement and entertainment. Zoos deprive these living creatures of their inalienable right to a purposeful existence and an honorable demise. Consequently, they rob us, as human beings, of ethologically-anchored opportunities to grasp grains of knowledge from our feral friends. Animals, both untamed and domesticated, are planetary philosophers—instructors educated of and by the earth. At our primal cores, we are their students, seeking wisdom that’s as ageless as an amaranth. And there is much to learn.

To watch a cat comfortably curl-up on a window sill, oblivious to the demanding noisiness around it, is to learn about solitude and contentment. To watch a dog climb over the rigid walls that divide species—and altruistically embrace other animals and people—is to learn about unconditional love and generosity of spirit. To watch a skein of ducks or a flock of geese in flight is to learn about community. To watch a starving polar bear attack a mighty walrus at the dénouement of an arctic winter—to see the bloody collision of paw and tusk in a battle for survival—is to learn about bravery and resilience. To watch an animal—any animal—is to observe the discrete parts embedded in the interiors of all living organisms function in unencumbered unison. It is to see God in sublimely synchronized melodious motion. The Liberator griot, achali, affirms this vision: “I learn from animals because they exhibit for me beings with direct, healthy connection with instinct—their sense of self and purpose is ingrained in them and they followed it and, equally important, they have an ability to adapt to new situations and move collectively (in harmony) without sacrificing those things... I was taught I could trust my instinct if (and only if) I cultivated it by keeping it connected to its natural habitat (land, animals, sky, water, fellow humans); and that in fact this is the source of all instruction on how to be a human with healthy instinct—to view Earth as my primary teacher on how to be human and to humbly learn from her.” And there is much to learn.

Kenyan writer Billy Kahora’s short story (link to text below) is a tale about animals and humans plodding along the planet’s periphery. It’s also a tale about animals in humans—the bumbling bestial beings lurking underneath the layers of skin that drape our bones; a tale that is timely as news of Osama bin Laden’s murder percolates into national and international airwaves, unleashing horrifying jubilation and haunting anguish. In an interview with Granta magazine’s Ollie Brock, (full text below) Kahora, who is also managing editor of the literary journal, Kwani?, uses that specific story as a launching point to discuss the stimuli for his—and other contemporary African writers’—works, foci, and impediments. In “The Gorilla’s Apprentice,” he explores what we know about animals and conversely, what they know about us. Kahora tells of the ways in which animals show us how to live and die on this earth—how to emerge from and return to the very dirt that also kisses mountains and teases waters—and how to become more fully human in the process.

Granta Magazine’s Interview with Billy Kahora
(SOURCE: Granta)

Ollie Brock (OB): When did you first become interested in writing?

Billy Kahora (BK): I was always interested but had too much reading to worry about writing my realities. I started writing in my early twenties, when everything around me started contorting in unprecedented ways. And there emerged a reality that was so unexpected across society that, for me, the only way to deal with it was through writing. And that has never really stopped.

OB: Your story “The Gorilla’s Apprentice” is ostensibly about animals – three humans and a gorilla. But politics boils away in the background. Is this central to the story’s thesis, or simply inevitable given the setting of Kenya in the aftermath of the 2007 elections?

BK: Yes, it is central to the story’s thesis but also to the background – it is both the context and the text of the story. I wrote this story in January 2008, when the full implications of the post-election riots were yet to be realised. And so I could get away with pushing the ‘boiling politics’ to the background because I did not have all the details of what was going on... Also, the full ‘emotional’ impact of it all was yet to seep in, though I felt a huge anger with what I saw as the great stupidity and futility of it all. It is not every day that you watch your world burn – or watch it almost coming to that. So the story was written at a time of great apprehension, and was also cathartic in many ways.

But before all this I had always been gripped with the common idea that some Kenyan political elites in the 90s had been accused of harbouring Rwandese war criminals who were ‘genocidaires’. Genocide was an idea that was being bandied around when the violence in Kenya broke out. And that the very notion that we could degenerate into a ‘Rwanda’ was the kernel of the story. So I wondered, what if what was being perpetrated had something to do with certain ‘expertises’ learnt from the genocidaires? That was the main thread in the genesis of the story.

Also, I have always liked stories – film seems to do this well – where a character’s life is disintegrating quietly as the world burns … and that was another thing I wanted to capture. Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam is an example, as is Dark Blue, set during the L.A riots of 1992.

OB: Towards the end of the story, there is an important revelation about Rwandan war crimes. Are you concerned about reinforcing a negative stereotype of Africa by bringing this, and the political violence, into the story? How do you feel it changes the character to give him a past of that kind, that sits outside the story?

BK: For me, a stereotype is basically an unwarranted idea, image or conclusion about a place, based on ignorance and generalisation. It would be flattering to think that this story will create or reinforce negative stereotypes of all the things that are discussed within it. The world is saturated with a generalized ethos, with generalized lenses; these are part of our unavoidable lot. This piece tries to tell a specific story about a young man, his mother, an older man and a gorilla within a specific time and space – I do not see the older man as really coming from outside or having a past that is outside the story. One only need know Nairobi [Kenya] to know that everyone belongs – and that means no one belongs. But hopefully, the characters and time are as individualized and as specific as possible, sitting outside any generalized settings such as the Africa of the generalized lens. That’s as much as I hope it does.

Also, tough as it is to accept that people take machetes against one another, I can’t as a storyteller worry too much about repainting that picture. I leave that to governments seeking aid, tour companies wooing Western visitors, African ‘entrepreneurs’ looking for investment, and all those who profess to ‘love’ Africa. I cannot afford to worry about that just because of a whole bunch of hand waggers flinching at Africa’s ‘realities’ – despite the sad fact of a whole slew of parties on the other side of the divide waiting to jump on those very facts of famines and genocides and make a meal of them and ignore similar things going on elsewhere…

OB: Illness is a prominent feature – the protagonist Jimmy’s friendship with Sebastian the gorilla seems an important part of a recovery. Are you interested in the idea of therapy and healing? Is there a message here about our distance from nature, our inhuman pursuit of violence and power?

BK: I am interested in how human beings react to a collective ‘wounding’. I wanted to play around with the possibility that in a time of human madness, a primate that might have experienced a similar kind of wounding before would make us understand and see something we couldn’t see for ourselves … that in a time of conflict and war, we lose everything that we are and maybe we need other kinds of ‘intelligences’, in this case, animal, to decipher the foolishness and futility of some of our acts. Or simply make us realize that our inhumanity makes us something worse than any other forces around us. So, for me, Sebastian is greater than all of the human characters in the story, and it is that greatness that might help them recover.

One of my other stories, “The Applications”, also tries to explore the idea that in times of great upheaval, madness can be another away out, a coping mechanism. And of course, this is also a story of our distance from nature and everything that really matters, and our inhuman preoccupation with a lot that doesn’t.

OB: Your online journal, Kwani?, is very impressive. Could you talk a little about how it came about? What do you hope to achieve with it, and with your writing more generally?

BK: Kwani? began when an informal group of writers, civil society activists, artists, journalists, filmmakers and newspaper editors started meeting regularly to find channels to showcase their work, discuss it, and fulminate on the social and mostly political goings-on in post-millennial Kenya.

At the time, there was quite a dearth of contemporary expression and narrative in text and publishing in Kenya. Literary offerings were limited, at least in bookshops, to older post-independence writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Meja Mwangi. These individuals I mention felt that their day-to-day realities hung in a kind of limbo outside text and the page even as they read about contemporary realities similar to theirs from other countries, both on the continent and in the West. Kwani? came about as a solution to a perceived vacuum.

Kwani? hopes to continue putting into text all forms of contemporary expression and narratives in Kenya that cannot find a home anywhere else.

I want to do the same with my writing, but in a more specific way – from the spaces that I have more knowledge of. I leave the rest to other contemporary writers and artists who have more knowledge of what is foreign to me even if it ironically seems physically close. And because there are so many upcoming and established writers, Kwani? is a great place for a mix of all these things.

OB: What is the greatest challenge facing young writers today, in Africa and elsewhere?

BK: All young writers will thrive in a space that provides literary succour – a space with a history which respects and exalts writing; where good writing is easily available; a space that has produced successful older writers; and finally a writing community of one’s peers. Beyond this, the writer must not only access a space of non-literary ideas – a place of ‘knowledges’ that can help him/her make sense of his/her realities and translate this into content but also learn the basic tools of the language that writer works in, in most cases English or French.

In Africa, these things are mostly found in isolated pockets. It is no coincidence that most contemporary successful ‘African’ writers are located in the diaspora or come from middle-class- or Western-influenced backgrounds with easy access to spaces that can provide those things that I’ve mentioned. (source)

We're a human development centered cooperative, producing in part through the generous and faithful contributions of our North Star members. Choose your membership: Annual ($36), Monthly ($3), ($5), ($10), ($15), ($30), ($70), ($200), ($500), ($1000).