Billy Kahora: Internet source.
It is a brave writer who selects to write on a topic that is rarely unfolded amongst most writers from East Africa or Africa at large. Jimmy Gikonyo, the protagonist in Billy Kahora’s The Gorilla's Apprentice, is surrounded by situations which make him want to escape into the safety of his friend Sebastian, the gorilla. Jimmy’s mother, a drunken woman who seeks boyfriend after boyfriend presents to the reader a different type of mother figure in stories by African writers. While from the continent, we read about the strength of the mothers, their ability to provide and work tirelessly for the home, here is one who is the complete opposite. It is quite refreshingly so except that it’s eerie that the only visible woman in the story bears such characteristics.
Jimmy is a loner; whose family situation and understandably the political environment around him have led him to find solace in the unexpected. By so doing, Sebastian, with whom he has found companionship since a child has been a comrade and almost brother. During this particular visit, there are bombs in Nairobi City, which have been triggered by the post-election violence. Sebastian is also on the verge of death and we learn that he is a survivor of the Rwanda genocide. This, and the fact that Jimmy’s father left him at the age of twelve provides a melancholic view of life, humans and our desperate need for companionship.
There is a little redemption when a Professor, Semambo, is able to bring the gorilla out of his misery at the end. The reader is however cognizant of a deep grief which is almost tangible in the gorilla’s weariness, the post-election violence and the deep sense of loneliness.
Possibly, a more detailed interaction between Jimmy and Sebastian, without the interference of post-election violence, would have served the story better, because that was sufficient enough to make the sadness palpable. The violence was on the periphery of the story and did not necessarily add to the relationship between the boy and gorilla. I think that the story had the potential for us to reflect on ourselves as readers and people full of emotions.This is what Kahora says in an interview by Granta, where the story first appeared.
"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."
It would be great to read a collection of stories by Kahora, of humans and animals.