Geoff Ryman

Part Five: Nairobi Beatniks

• Sex dolls, cyborgs, whole body absorption and a great writer all mingle on Nairobi’s most run-down commercial avenue
• Two brothers navigate their way through Nairobi using billboards, to which they give a gender. Each billboard is also a wormhole

‘No Kissing the Dolls unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing’ (2014) by Clifton Gachagua (Kenya)
‘Elephants Chained to Big Kennels’ (2012) by Mehul Gohil (Kenya)

I call them the Nairobi Beatniks though nobody else does. There are not a lot of them, but they are the information – the difference that makes a difference. Because of them, Nairobi regularly threatens to be more informed and artistically ambitious than I can quite credit.

The Nairobi Beatniks overlap with the Jalada boys (they ARE mostly boys) who oversee the pan-African collective Jalada from Nairobi, and they overlap with the Kwani Trust that from its small funky offices produces the journal, the books, and the open mic nights.

Fashion, dance music, visual art, film, and media – these exert as strong a pull in Nairobi as in Lagos. But Clifton Gachagua walks home across Nairobi at 3 am until he’s arrested by police, and all his friends worry online. He works at the Kwani trust editing poetry – possibly the best job in Kenya – and is likely to quote Allen Ginsberg or HD.

The Beatniks seem down-at-heel but sophisticated, like you expect artists to be. Ray (short for Rachel) Mwihaki is an urban farmer and poet, and runs literary discussion groups and a movement that passes on books for free. Alex Ikawah ran the same group for a while, and makes black and white SFF movies and has won literary awards. Mehul Gohil is a chess champion who’s met the woman on whom Queen of Katwe was based. He writes like it’s the 1930s and surrealism is new. I’m not sure why modernism is back in Nairobi. But it is.

Two stories follow. I’m not sure they make sense, and I’m not sure I want them to.

Clifton’s story is a kind of homage to writer Meja Mwangi (who gets a cameo) set around River Road with added cyborgs and bizarreness. Clifton is also an award-winning poet, and his speculative fiction has shown up in AfroSF.

Can you spot that ‘Elephants Chained to Big Kennels’ by Mehul Gohil is actually about aliens? I couldn’t, but then modernism always wants its readers to work.

Is Nairobi my favourite place in the world? No, actually, my favourite place is the future. We go there after this.

Comments are closed.