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The Gorilla's Apprentice

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Six times a year we will be showcasing original fiction from an emerging writer, as part of our New Voices project. We are proud to announce Kenyan writer Billy Kahora as our latest writer to be featured. Click here to see a full list of stories, and here to read more about Billy Kahora, including an interview.

That last Sunday of 2007, just a few days before Jimmy Gikonyo’s eighteenth birthday – when he would become ineligible to use his Nairobi Orphanage family pass – he went to see his old friend, Sebastian the gorilla. Jimmy sat silently on the bench next to the primate’s pit waiting for Sebastian to recognize him. After a few minutes, Sebastian turned his gaze on Jimmy and walked towards the fence. The gorilla’s eyes were rheumy, his movements slow and careful. Their interaction was now defined by that strange sense of inevitable nostalgia that death brings, even when the present has not yet slipped into the past.

Jimmy removed the tattered pass from his pocket and read the fine print on the back: This lifetime family pass is only for couples and children under eighteen years of age.

There was a sign on the side of Sebastian’s cage: ‘Oldest Gorilla in the World. Captured and Saved from the Near Extinction of His Species After the Genocide in Rwanda. Sebastian, 56. Genus: Gorilla.’

The Sunday Standard beside him said: Nairobi, Kisumu, Kakamega and Coast Province in Post-Election Violence After Presidential Results Announced.

That Sunday morning was strangely cold for late December. When Jimmy looked around, every one of the animals seemed to agree, each exhibiting a unique brand of irritation. 11 a.m. was the best time to visit the orphanage. The church-going crowd that came in droves in the afternoon was still worshipping, so the place was empty.

He had come here first as a toddler. They acquired their family pass in the days when his father was a trustee of the Friends of Nairobi National Park but his father soon found the trips boring, and for some years, Jimmy had come here alone with his mother.

When Jimmy was twelve his father left them, and Jimmy began to come on his own, except for the year he had been in and out of hospital. That year, he borrowed a book called Gorilla Adventure by Willard Price from a school friend. He had read it from cover to cover, in the night, using a torch under the blanket and eventually falling asleep. He woke up to find the book tangled and ruined in urine-stained sheets. He had received a beating from the owner that had only increased his love for the mountain gorilla. For the rest of his primary school years he would take the lonely side in arguments about whether a gorilla could rumble a tiger, or whether a polar bear could kill a mountain gorilla.

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Comments (26)

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  1. Renzo

    Thu Aug 19 03:54:50 BST 2010

    I think this must be the truncation of a longer piece because the editing leaves too much unknown at the death scene. I would read more.

    The storytelling is masterful, the prose is nearly perfect, and the characters, especially Sebastian, incredibly appealing. And moving. I want to read more.

    I like this author, this story and this gorilla. I will read more.

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  2. Elizabeth Hamilton

    Thu Apr 28 22:24:12 BST 2011

    A painful situation for a mother and son, who had known better times. They have not adjusted to the new way of life in a poorer neighborhood.

    Jimmy found solace in the Animal Orphanage on Sundays to drown out the woes of "Real Life". His mum drownded hers in the use of liquor instead, at the thought of doing her own chores and using her beauty and body to get by.

    The Professor stated that trouble began when Sebastian, the gorilla got ill. At Sebastian's death,it seemed as though, the Professor "took over" or possessed the gorilla's body. By being the "gorilla", does he hope to change the situation in the country? I would definitely love to read more of this story.

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    This excerpt definitely left me wanting to read more, especially because I was confused the entire time as to whether Sebastien or Jimmy was the orphan.

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