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An artist remembers Africa’s disappearing “Black Mamba” bicycles with his own whimsical designs

Cyrus Kabiru
Not for riding.
By Lily Kuo
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When Cyrus Kabiru was growing up, his father’s bicycle was the bane of his existence. He always fell while riding the simple metal roadster almost twice his size. Kabiru was responsible for keeping it clean, a difficult task in a crowded Nairobi slum. He would wheel the bike door to door, helping his father sell mosquito nets, hot water flasks, cups and plates and praying that the next house wouldn’t belong to a schoolmate.

“I would knock and meet someone I know and I would feel ashamed,” Kabiru says.

Kabiru is one of Kenya’s best known up-and-coming artists, and is being honored this week at Quartz’s Africa Innovators Summit in Nairobi.

As an artist he is fixated on those bikes that were once the main form of transportation across Kenya and much of Africa. His current project is an homage to the machine whose parts came from China or India but have always been seen as entirely local—the Black Mamba bicycle.

Using former parts of the bikes and other materials, Kabiru is making refashioned versions of the Black Mamba:

Cyrus Kabiru
Cyrus Kabiru
Cyrus Kabiru

Kabiru, best known for extravagant eyewear sculpted from refuse collected around his hometown of Nairobi, has kept the Black Mamba project somewhat out of the public eye. He’s been working on this for two years and already made 15 refashioned Black Mambas, as well as exhibited a documentary “The End of Black Mamba” at a gallery in Cape Town. Still, he says he is in the early days of the project.

According to Josh Gerenson, cofounder of Baisikeli Ugunduzi, a startup which provides bicycle parts in Kenya, an Indian company had named their bicycles Black Mambas and the name stuck and was used to describe all similar bikes. Kabiru says they are called “Black Mambas” because they can be seen along the horizon, approaching slowly like the venomous snake it is named after.

As African cities develop and urbanize, Black Mambas are quickly disappearing and being replaced by motorbikes and cars. Kabiru sees this as a loss  of a historic icon as well as a public health concern. Motorbike caused 391 deaths in 2014, up from just 44 in 2005, according to Kenya’s National Transport and Safety Authority.

Cyrus Kabiru
Cyrus Kabiru
Cyrus Kabiru

The Black Mambas are about more than remembering the past. For Kabiru, they represent a step forward in Kenyan art. “I always say we here in Kenya never had visual art. We used to tell a story instead. Now, I’m trying to make a story with an object,” he says. ”The bikes need to have a story behind them.”

Kabiru collects stories from his own family and others of the bicycle. His grandfather was given a Black Mamba by his work as a retirement present, which no one else allowed to ride. Even after his grandfather passed away in 1994, no one has ridden it. It’s mounted on the wall in Kabiru’s grandmother’s home.

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