Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Say You’re One of Them

Posted by nliakos on January 4, 2016

by Uwem Akpan (Little, Brown 2008; Back Bay Books 2009; ISBN 978-0-316-08636-3)

This is a difficult book to read. It is a collection of five stories set in various African countries. The protagonists are children who find themselves in very difficult circumstances, who do what they must to survive despite poverty, cruelty, and war. For an American, the very idea that children must deal with grinding poverty, prostitution, child slavery, and unspeakable acts of violence reminds us of just how spoiled and fortunate we are.

“An Ex-Mas Feast” is narrated by Jigana, a young Kenyan boy whose family survives by sending the children out begging with their baby brother and by sniffing glue to ward off hunger. Jigana’s twelve-year-old sister Maisha opts for a life of prostitution rather than beg, and the ten-year-old Naema seems headed down the same road. At the end of the story, Jigana too gives up his hope of an education for a life on the streets of Nairobi. I was so depressed by this story I thought I might not read the others.

In “Fattening for Gabon”, ten-year-old Kotchikpa and his five-year-old sister Yewa are sent to live with their father’s brother, their Fofo (Uncle) Kpee, after both of their parents contract AIDS. Kpee is persuaded to sell the children into slavery, but as the time for their departure approaches, he is unable to do it and tries to flee with the children to their village. Kotchikpa and Yewa slowly realize the evil that they are being prepared for and draw on every resource available to them to escape their fate, but they are dealing with remorseless people who stop at nothing to deliver their human goods.

The dialog is a combination of English pidgin, French, and one or more African languages. I found myself wishing vainly for a translation or at least a glossary. In particular, what is the meaning of dey, which seems to insert itself into almost every sentence?

“What Language Is That?” is only about eleven pages long. Oddly, it is written in the second person, addressed to a five-year-old Christian girl in Ethiopia whose best friend Selam is a Muslim. As religious intolerance builds in the community, “you” and Selam are forbidden to see each other, though they cannot really understand or accept this.

“Luxurious Hearses” follows the flight of a Muslim teenager, Jubril, who has been betrayed by his own northern Nigerian community and is fleeing toward the south, where he was born to a Christian father. Most of the story takes place on a bus waiting to depart for the south as its driver scours the countryside for fuel. Jubril is trying to hide his Muslim identity from the Christian and animist passengers–avoiding speaking (because his Hausa accent would give him away), calling himself Gabriel, and hiding the fact that his right hand has been amputated, a sure sign of Sharia law being implemented for stealing. Everyone on the bus seems insane, and they are constantly switching allegiances. Jubril too is torn between his conservative Muslim faith (he cannot bear to watch TV or look at the female passengers) and the Christian identity that is his only hope of survival. As the bus finally travels southward, the televisions broadcast scenes of carnage in the south that rival those in the north. There seems to be no safe place to find refuge, no matter what religion one practices.

The final story, “My Parents’ Bedroom”, is the most horrific. It is set in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. Nine-year-old Monique’s father is a Hutu; her mother is a Tutsi. Monique and her little brother Jean watch as their father is forced to kill their mother. They escape into the streets before a Tutsi mob burns down their house, oblivious of the Tutsi refugees hiding in the ceiling. One can’t help but feel that they will not survive very long. Unimaginable.

I hated these stories, but they are like the the naked, starving children, Ignorance and Want, in the Clive Donner version of “A Christmas Carol” (1984). They are hidden beneath the robes of the Ghost of Christmas Present. When Scrooge tells the Ghost that he doesn’t want to look at them, the Ghost obligingly covers them with his robes, but assures Scrooge that “they live” and represent doom for him and all those who refuse to acknowledge their existence. (The children were apparently screenwriter Roger O. Hirson’s invention; they do not appear in the original Dickens story.) Uwem Akpan’s children are like that. You don’t want to see them, but even if you manage to forget them, they live, and die, and may one day spell doom to us all, who did nothing to help them. Akpan says in a conversation with Cressida Leyshon (The New Yorker) at the end of the book, “I would like to see a book about how children are faring in these endless conflicts in Africa. The world is not looking. I think fiction allows us to sit for a while with people we would rather not meet. . . . I want their voices heard, their faces seen.”

Father Akpan, I have sat for a while with the children in your stories. I have heard their voices. I am looking.

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2 Responses to “Say You’re One of Them”

  1. This is a wonderful way of talking about the unsettling, uncomfortable, and almost painful experience that reading this book is, and you’re right, its so important to read. Thanks for sharing.

  2. I know how you feel. I don’t like reading stories that have a lot of that stuff in in (poverty, slavery, prostitution, etc.) But you just can’t help but read it.

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