African reality alive in fiction

By  Teresia Mutuku, Catholic Register Special
  • October 24, 2008
{mosimage}Say You’re One of Them by Uwem Akpan (Little Brown and Company, 368 pages, hardcover, $26.99).

Say you’re One of Them is a masterpiece of reality-fiction that evokes powerful emotions. Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian Catholic priest, has exceptional narrative skills. He captures heartbreaking realities in Africa as seen through the eyes of children. He uses his characters to show us spiritual values of love, hope and sacrifice.

Akpan explores unimaginable tragedies of poverty, suffering and sacrifice across Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Benin in this collection of five stories. He narrates experiences perceived through the eyes of children in these five countries. In all the stories innocence and vulnerability are interwoven with suffering, survival and hope of families who struggle with some of the hardest realities of Africa — realities readers will barely comprehend. The children are lenses through which we see a series of surreal tragedies and triumphs.
In “An Ex-mas Feast,” set in Kenya, Akpan features the story of a street family fighting for survival in a country where poverty and survival take centre stage. This moving story unveils a reality experienced by poor urban families living in the city of Nairobi.

{sa 0316113786}Akpan presents images of the family living in a shack — mother and children sniffing glue, children wandering around the streets and maisha (Swahili for life). We witness a 12-year-old girl descend into prostitution to support the family. She prostitutes herself for food and school fees for her younger brother, and her mother approves.

The story unveils an urban poverty which might seem unimaginable to readers in other parts of the world. As I read this story, I could clearly picture the family along with hundreds of others whose daily life in Nairobi is simply tragic. Having lived in Nairobi for the better part of my life, I have witnessed what Akpan presents. Desperate girls scavenging for tourists in the streets and night clubs are common. Desperate for money for their own survival and that of their families, prostitution is the obvious solution — and maybe the only one. The city is awash with street children, commonly referred to as chokoras. They wander the streets sniffing glue, begging and pouncing on the vulnerable, stealing their money, jewels, handbags, even shoes — all in the name of survival.

Akpan manages to capture a world in which children survive in horrifying circumstances of crime and poverty — a reality to which everyone who lives in Nairobi, or has been in the city, can attest.

In “Fattening for Gabon” a 10-year-old boy and his younger sister are put in the care of their uncle who plans to sell them as their parents are consumed by AIDS. The opening line, “Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids” immediately depicts a harrowing inhumanity. Human trafficking cuts across Africa and beyond. The story captures the real consequences of AIDS and other poverty-related tragedies in Africa.

In “What Language is That” set in Ethiopia, Akpan explores historical religious conflicts that have torn the country apart for years. A little girl from a Christian family is forbidden by her parents from socializing with her best friend because the friend is Muslim.

“’Honey, we don’t want you to play with that girl any more.’ ‘What girl?’ ‘That Muslim girl’ Mommy said.... The two children are kept in two worlds apart where they can only communicate by miming from their balconies. ...The next afternoon you came onto the balcony. You looked at each other without words,.... Slowly, Selam lifted her hand and waved to you and you mimed back slowly too....”

This story articulates how faith differences are indoctrinated into children, entrenching religious conflicts across Ethiopia and beyond.

“Luxurious Hearses,” based in Nigeria, further unveils religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians. The story tells of a teenage Muslim boy fleeing the escalating conflicts in a bus full of other refugees. Metaphorically, the boy embarks on a journey of faith. The crisis is even picked up by international media as the passengers (refugees) watch breaking news about the crisis on TV sets on the luxurious bus.

Violent clashes between Christians and Muslims in Nigeria are common. As the story unfolds, Akpan paints a clear picture of religious animosities juxtaposed with faith and hope.

Akpan concludes his book with “My Parents’ Bedroom.” The story is narrated by a nine-year-old Rwandan girl and her little brother. They witness the most heart-rending tragedy as genocide unfolds. Their Hutu father is forced by fellow Hutus to kill their Tutsi mother. The father must make this unspeakable sacrifice to protect the children.

“They give papa a big machete. He begins to tremble, his eyes blinking... Papa is standing before Maman, his fingers on the knife’s handle... Papa lands the machete on maman’s head. Her voice chokes and she falls off the bed and onto her back on the wooden floor. It’s like a dream....”

This is the most devastating story I’ve ever read.

Amid upheavals narrated by Akpan, love and sacrifice transcend hatred and suffering. His choice of characters, his use of everyday language, metaphors and imagery authentically articulate a message of hope. Through the bravery and ingenuity of the children narrating the stories,

Akpan leads us into realities about Africa with daring. You cannot read this without searching your soul.

(Mutuku lives in Toronto and is communications officer for the World Association for Christian Communication.)

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