Sunday, June 15, 2008

Stories of Africa’s kids disturbingly realistic

Uwem Akpan's debut collection of short stories, "Say You're One of Them," is set in different African nations - Rwanda, Nigeria, Kenya and so on. Each of the stories is narrated from the point of view of a child caught up in the midst of conflict. Whether it's the pain of living on the street or fighting religious persecution or having one's faith challenged, the children in these tales show grit, perseverance and courage.

A Jesuit priest, Akpan grew up in Nigeria and attended Catholic institutions in the United States before earning an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan. He has a real gift for bringing the day-to-day living of the downtrodden of Africa to life. In “An Ex-Mas Feast,” first published in The New Yorker, a family survives on the roadside in Nairobi on the earnings of their teenage daughter, who sells herself to tourists. The story is narrated by the girl’s brother, whose education is to be financed by his sister’s earnings. The family dynamics, the vicious cycle of poverty in urban Africa and the boy’s guilt at making his life at the cost of his sister’s are portrayed with nuanced clarity.

Akpan has a sound ear for dialogue, and his use of the local dialect lends authenticity to the stories, even if it takes effort to absorb the full meaning of what is being said. In “Fattening the Gabon,” a brother and sister are being set up to be sold into slavery by their uncle. The depravity of the network that perpetuates this inhuman act contrasts with the shock of its realization by the boy.

While all the stories are deeply affecting, “Luxurious Hearses” — about a Nigerian boy who must escape his Muslim roots on a bus loaded with Christians — offers the most poignant and humorous insights into the futility of religious violence. This is also the theme of “My Parents’ Bedroom,” in which a young girl must protect herself and her brother from the mere fact that they are the children of a Tutsi mother and Hutu father.

“Say You’re One of Them” explores universal themes of love and filial bonding against the backdrop of genocide, poverty and slavery. The shameful thing is these stories could be happening to real children, whose childhood is being lost to their fight to survive. If Akpan can sensitize a few of us toward keeping our humanitarian promises to Africa, this book would have achieved its purpose.
This review appeared in Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

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