Thursday, July 22, 2010

Say You're One of Them...

Book Review: 'Say You're One of Them' (Abacus, 2008) by Uwem Akpan.

We make easy associations of images with the stereotypes and myths that have come to be a part of how we make sense of society. Social divisions, national identity or age have come to be markers of behaviour and the way we relate to each other. So when we think of childhood, we have at least some amount of sweet, fantastical memory attached to it. The memory of being a child certainly would have held some moments of pleasure. So it might come as a spoke in the movie reel to digest the idea that childhood is a commodity in Africa. And Uwem Akpan brings this idea to life in his bestselling book ‘Say You’re One of Them’.

Never have my notions of identity and society been as steeply challenged as they have been on reading this beautifully orchestrated telling of story, this compelling oratory. Because that is what a book like ‘Say You’re One of Them’ must be described as. The words don’t just sit there, lame, impotent as letters on a page might be expected to; they jump up at you and dare you to piece the puzzle together, they dare you to drink in the images that are revealed of Africa’s brutality towards the most innocent fruit of her womb. The children of Africa.

Akpans anthology of five stories take us on an armchair travel from Kenya to Benin, than onward through Ethiopia, Nigeria and finally, Rwanda. And along this journey, the reader is held at the edge of the armchair rather than calmly settled into it. The stories are striking in their detail. Akpan makes no apology for revealing to the sanitised reader what life in Africa demands of its children.

We continue to insist that greed and survival are two vastly different concepts, and yet when we are made to see how they collide and bring the face of humanity to commit up until now, unspeakably inhumane things, then we are forced to realise the reality of childhood in a continent weighed down by inequality, unrest and all things antithetical to a natural way of being.

Uwem Akpan reveals this as his intention early on, and with little effort. And his methods vary: in each of the stories he is able to bring to the narrative the flavour and tone of the original language, be they indigenous African languages or the tongue of the colonial French. He takes this method further in his display of language as beyond the realm of just words and geography.

From the outset, this tapestry of stories expects you to step into the bare feet of a small child. At that point, the dust is removed from in front of you and any evidence of childlike innocence torn from your soul. You have to get it at last: this is what it is to be a child in Africa.

But once that veil of innocence has been removed, the ageless wisdom and resilience of children is beautifully emphasized. Akpan by no means glamorizes Africa. While his love for his continent of birth is tangible, we are made to see through the eyes of child prostitutes, beggars, those being readied for trafficking and those torn from each other on the basis of imagined social lines; Hutus from Tutsis, Catholics from Muslim. And then Akpan extends his metaphor: if it is the children who bear the brunt of society’s dysfunctions in the family unit, then it is Africa’s children who bear the brunt of a world wrought with inequalities.

There is also to be found a profoundly moving statement in the sadness of each of these stories, and yet it is the strength of these tiny examples of humanity that resonate for the reader. The power of the need to survive, to surpass the pressure of an unfair world adds a lustre. But there is work to be done and Akpan does this by allowing us to dig through the grime of the stories in order to find those inevitable questions about where it is that we might find ourselves on the scale of greed and survival. Without a doubt, it also draws a line in the sand between what it means to be a child in the world, in Africa, in the lands of the North and the South. And the answers glare at the reader defiantly awaiting rejection of their truth. Do we dare to deny that these brutal stories are more fact than fiction?

If Akpan compels the reader to continue turning the pages, and manages to awaken an almost denialist sense that such things might occur in the contemporary social world, one thing that we certainly cannot deny is his superb mastery of storytelling, his ease with language and metaphor. His writing is marvellous; his characters believable. Their experiences are a drought to the soul, but they serve as a reminder and awaken the compassionate in us, in sheer rejection of the evils that befall the weakest among us, mainly children.

Akpan succeeds in many ways as a spiritualist, as a humanitarian, as a storyteller in both bringing characters to life as well as stoking the fires of social awareness and conscience in the reader.

But most of all, he succeeds in showing the triumph of human spirit above the adversity that offends and challenges many of Africa’s children on a daily basis.


Uwem Akpan was born in Nigeria on May 19, 1971, in the southern village of Ikot Akpan Eda. Both of his parents were teachers and he and his three brothers grew up speaking English and Annang. He joined the Jesuit order at the age of 19, in 1990 and became a priest on July 19, 2003. He has also studied theology for three years at the Catholic University of East Africa and philosophy and English at Creighton and Gonzaga University. He later earned an M.F.A. degree in creative writing at the University of Michigan in 2006. ‘Say You’re One of Them’ is a collection of five stories from Africa. Of these stories, ‘My Parent’s Bedroom’, set in Rwanda, was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2007, and longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award in 2008. After completing a teaching assignment at a seminary in Harare, Zimbabwe, he is now at a parish in Lagos, Nigeria.


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