TALES OF HOPE
By Lisa J Long
Tuesday, March 31, 2009.
Uwem Akpan’s Say You're One of Them, set in five different African countries, confront the consequences of crippling poverty and religious and ethnic conflict, through the eyes and experiences of the child protagonists.
Akpan’s opening tale, “an ex-mas feast “, is set in Kenya. The eight year old protagonist Jigana lives with his pickpocket father, child weary mother and siblings in the grip of poverty. It is ex-mas eve and in their makeshift shelter Jigana’s mother gives her children “kabire” (shoe makers glue) to keep their hunger pangs away. The irony of her pouring the substance, to be inhaled, into a baby’s feeding bottle is as stifling as the warm damp stale air which almost rises from the shelter and off the page.
Throughout the book siblings are the ally and confidant, they provide a sense of stability in otherwise fragile circumstances. In this story it is the eldest child Maisha, the families only hope of an ex-mas meal. The family eagerly await her return from the tough streets where she sells her twelve year old body to “musungu“ white tourists.
In a bittersweet moment of faith conflicting with the families means of surviving, Jugana’s mother in offering her ex-mas prayer “praised god for blessing Maisha with white clients at ex -mas”.
“Luxurious Hearses”, the longest of Akpan’s offerings is set in Nigeria. Jubril, a Muslim boy born into an interfaith relationship, is hounded out of the North by his Muslim friends during the Muslim – Christian conflicts. He tries to flee to the south on a 70 seater bus full of fleeing Christians. Jubril’s faith provides him constant challenges as he tries to avoid the corrupting images of the onboard television, and temper his fascination with the naked ankles and necklines of the uncovered Christian women.
Jubril’s biggest challenge is to conceal the stump where his hand has been amputated for stealing, which if seen will expose him as a Muslim. Keeping the stump in his pocket for the entire journey is the ultimate test of Jubril’s survival skills. Despite the horrors within this story it is not without humour, expressed in the jostling and banter of the passengers through sickness, moments of madness and religious fervor, as they fight for their rightful place on the bus, which they each depend on for their escape and survival.
In telling the stories through the eyes of children, Akpan’s protagonists maintain a sense of innocence almost to the end, when their innocence is harshly confronted with the reality of what adults are capable of. From this innocent perspective, Akpan captures perfectly the ability children have to take others at face value without the judgments that the adult world imposes.
In Akpan’s shortest story “What Language is That”, set in Ethiopia, two young girls form a close friendship, despite being of different faiths. Their friendship is forced to an abrupt end when they are banned from playing together following Muslim - Christian conflict. They communicate their final farewell through tender mimes across a street from their balconies and in doing so are able to transcend the chaos of the conflict around them.
In the final piece in the collection, "My Parent’s Room,” Akpan recounts in heartbreaking detail a story of the Rwandan genocide, through Monique the daughter of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother. As the horror unfolds Monique and her brother Jean look on as their father is ordered to behead his wife, to save his children. The moment when Jean unaware of the horror of the situation, tries to push his mothers severed head back together, as though fixing a toy, is one of the most unforgettable acts in the book, a touching moment of heart wrenching innocence amid carnage.
Akpan does not appear to write from a blame perspective in any of the stories, and in this final story the pain is tangible on both sides of the conflict. However, Akpan does here, as he does throughout the book, use a simple act to make a huge impact on the reader’s consciousness. In this case his point is made in the simple act of a UN soldier turning his back.
In setting each story in a different country, Akpan beautifully carves up the Africa we tend to speak of as one country into distinct places with different cultures, people and languages. The dialogue throughout is interspersed with Pidgin, French and traditional language. This can be confusing if not a little frustrating at first, however, persistence familiarises the eye and rewards the reader with a greater depth of understanding and feeling of authenticity.
This collection doesn’t shy away from the reality of poverty and conflict and it is not a light read. Despite this there is always hope, which grows from the strength of the children. As Monique whispers to Jean in the final pages “We want to live; we don’t want to die. I must be strong”.
Lisa J. Long writes from Harrogate, England.