You are an eight-year-old Kenyan, overwhelmed by guilt because the sister you love has become a prostitute to raise money so that you—the eldest boy in your family—can attend school. What do you do?
You are barely scraping by as a fixer at a border crossing in Benin, and have taken in your niece and nephew because their parents are bedridden due to HIV. Money is tight; the children don’t even have schoolbooks, and their stomachs are distended. What risks are you willing to take to earn more cash?
You are a teenage boy in Nigeria, caught up in a religious conflict that has turned violent, hiding yourself amongst those who hate you. How will you maintain your masquerade?
Uwem Akpan’s first short story collection, Say You’re One of Them, transports you to Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Benin, and Ethiopia to explore the gut-wrenching decisions that children and the people who care for them face in today’s Africa. Akpan is a Catholic priest, and says he “was inspired to write by the people who sit around my village church to share palm wine after Sunday Mass, by the Bible, and by the humor and endurance of the poor”. Not surprisingly, these stories are told with great love for the main characters. Even when you do not admire their decisions, you understand were their motives come from. In the book’s afterward, the Bishop of Akpan’s home diocese in Nigeria writes that Akpan is “giving African children a voice in fiction.” What a powerful voice it is.
The five-story collection begins with the highlight, “An Ex-Mas Feast”, which also appeared in The New Yorker‘s 2005 Debut Fiction issue. It is set in the slums of Nairobi, amongst a family where the younger children beg, the oldest girl is a prostitute, the father is a petty thief, and the mother is trying to earn money for schoolbooks by spotting pregnant street dogs, taking them in, and selling the puppies. While waiting for the feast she hopes the oldest daughter will bring home, the mother quells her children’s hunger with sniffs of glue.
In “Fattening for Gabon”, you are never quite certain if the border-tout uncle really plans to sell his niece and nephew for material gain, or if he thinks he can reap the rewards without sealing the deal. You quickly see where the story is headed, but can you begrudge this poor household the temporary joy it receives from ill-begotten gain? They drink guava juice to celebrate the arrival of the first payment from the traffickers - a shiny, new Chinese-made motorcycle. They are elated at their first church Family Thanksgiving, an event usually held for wealthier families.
The uncle cleans the children with a new sponge, wears a new agbada (a long cloth robe, worn over tapered pants), and drives the motorcycle to church for the first time. People cheer and wave. The story’s narrator, the nephew, says, “My chest swelled with pride, and my eyes welled up with tears, which the wind swept into my earlobes”. The uncle exclaims, “Hunger o, disease o, bad luck o, empty pockets o—our heavenly baba go banish all of dem from us today”. The pastor blesses the motorcycle.
If one theme in this collection is the precariousness of plenty, another theme is how religious and ethnic differences can tear apart neighbors, compatriots, friends, family, and acquaintances. In “What Language Is That”, two young Ethiopian best friends, one Christian, one Muslim, are forced to part ways. “My Parent’s Bedroom”, previously featured in a June 2006 issue of The New Yorker, does not surprise with its story of horror from the Rwandan genocide. But it provides a worthwhile reminder that even the binds of family cannot withstand human being’s capacity for evil.
“Luxurious Buses” takes place in a Nigeria suffering from religious strife between Muslims and Christians. Occupying the bus are a Canterbury Tales-esque range of Christians headed for comparative safety in the country’s south—a chief, two outspoken college students, a sick man, two rifle-wielding police officers, a soldier carrying a dog, a wise old woman, a stout man who becomes possessed by a Spirit, and a breastfeeding mother. Then, there is Jubril, a strict Muslim trying fervently to hide his arm, which has been cut off at the wrist as punishment, under Sharia law, for stealing. Alliances form and dissipate as the passengers angle for seats, spaces in the aisle, and access to the toilet, and the group grapples with how to resolve these conflicts by applying the values and mores of their newfound democracy.
Akpan’s attention to detail is notable. He conveys a true sense of place, from the language the characters use to his descriptions of people, neighborhoods, clothing, and food. He makes few compromises for his audience—the mix of dialects in “Fattening for Gabon” can be hard to decipher and some metaphors illuminate African experiences by referring to other African experiences, as when Jubril feels fortunate he has a bus ticket because “even if people were stacked up like yam or cassava tubers in a basket, most would be left behind”.
This authenticity is one of the book’s great strengths. There are few ways for many in the first world to become acquainted with how people live in Africa—their day-to-day struggles, the richness of their cultures, their joy for life. The news is generally horrific, the Hollywood films sensationalized, and vacations to the continent skirt the slums for safaris. For a window of understanding, read this book.
Akpan now lives in Harare, Zimbabwe, and teaches at a seminary. Considering his keen eye for the stories of everyday people, and given the political, economic and social turmoil of this southern African country, we can only hope that he is gathering much fodder for future short stories.