Book title: Say you are one of them
East Africa Reads, Kigali’s exciting and dynamic book club, had its first meeting a few months ago. True to the club’s commitment to African literature, UwemAkpan’s ‘Say You Are One of Them’ was the book up for discussion. The book which is comprised of 5 short storieshighlights the struggles of children on the African continent.
Before you decry it as another story written for the West and set to depict the continent as one of struggle, this book does in fact make a point to contextualize each story. Yes, it is rife with stories of suffering, but it doesn’t do it in a desperate way. Akpan is more concerned with showing how children learn to cope with situations that are beyond their control.
Each story is told from the perspective of a child and deal with themes such as child trafficking, prostitution, ethnicity and religion. Akpan, a Nigerian Jesuit priest manages to convincingly portray the world through the eyes of his child characters. The stories are infused with so many accurate cultural and contextual references, and are evidence of Akpan’s personal experiences with the different countries in which his stories are set. That he is able to reach into these disparate experiences to create beautifully written narratives is what has won Akpan great acclaim from critics, and coveted endorsement from people such as Oprah Winfrey.
The first story is based on the life of a nine year old boy Jigana living in the Kibera slums of Kenya with his family of 8. The rather large family is forced to resort of unscrupulous means of survival, which involve his 12 year-old sister succumbing to a life of prostitution. This story is told with such authority and attention to detail, bringing to life the slum dwelling experiences of Kibera.
Two stories are based in West Africa and grip the imagination as they are intense and realistic with strong narratives. The first, ‘Fattening for Gabon’, a story of a conniving uncle who decides to sell his innocently trusting niece and nephew to human traffickers leaves us undecided about whether to love or hate the flamboyant Fofo Kpee. The second story, ‘Luxurious Hearses’, tells of a 16 years old boy fleeing death and his past in the midst of religious conflict between Muslims and Christians. Here again Akpan does an excellent job drawing out the subtleties that characterize the conflict in Nigeria between Christians and Muslims.
From West Africa, Akpan travels back to the East looking at the life of two best friends forced to part ways as a result of religious differences in an Ethiopian town. The clever little girls devise a new language in which words are no longer permitted.
Shenge, a 9-year-old girl from Rwanda is the protagonist in the last story, which is based on ethnic conflict. Through her struggle to make sense of the upheaval that has come to replace her previously secure life, we see the complete destruction of families during the 1994 Rwanda genocide.
The story although an accurate reflection of events in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide,reads as though written while watching ‘Sometime in April’. The storyline of a Hutu husband forced to kill his Tutsi wife to ensure his children’s safety could be said to have been plagiarised from the Sometime in April script.
Spoiler alert: if you are a fan of happy endings, this is probably not the book for you. Although such endings could be described as realistic, each story will either leave you in tears or have you flipping back and forth through pages hoping for another end to the story.