Book Review: Say You’re One of Them By Uwem Akpan

Uwen Akpan, Nigerian Jesuit priest portrays the life of African children in limbo from various African countries.
Library Ground Breaking in Rwinkwavu (Photo / K.Uher)
Library Ground Breaking in Rwinkwavu (Photo / K.Uher)

Uwen Akpan, Nigerian Jesuit priest portrays the life of African children in limbo from various African countries.

“Say You’re One of Them” is a stunning debut, a collection of five sad, horrific and very ravishing short stories.

Akpan’s characters are ordinary, flawed, sometimes funny kids who happen to be caught in a nightmare.

Each story is set in a different country, a testimony to the priest and writer’s powers of strong observation and is narrated from a child’s point of view – from Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and Gabon.

He offers an eloquent voice to African children to tell the stories of contemporary Africa and tries t make some meaning out of the urban poverty, civil conflict, child slavery and the religious intolerance that sometimes characterize life in Africa.

The title story is about a Rwandan girl, Monique of mixed Hutu and Tutsi lineage who witnesses the most horrific sight any child could ever see. In the face of an encroaching bloodbath, “Say you’re one of them” is a command from a desperate parent.

She is told to say that statement so that she can survive impending death that is all around as it had been during the 1994 genocide.

“When they ask you,” she says sternly, without looking at me, “say you’re one of them, O.K.?”

“Anybody. You have to learn to take care of Jean, Monique. You just have to, huh?”
“I will, Maman.”

The story called my “My Parents’ Bedroom” tells the story of the Rwandan genocide from the perspective of nine-year old half-Tusti-half-Hutu and consists a lot of the drama that takes place in their parent’s bedroom as they negotiate to hide away from the killers alongside many bleeding  others in the ceiling of their house.

The other story is set on streets of Nairobi. “An Ex-Mas Feast” examines urban poverty where a whole family’s hope of educating their son is dependent on the boy’s 12-year old sister prostituting herself in order to earn the money to pay the school fees.

In “Fattening for Gabon”, two orphaned children are being fattened like animals for sale into slavery by their uncle.

In “What Language is That”, two Ethiopian girls whose friendship is thriving are told they cannot continue their relationship because of the differences in their parents’ religion.

While “Luxurious Hearses” describes the experience of a teenager fleeing to southern Nigeria from a religious conflict in the north who finds himself on a bus charged with the very same inter-religious hostility he is running away from.

However, the jewel of the collection remains the Rwandan narrative and in fact, it was nominated for Africa’s grandest short story price the Caine Prize for African writing.

An excerpt from the book goes, “As the mob closes in on the house, chanting, the ceiling people begin to pray. I recognize their voices as those of our Tutsi neighbors and fellow-parishioners.

They’re silent as Papa opens the front door to the crowd, which is bigger than last night and pushes into our home like floodwater.

These people look tired, yet they sing on like drunks. Their weapons and hands and shoes and clothes are covered with blood, their palms slimy. Our house smells suddenly like an abattoir.

I see the man who attacked me; his yellow trousers are now reddish brown. He stares at me; I hold on to Papa, who is hanging his head.”

Some of the stories in the book like “My Parents’ Bedroom” and “An Ex-Mas Feast” are available on the internet in the archives of The New Yorker, one of the most respected literary journals in the world for Rwandan literary fiction fans to enjoy.


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