Say you’re one of them
Uwem Akpan is a Nigerian Jesuit priest, and an author shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African writing, and longlisted for The Guardian First Book Award. And this book was a New York Times bestseller.
Not a combination that happens often I wouldn’t think.
This book is actually a series of five stories, unrelated except for their theme: Children of Africa. The title comes from some advice a father gives his daughter in Rwanda. If anyone comes, say you are one of them. when the daughter asks who, the father says anyone. Merge, blend, do and say what is required to stay alive. Not the advice one expects a child to have to get really.
Of the five, I found four to be incredible stories. One I didn’t much like but maybe because I don’t know the context well enough.
In the other four, quite simple tales are told of children living in the harsh reality of Kenya, Benin, Ethiopia, and Rwanda. Simple but harrowing and distressing and saddening. These children are facing things adults should never face and the images of the little bodies running and begging and weeping will stay with me for ages. From the uncle trying to sell his nice and nephew into slavery, to the Rwandan girl seeing the horror of the genocide up close, each story tells of an experience much too common in Africa.
Other comments written about this book that I have read talk about how uplifting it is, about how it shows the resilience of children. I didn’t see that really. I felt so sad that we as a continent and we as a species create situations in which children are sold as slaves, watch their parents murder and be murdered, and face persecution for things they had no say in whatsoever.
What Akpan does amazingly well, especially for a man who, I assume as a Catholic priest, has no children, is capture the voice of each of the children in his stories. Children do have a non-melodramatic way of talking about the most horrendous things, and when used as a story-telling technique, this works to keep the stories from being mawkish.
He also uses lots of local dialect and speech patterns. I have read other reviewers talking about how this detracts as it makes it hard to understand every word.
I think this is the point. You do not need to understand every single part of the whole to know what it all means, be the whole a sentence or the lives of these children. Don’t read the stories thinking you will come out with a complete picture of anything. What each story is, is a snippet from the lives of millions and millions of children of Africa.
If you want to know more, go and find out.
Very glad to have read this – and although it counts as my Nigerian book, it really is an everywhere-in-Africa book. I think all Africans should read it. And all people not African too. The essence of the stories is certainly not restricted to Africa.