Book Review – Say You’re One of Them

Akpan, Uwem
Back Bay, 2008
This collection of short stories, including a couple which could be stand-alone novellas, centers around the various conflicts in recent (and sadly also current) African events as seen through the eyes of children and young adults. Although at times slightly difficult to read because of the use of non-standard spellings and local terms to try and carry across the feel of spoken accents, these are teaching stories – impactful, personal, engaging, and in most cases open ended. They are stories where sometimes you don’t want to see what happens on the next page, and it’s not lighthearted reading. By the end of each story, though, it feels as if something important has been imparted that transcends the story itself.

The stories in brief:

An Ex-Mass Feast: A slum family in Nairobi disintegrates over the issue of the oldest daughter’s means of providing money to the family.

Fattening for Gabon: A brother and sister sent to live with their uncle while their parents are dying of AIDS are targeted by a child trafficking ring and promised a better life elsewhere by friendly and well-dressed outsiders, but when their uncle reconsiders they are forced to see the brutal nature of the offer.

What Language is That?: Two girls have a strong friendship despite being of different faiths and often spend time at each other’s homes, but when religious riots break out their parents forbid them to see or speak to one another.

Luxurious Hearses: A young man with a mixed Christian – Muslim background is taken to northern Nigeria when his Muslim mother becomes afraid to live in the south and runs away from his Christian father. Faced with suspicion by the new community, he tries to demonstrate his ultra-commitment to Islam, including being present when his older brother is stoned to death for apostasy and volunteering to have his hand cut off when he is caught stealing a goat to demonstrate his support of Sharia. In a wave of riots, however, his best friends turn on him and nearly kill him for not being a true Muslim, but he finds a chance to escape and runs away from the mob. Having always been told that his father would welcome him in the south, he begins the long trek looking for peace, finally getting to a relatively peaceful city where he gets a bus ticket on bus without enough fuel to start the journey. While the driver goes off in search of fuel, the bus full of Christians, mainly refugees, becomes a microcosm of the southern society as tensions run high. When the bus finally starts the long drive the mood relaxes, only to increase as the trip progresses when reports come in that the southern Christians have begun to retaliate in riots against Muslims in the south. When in a moment of emotion he removes his arm from the pocket where he had been hiding the stump, the other passengers identify him as being Muslim and he is forced to try and convince them of the Christian side of his mixed background.
My Parents’ Bedroom: A 9 year old girl with a Hutu father and Tutsi mother is caught in the crossfire of the Rwandan genocide when a mob led by her father’s brother storms their house with guns and machetes.

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