Uwem Akpan is a Nigerian-born Jesuit priest. His short story collection Say You’re One of Them was published in 2008 by Little Brown and Company. It features five stories set in different countries in Africa. Each story focuses on a set of children that represent a different and often violent situation.
The first short story is told by an eight-year-old boy named Jigana. His sister is a prostitute at twelve years old. His ten-year-old sister wants to follow her sister’s path. Jigana’s siblings also include two-year-old twins and a baby who is part of the family’s team for begging. The story is set at Christmastime. The patriarch of the family manages to steal some party presents, but these are not what you would find under a traditional Christmas tree. He has zebra intestines and three cups of rice. He also has some gift-wrapped insecticide. One Christmas gift is a container of sniffable glue. The story presents the fate of children in Africa within the tragic confines of the facts of African life.
In “Fattening for Gabon,” Kotchikpa and Yewa are not on their way to a life of success and wealth as the title of the story suggests. The story begins with the information that it is more difficult to sell your own child or nephew than selling other kids. The children have not seen their parents for a long time as they have AIDS. In the story, Kotchikpa’s uncle is referred to as Fofo Kpee and he tricks the children with a flashy motorbike. He packs the bike with fruit, toilet paper, yams, and five people for a joy ride.
The caretakers that take Kotchikpa and Yewa are only in the business of selling the children as slaves. They provide the youngsters with feasts of food, including a soup with meat in it, and a white string that holds the pellets that killed the animal.
In this case, the story contains a Dickensian tone as the adults are the phony caretakers of children who are fighting for their lives in a dangerous and unsafe environment.
Akpan provides deep sketches of the children in all of these stories as they witness horrific events. They all are seeking ways to survive.
Critics have called Akpan’s stories compassionate and artful. The New York Times’s Janet Maslin describes Akpan’s work as deft in handling dialect and detail.