Say You're One of Them
Uwem Akpan, a Nigerian who was educated in Africa and in the United States, is a surprisingly powerful writer. Say You’re One of Them is his first book, in which each of five stories is set in a different African nation. In all cases, a child is either the narrator or the point of view. Akpan, who writes in English, has traveled and lived in several African countries and has done meticulous research on local settings and dialects. His characters speak French, English, and various local languages, and his stories contain only physical details that he has personally observed. When he mentions red earth in his work, it is there.
Akpan’s first published story, “An Ex-Mas Feast,” initially appeared in the 2005 Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker, offering a glimpse of a family’s grim subsistence on the streets of Nairobi, Kenya. The parents, Baba and Mama, their six children, and pregnant dog live in a makeshift shanty of tarpaulin and plastic sheeting at the end of an alley. Although Akpan employs understated humor, his style is mostly naturalisticfrom the reek of insecticide fumes inside the shanty, ineffective against the mosquitoes, to the way family members take turns sleeping in the midst of huddled bodies to avoid the cold. Gangs of children also sleep on these streets, where “garbage had spread all over the road: dried fish, stationery, trinkets, wilted green vegetables” and no one can be trusted.
Baba is a pickpocket, Mama drinks, and they all sniff glue to ease their hunger (except the two-month-old baby, asleep in a cardboard box). The oldest daughter, angry twelve-year-old Maisha with her bleached hair and skin, longs to go to school but cannot because, as a prostitute who mostly serves white tourists, she is the true support of the family. Whatever she earns goes toward her younger brother Jigana’s school fees and uniform so that he, being a boy, can continue his classes. The underweight and nameless baby is used as a prop to extract sympathy from passers-by whenever Mama or the children go begging.
Every Ex-Mas, Mama follows the tradition of reading the family names inscribed in their battered Biblea catalog of misfortunes, inasmuch as all are missing or dead. Desperate as they are, the parents still fret over what Christmas gift to give their neighborsshould it be petrol or glue? On this Ex-Mas morning, a disheveled Maisha arrives in a taxi with a feast that she has labored all night to obtain for the family. Immediately afterward, she moves out to “try full-time” in a brothel, where her income will be less problematic. Naema, ten years old and very pretty, intends to go on the street in her sister’s place, even though Maisha disapproves.
A much longer story follows, bearing the cryptic title “Fattening for Gabon” and touching upon several social problems. The ten-year-old narrator Kotchikpa and his obstinate younger sister Yewa, both spirited and smart, speak a patois of English, French, and native Idaatcha. They live with their Fofo (Uncle) Kpee in a poor border village on the coast of Benin, because their parents, dying of AIDS in another village, can no longer care for them. Fofo Kpee survives by smuggling people across the Nigerian border, a delicate task made much easier by the new motorcycle that he has just purchased with money given him by a man known as Big Guy. Even though Big Guy sometimes wears the uniform of an immigration officer, the children are uncertain who he is. In reality, he is only a go-between, being paid by the same secret benefactors whom Fofo identifies as the children’s “godparents.” These so-called benefactors are human traffickers in prostitution or slavery, to whom Fofo has sold his charges. The adults fully understand this, but the two children do not.
Soon the godparents Papa and Mama, an older man and a beautiful woman, visit Fofo’s house, bearing a wonderful array of food. Both children are mesmerized by Mama, who tenderly cuddles the sulking Yewa. Mama renames the children Mary and Pascal, urging them to speak only French. Two other scrawny children are then brought into Fofo’s house for a great feast, all to be fattened for their journey to French-speaking Gabon, where they are told they will live with their godparents. The two are soon taken away, but when other children join the group, they will sail together to their fine new home in Gabon.
Fofo teaches his niece and nephew the programmed answers they must have ready for their new life. They must also learn to drink seawater for survival, in case...
(The entire section is 1867 words.)