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“Say You Are One of Them” is a powerful debut short story collection by Roman Catholic Jesuit Uwem Akpan who once lived in Zimbabwe and has travelled extensively across Africa.

The book is arguably the first narrative of its kind in post-colonial Africa that depicts the lives of vulnerable children in varying countries on the continent during moments of extreme upheavals.

While Akpan’s narrative is enriched by his wide travels across Africa, many readers will have lingering questions on the Africa that is portrayed in the five stories.

Uniquely crafted through the perspectives of children, the short stories take the form of Louis Bernado Honwana’s “We Killed the Mangy Dog and Other Stories” with the difference being the periods reflected in the stories.

Honwana depicts life in Mozambique during Portuguese colonial rule while Akpan’s narrative recounts the post-colonial situation in three African countries.

Akpan’s stories are reflective of lives in three different countries. A Kenyan boy who lives with his family on the streets sniffs glue to tamper down hunger a Christian girl in Ethiopia is abruptly torn from his childhood best friend because of religious differences while a Rwandan girl witnesses her father hacking down her mother because she happens to be a Muslim.

The first story, “An Ex-Mass Feast” recounts the grinding poverty of eight year-old Jigana’s family struggle in dealing with their desperateness for survival.

His 12-year-old sister is forced into prostitution in order to fund the education of her younger brother.

The boy is overwhelmed with a sense of guilt of that her sister endures and is forced to run away from home to lessen his guilty conscience.

“Fattening for Gabon” is a dark tale of human trafficking told from the point of view of Kotchikpa, a 10-year-old boy Kotchikpa living with his sister and Uncle Fofo.

Interestingly, it seems the young boy knew of his uncle’s intent to sell them into slavery even before the plan had matured.

In the opening of the plan, the boy remarks: “Selling your child or nephew could be more difficult than selling other kids. You had to keep a calm head or be as ruthless as the Badagry-Seme immigration people. If not, it could bring trouble to the family.”

In the case of Kotchikpa and her sister, suspicions arise when unknown benefactor buys a brand new motorcycle for her uncle Fofo, who the two children were later told to call Papa Mama and Papa. It’s after sometime that the reader realises that the people referred to as Mama and Papa are actually child traffickers and uncle Fofo is preparing to sell them into slavery.

The fattening part in the title of the short story is derived from the pampered life that the children are exposed while preparing to be sold into slavery.

Sadly, and in a contrived sort of way, Kotchikpa manages to miraculously escape but the screams of his sister he left behind forever haunts him.

Religious intolerance is explored in “Luxurious Hearse”, the haunting story caught in the intricate web of a conflict pitting Muslims in the North and Christians in Nigeria. A Muslim boy is beaten to debt by some friends who owe him money but have turned the tables by accusing him of being Christian in order to escape the debt.

He is left for dead and when they were about to torch him, he gathers strength and escape into a field where he collapses and is rescued by Muslim man.

Akpan re-enact the Rwanda genocide the tribulations of a nine year old girl with her one year old brother. When the girl’s mother Maman leaves her in charge of her brother while she goes out for the night, she told the little girl that if anyone comes she must say no one is at home.

This is the story that typifies how families were divided and perished because of ethnic differences.

The little girl witnesses her father killing her mother with a machete simply because she is a Tutsi.

The question that lingers in the reader’s mind at the end of the book is: Why would the author, Father Akpan allow evil to triumph against the goodness of heart?

Why would he allow the fragile children to be at the mercy of such a merciless world and what is his ultimate thinking behind such an emotionally drenching narrative where everything is in a state of flux and hopelessness?

Source : The Herald

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