Harrowing stories told through the eyes of children

2010-01-06 00:00

NIGERIAN-BORN Jesuit priest, Uwem Akpan, makes his début as a writer with Say You’re One of Them, a collection of five harrowing­ stories dealing with the struggles of children in a range of African countries defined­ by poverty and ethnic violence­. The stories, some of which are written in the first person, are told from the perspectives of individual children, who view the complexities of the adult, politically­ charged world with varying degrees of incomprehension and innocence.

Particularly effective is Fattening for Gabon, the longest story in the collection at 118 pages. Set in Benin, it deals with the issue of child trafficking. Kotchikpa, the 10-year-old narrator, describes the life he and his sister live with their uncle, once they have been taken from their home village where their parents are dying of Aids. The uncle­, who is ultimately redeemed by his awakened conscience, and who suffers as a result, is persuaded — for considerable benefits — to sell the children to a group of unscrupulous traffickers. Initially conned by the promise of a better life and a good education in Gabon, the children, notably the narrating boy, become suspicious when they are subjected to puzzling orientation and reidentification sessions.

The narrative is enlivened by hybrid­ dialogue, enriched by striking imagery and energised by unbearable tension.

Also very powerful is My Parents’ Bedroom, set in Rwanda and narrated by a nine-year-old girl, daughter of a Tutsi mother, whom she resembles, and a Hutu father. Bewildered by her parents’ suddenly secretive behaviour and by machete-wielding mobs materialising by night, the child is forced, at the climax of the story, to witness an unspeakable atrocity.

Also concerned with ethnic violence­ is Luxurious Hearses, which highlights Christian-Muslim conflict­ in Nigeria. Jubril, the young Muslim protagonist, minus a pilfering­ hand, is trying to flee with a busload of Christians to the south. Although the story is a little contrived­, it holds considerable interest and has a breathtaking ending.

Less successful are two short pieces set in Kenya and Ethiopia respectively.

Akpan knows his continent and he writes penetratingly and poignantly of its desperate, disturbed and dislocated children.

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