review: say you're one of them

Submitted by la miller on 8 November, 2009 - 20:23

In the 1994 [w:Rwandan Genocide], 500,000 to one million Tutsis and pro-peace Hutus were killed. Hutus associated with the Hutu Power movement carried out the genocide that lasted 100 days. I remember hearing radio reports of the violence and killing, the scope of which overwhelmed my understanding. Over several weeks, news items entered my ears as no more than abstractions of terror—no faces, no names, no specific to nail the corpses to my emotional reality. I never once thought of the children lost in the maelstrom of mass societal chaos and brutality.

Jesuit priest and author [w:Uwem Akpan]’s Say You’re One of Them does not forget the children. The collection of three short stories and two novellas considers in fine detail the improvised and often desperate lives of Africa’s young people. The short story “My Parents’ Bedroom” focuses on nine-year-old Monique and her toddler brother Jean, the children of a Tutsi mother and a Hutu father. Told from Monique’s point of view, we witness the genocide from inside the family’s home. Monique hears, smells, and sees Tutsi friends and family meet their grisly death at the hands of Hutu friends and family. Akpan’s sketches out what I did not understand of the genocide—the young eyes that witnessed it.

Akpan’s young characters often get caught in the middle of violent conflicts between religious, ethic and tribal groups that are far beyond their ability to impact or even understand. In the novella “Luxurious Hearses,” sixteen-year-old Jubril flees the violence between Muslims and Christians in his home of northern Nigeria. The only Muslim on a bus of Christian refugees seeking safety in southern Nigeria, he must stay invisible. Like the Rwandan children, his parents came from different backgrounds—southern Christian and northern Muslim. In the eyes of his fellow bus passengers, he is Muslim despite being baptized Catholic. To his old Muslim friends, he is an infidel. He belongs to no group, yet that is his only hope for protection.

Akpan never leaves his characters without some kind of hope or space for redemption. Jubril encounters a peace-loving Muslim and Christian who both, at great risk to their own lives and families, hide and help those being persecuted. Akpan writes:

Having lived through the ordeal in Mallam Abdullahi’s house and having just heard the testimony of Yohanna Tijani about the generous southern Christians, Jubril felt that with heroic people like this, his nation would rise above all types of divisiveness. Instinctively, in his yearning for consolation, he envisioned the different peoples of his country connecting at a deep, primordial level, where one’s life was irreversibly connected to one’s neighbor’s, like a child’s to its mother’s.

Jubril does not live to see this, but like all of Akpan’s young characters, he still has an imagination that can see a better future. Akpan’s journalistic brush paints a grim reality for the children of Africa. Abandoned by AIDS, corrupt governments, civil war and severe poverty, they are on the edge. In their hearts they believe in justice and tolerance, but dropped into a setting of social collapse, they may never have an opportunity to experience it. Akpan’s well crafted and heartbreaking stories call for more heroes, more adults risking their lives in order to transcend the divisions and point a way towards the stability of tolerance, forgiveness and peace.