As I went through the pages of Uwem’s offerings, I could feel Uwem has more experiences to share than what he has written on in those five stories that make up Say You’re One of Them. My premise is rooted in the manner Uwem drags on in some of the stories, which individually spans almost a hundred pages, sating the reader with the superfluous details he wants the reader to know. He tends to be so compassionately biased with the way he tells some issues with brevity aided with creativity and others in a narrative that nearly makes them novellas within a collection of five short stories. What however lures the reader into Uwem’s stories is in the narrative spells that can only be identified with a narrator who is not only telling his stories in vivid descriptive words, but in the smoothness of one who knows his stories well before telling them. You might be wondering what collection of five short stories really chronicles the events in Africa in picturesque sequences. You only will need to be told that each of the stories, set in five different countries of the continent and relayed in children’s perspective, does not foist what should be on you but rather makes you piece meanings together for yourself from the accounts of disoriented children of nefarious abuses and violence.
Uwem must have been aware that his piece of literature could easily be thrown off as one of the lots that appeal to the West with fixed African themes of child soldering, religious calamity, child trafficking, etc, hence he adopts the point of view that speaks with tones of innocence rather than narratives that relay events with adult confident accuracy. Sympathy can always save flaws when stories are told by a child and one might not quickly overreact against pictures that are just too blackly painted to seek pity when it is a minor blathering about them. Say You’re One of Them seems to make a reader confess and expiate on behalf of the villain in sheer empathy that grieves one so dearly after each story.
Say You’re One of Them is an afro geo-collection of short stories which unfolds in different settings of five African countries.
Five Countries; Five Short Stories
An Ex-mas Feast (kenya): Maisha is never her family’s favourite when it comes to moral standards, but she does command the greatest dignity when the family needs depend on the income she gets from prostituting as a minor. She is the sacrificial lamb that holds the family together in seeming unity until the Ex-mas Feast when she explores full time in her trade to cater for the more demanding wants of her family.
Fattening for Gabon (Benin): For Yewa and Kotchikpa, the coming of a Nanfang motorbike into their uncle’s, Fofo Kpee, home is the beginning of the abysmal era that will soon ravage them apart. When the source of the Nanfang is known, it has already become too late for Fofo Kpee to remedy events and protect his cousins against the suffering he has sold them into. The story delves into the hypocrisy of religion while it still maintains its objectivity on the child-trafficking issue that majorly characterizes the story.
What Language Is That? (Ethiopia): Before the war that tears the narrator apart from her best friend, Salem, all what they know is the world they have mutually created in their own infantile simplicity. In severe suddenness, they become as guilty as the circumstance that creates a gorge between them. With the falseness of emotions that those caught in the middle of religious crisis exude, the two children go aboard to learn another language that can communicate their friendliness to each other even though the plumes of thick smoke that billows from the charred part of their houses robs the atmosphere of all harmony.
Luxurious Hearses (Nigeria): The quietness of the hearse might not be luxurious to the dead. Maimed and mangled cadavers are never a pleasant sight even when ferried in luxurious buses. The situation that plagues the characters in this story is antithetical to the lives they must have lived at one time or the other. After Tijani’s co-Muslim faithful betray his trust during a religious war in the northern part of the country, he returns to reposing his confidence in the God of the south he knows little about. A fanatic of some sort, Tijani who calmly watches the martyring of his blood brother, who is of the Christian faith, can’t brave it to reveal his Muslim identity in the refugee bus where he seeks protection. Amidst staccato bursts of gunfire, jarred dismembered bodies and reprisal attacks from the two religious sides (Muslim and Christian) and ethnic groups (Hausas and Igbos), Tijiani almost does make it, but his chopped off hand becomes his main enemy.
My Parents’ Bedroom (Rwanda): As succinct as this story is, it well re-enacts the inter-tribal carnage between the Hutu and the Tutsi brilliantly. A child can eavesdrop on the creaking bed of his parents, but when the matrimonial room of the home becomes an abattoir where the mother’s head is slashed, the memory of the bedroom may become a hunting ghost. This story uses the setting of a simple Rwandan family to show how inhuman the war between the two tribes is and how the actors of the savage wear bestiality as fitting garbs.
I am afraid this collection might turn out to be Uwem’s best work; I can hardly hope he will write anything as entrancing as this. That some of the stories are almost on the whole pages of the book shows he was under pressure as to what medium to pass his messages through; a collection of short stories or a full novel. Writing about religion is one fragile issue writers seldom dwell on. Being a Jesuit priest, I thought Uwem Akpan will let prejudice guide him towards giving an imbalanced narration while stifling the views of the opposite religion in Luxurious Hearses. The diplomacy he employed in equally giving voices to the two religious sides takes Luxurious Hearses out of the packs that use literature as their controlled mock courts where cases are adjudged on emotions and microscopic reasoning.