Thursday, June 17, 2010

Lost Childhoods

Say You're One of Them
by Uwem Akpan

It is so easy to divorce ourselves from the misery on the other side of the world. We go about our busy lives, we raise our kids, we run our households, we go to work every day, and sometimes days go by between the times when we think of the people who do not have households to maintain or jobs to go to or children to feed (because the ones they had have all died in tribal warfare or from malaria or AIDS or starvation). Our blindness is not intentional, but cultural. Occasionally we catch a story on CNN or NPR about ethnic clashes in an African country or a famine or an earthquake or some other type of natural disaster that leaves lives shattered. We feel genuine compassion for our neighbors, but not a personal connection to their sorrow.

Uwem Akpan's collection of stories Say You're One of Them makes it hard for us to keep that level of detachment. Akpan is a Jesuit priest who also is a gifted writer - his writing is really an extension of his ministry. I hope that is true for all of us who both minister and write (often the two are intertwined), but Akpan's book is a deliberate attempt to fill a void that desperately needs filling - the voices of children who are caught in the horrors of African religious and ethnic conflicts He decided to write stories from the perspective of children about atrocities in several African countries - including Niger, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Kenya.

I don't know that I could choose a "favorite" from these five stories - three of which would probably be called short stories and two are probably long enough to be called novellas. Each is well written, but extraordinarily painful to read. Fattening for Gabon, about two children sold into slavery by their uncle, is haunting. My Parents' Bedroom, told from the point of view of the child of a Hutu father and Tutsi mother during the Rwandan wars of the 1990s, illustrates the complexities of ethnic hatred alongside mixed marriages and mixed blood children. Each story takes us inside one of Africa's bleakest conflicts, showing us how the ones who pay the highest price for the violence are usually the ones who had nothing to do with starting it in the first place. The stories are fiction, but drawn from the experiences of children he has met and talked with.

Akpan's stories make it impossible for us to insulate ourselves from what happens in Africa, Afghanistan, Mississippi, or anywhere else. It's not fun reading, but they are stories we need to hear. Akpan reminds us that we are all connected - we may not know each other personally, but there are ways that we can relate to one another. As a parent, I could identify with the anguish of the parents who see their kids' lives being wrecked - even when, as in An Ex-Mas Feast, a young girl turns to prostitution to help feed her family. Her parents behave in inexcusable ways, but their pain is also palpable. Most of us love our children and want a beautiful life for them - we are blessed enough to live in a place where we seldom have to make the agonizing choices that these parents do. For these children to have to make adult decisions and live adult lives at their tender ages is one of the great human tragedies.

Read this, but brace yourself first. It's rough.

Reverent Reader


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