“There was no sun, only a slow ripening of the sky”

Char was kind enough to lend me a book, Uwem Akpan’s “Say You’re One of Them”

This elegantly written, colourful yet understated book tells, through short stories, of the experiences of Africa’s children. Akpan breathes life into the words and thoughts of Jigana, a street kid in Kibera, Yewa and her brother Kotchikpa, Jubril in Northern Nigeria and half-Hutu, half-Tutsi Monique, with a combination of elegant prose and blunt, multilingual dialogue.

I love the idea of giving voice to Africa’s children and Akpan does it with compassion and deep empathy. Jubril, now a Muslim teenager but baptised Catholic in a region where religious conflict runs thick and deep with blood has seen things no child ever should, yet he is hopeful, constantly optimistic, still just a child.

Yewa is a precocious five year old whom life teaches too quickly that she cannot always trust those who ply her with dancing and nice foods, and in the end even her family.

Characters that will sit next to you on the couch, whose smiles and sad eyes will appear behind your eyelids when you are trying to fall asleep. Characters that deserve at least a voice, if not an audience, a hug, a piece of change or to be whisked away somewhere warm and soft and safe where no one can ever hurt them again.

Make no mistake about it, this book will break your fucking heart.

Akpan will make you love these kids even though you don’t know them, he’ll make you hope for a happy ending even though you know better, and when that happy ending does not come you will still be shattered. You will want to chuck the book against a wall and shout “Goddamit! Africa’s children deserve a happy ending”.

And perhaps this is what Akpan intended. For if you are a benevolent middle-aged white lady, reading along faithfully with Oprah’s book club  you might learn a little bit more about the bleeding, beating heart that is Africa.,you might be inspired to reach into your pocket and donate to some Bono or Madonna-helmed charity.

As for those of us who live here, who pass the emaciated Karimojong kids on Jinja road every day, those of us who were once an African child, those of us who are one of them, you might decide that you don’t feel like having the hope beaten out of you with an elegantly carved wooden spoon. And you know what? That’s perfectly okay.


3 thoughts on ““There was no sun, only a slow ripening of the sky”

  1. Perfectly said 🙂
    I don’t think it’s humanly possible to read the story of Yewa and Kotchikpa and not want to cry or scream foul things at their “uncle”.
    This book will make you take another look at what we as adults are not doing for the children in Africa and how badly we have failed them and each other.
    The trick is making that message stick long enough for us to do something real about it

  2. I love your shift from “oh, elegant prose” to “this book will break your fucking heart.” Perhaps one of the reasons I did not get past the first story in this book is because the author’s intent is clear: “Feel bad for Africa.” There are stark truths in it (that horrify the reader) but I cannot help but feel that some of the stories and the author’s style are one-dimensional. Are there happy stories in this book? Are there stories where the children have learned to laugh in spite of or because of their pain?

    I could not read this book because it forced me to see an Africa I was unwillingly to see, and the author was not even subtle about how much he wanted to break our hearts.

    Ah, well. I shall try to get through the whole book. Just so I can give a more authoritative review.

  3. Princess, I saw so much more than pain and sadness in the children’s stories – I saw bravery, shrewdness, an almost adult perception of things (in Jigana), even humour! But all those things break your heart even more for what happens to these children.
    Akpan’s book is a challenge, a dare to try and ignore what’s going on around us. Read the other stories – you won’t laugh much, but at least you won’t be kidding yourself either.

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