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FICTION

Cry the Beloved Country

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Reviewed by Susan Straight
Sunday, June 29, 2008

SAY YOU'RE ONE OF THEM

By Uwem Akpan

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Little, Brown. 358 pp. $23.99

The parents in Uwem Akpan's first collection of stories, set in present-day Africa, make sacrifices and deals that might seem unimaginable to readers in other parts of the world. After finishing this book, I wandered for days staring at my three daughters and countless nephews and nieces, seeing how fragile and dangerous their lives could easily become in a time of war, starvation, and betrayal.

What if even sacrificing our own lives wasn't enough to ensure the survival of our progeny? That is often the case in Akpan's Africa. These five stories -- set in Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Benin -- are all about children and their perilous, confusing lives, their searches for bits of grace and transcendence along with food, family and survival. This link allows a huge, perplexing continent to be known in intimate ways.

The first story, "An Ex-mas Feast," is told by Jigana, an 8-year-old boy living with his parents and siblings in an improvised shack in the slums outside Nairobi. His 12-year-old sister, Maisha, is a veteran prostitute who has amassed a collection of secret treasures inside a locked trunk, which their mother maneuvers around the shack while she tries to take care of her other five children. She sends out the older two with Baby, who is a begging tool, and gives Jigana "New Suntan shoe glue" to kill his hunger. "I watched her decant the kabire into my plastic 'feeding bottle.' . . . The last stream of the gum entering the bottle weakened and braided itself before tapering in midair like an icicle."

Akpan, a Jesuit priest born in Nigeria, teaching now in Zimbabwe after earning his MFA from the University of Michigan, researched the lives of the children he writes about, but no amount of research produces the perfect details and images that he has set down here; only imagination, empathy and a careful ear can accomplish this. The details of street life in Nairobi -- girls who bleach their faces at age 10 to stand on street corners and be picked up by white men and tourists -- and of the way Western ideas have insinuated themselves into every aspect of African life are on convincing display here. These characters speak a lingua franca that changes with each nation, but English words and American capitalism are everywhere.

"No food, tarling," Mama tells Jigana. "We must to finish to call the names of our people." Jigana's mother commands her husband to help consecrate a ceremony that involves holding the coverless Bible inscribed with the names of their relatives, people dead and disappeared due to razed villages, tribal conflicts, mistaken identity and sexual slavery. Her prayer ends with, "Christ, you Ex-mas son, give Jigana a big, intelligent head in school."

In "Fattening for Gabon," an uncle is charged with the care of his niece and nephew when their parents are sickened by AIDS. He plans to sell them into slavery, but, in an agonizing meltdown, he cannot go through with the deal. The language in this story is a mélange as well, in which yearning and tradition seem painfully melded. The nephew, Kotchikpa, who is 10, meets the Gabon trader for the first time in his uncle Fofo Kpee's yard: " 'Smiley Kpee, only two?' the man who brought Fofo exclaimed, disappointed. 'No way, iro o! Where oders?'

" 'Ah non, Big Guy, you go see oders . . . beaucoup,' said Fofo, a chuckle escaping his pinched mouth. He turned to us: " Mes enfants, hey, una no go greet Big Guy?' "

This story is long, but like the other four it manages to capture a whole nation and how that nation has been affected by border strife, AIDS, international peacekeepers, internal tribal conflicts and even family fights.

"Luxurious Hearses" is a journey into a nightmare world in Nigeria, where Muslims in the north are rampaging against Christians who are fleeing to the south where their religion is more dominant and where the inhabitants are killing Muslims. The buses that ply the highways are now thronging with refugees from both sides, including Jubril, a teenage Muslim boy whose hand was recently amputated when he stole food. He's another child caught between worlds, and the world of this bus is huge, with tribal elders, former soldiers, university students and desperate mothers pressing against every window.


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