Reviewed by Spencer Dew
Cross-country passengers on a Luxury Bus stare at television screens relaying live news coverage of massacres: "The audio was so clear that the refugees could hear the slurp of machetes slashing into flesh and the final cries of the victims." Adding insult to absurdity, new decrees from "the federal democratic government" are also announced, including a ban on the transport of corpses. The army is authorized to stop any bus being used for this purpose.
The people fleeing violence on this particular bus are not dead yet, but as they vent their fears, giving voices to the fragmented sources of the conflict devouring their country -- religious hatred and fear, ancient ethnic tensions, the legacy of random colonial border-drawing, economic inequalities linked with oil money and greedy politicians, the strain of wars in surrounding countries -- there is no reason to expect they will have happy lives.
Indeed, Say You're One of Them is not a happy book. This is not so much due to the excess of bodies set aflame, hacked apart, sold, bought, or mutilated as it is to the feeling that such violence is unstoppable, uncontrollable. While individual characters give voice to specific grievances and fears, they exist in a world so defined by the ubiquitous bearing down of violence that violence seems the only response. In an Africa where even a "multiethnic, multireligious city" can, in a flash, become "the corpse capital of the world," there is no real hope for a future. In story after story, minor personal transformations are met with disaster.
Aboard the Luxury Bus, for instance, there's a young Muslim with dreams of a Shariah-run society, anxious about his proximity to infidels, women, and television. As the story progresses, however, he finds that "this journey had permanently altered his fanatic worldview," a fact of little use when the time comes for him to be butchered by the very fellow passengers with whom he’s achieved some empathetic understanding. As the phrasing above indicates, the writing can be heavy-handed at times, but for Uwem Akpan -- a Jesuit priest originally from Nigeria and now teaching in Zimbabwe -- this book is an ethical project, an attempt to reveal the complexity of human conditions that would otherwise be ignored.
Akpan, however, sidesteps the traditional cry of theodicy -- Where is God in the midst of such horror and suffering? -- because he recognizes that the idea of religion is, in fact, a prime motive for the swinging of machetes. In his story about the Rwandan genocide, a young girl must throw her body over the family’s glow-in-the-dark crucifix in order to escape detection by a mob. While one practical lesson here, as conveyed in the title, is that ethnic and religious identities must be concealed or discarded in order to stay alive, Akpan is not naïve about this, either. The girl concealing the cross is half Tutsi, half Hutu. The mob that passes by the girl is a retaliatory Tutsi mob, hunting a mob of Hutu murderers. Yet on their way they set fire to a Hutu house, a house where, yes, killings had taken place, but a house that is also sheltering Tutsis in the ceiling. The sound of prayers segues to the sounds of screaming. Violence, whatever logic it follows, is ultimately random in its application.
Say You're One of Them is not a book of moral ambiguity, but rather a hard-edged homily. There are clear villains and, moreover, well-defined sins. On the constructive side, these tales revolve around nearly platitudinous truths. As the young Muslim on the bus thinks, "This was not the time to think about Islam or Christianity or God too much…It was a time just to be a human being and to celebrate that. What mattered now was how to get people to lay down their weapons and biases, how to live together." Which means that, ultimately, the problem is how to get people to get over their fear of each other, their fear of getting to know each other, their fear of acknowledging both the differences between them and the humanity they share.
This is, of course, no easy task, and Akpan doesn't presume to articulate a prescription for it. Rather, what he offers in these five stories are the stories themselves, exemplifications of what such a process might involve. At times the alien can overwhelm—the people in this book do live in a very different world than we do, speaking strange dialects and blends of language, killing hunger with huffs of shoe polish or sharing an impoverished feast of zebra intestine -- but Akpan aims to give human faces and voices to the roiling particulars of African crises, showing fear and hatred as human traits that, while universal, must be overcome.
Books mentioned in this post