Actor, musician and activist Derrick Ashong traditionally eschews high-profile portrayals of the plight of children in Africa. When he read Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them, all that changed. Learn why he was forever moved by Akpan's collection of stories.
Most times I change the channel when I see African children on my television screen. The images are formulaic—poverty stricken brown babies, bellies swollen, faces scowled in sadness—hopeless, save for the potential grace that a "dollar-a-day" might provide. I balk at the images, not because I begrudge these children those dollars for food and shelter, but because as an African it offends my sensibilities to be constantly saddled with only one side of what I know to be a complex and crucially important story.
How many of us know that for that same "dollar-a-day" you could send an African child to college, and he could someday not only feed himself and his family, but perhaps even be a part of building a society "no-longer-in-need-of-donations?" African's don't make these commercials. We're just the cast in a story someone else is telling.
I read Uwem Akpan's debut novel Say You're One of Them and was confronted with an African story told on a "channel" I could not change. Akpan writes a compelling, near-hypnotic text, introducing the lives of African children negotiating five experiences that almost defy description. Written in a seamless blending of literary English and colloquial banter, Akpan tackles both the profound and the profane through the uncensored lens of childhood innocence.
The author goes beyond the maudlin images of babies covered in flies, and does what no 60 second commercial can—he gives genuine humanity to these kids. He takes us into their hearts and allows us to peer out into the world as they see it. In so doing he makes these fictional children a part of us, and the proximity of their breath, their sense of wonder and their indomitable hope make them more than statistics. Their aspirations cause our spirits to rise, tentative with hope for resolution, but fearful of the dark realities that lie beyond the limits of a child's comprehension. And when those realities manifest, it hurts.
The challenges facing Africa require solutions greater than charity. Every one of these solutions is predicated upon an accurate and adequate evaluation of the root problems. Say You're One of Them presents in the simple cadence of a child's voice the complex political, economic, religious, ethnic and moral issues that roil beneath superficial evaluations of "African poverty." Not every child in this book is poor, not every child without loving and dutiful parents. But every one of them is caught in a tide of events and circumstances that even we as adults struggle to truly understand.
I couldn't help but take this book personally. Not only because I am African, but because I am human. To hear a report of the slaughter of thousands in a land far away, does not carry the resonance of a single story of the life and loss of one whom you have come to care about. Uwem Akpan makes the struggles of Africa come home to dwell in the heart of the reader. In so doing he gives us an opportunity to truly care about the children of Africa.
Derrick N. Ashong, or DNA as he is sometimes known, is a Ghana, West Africa native and has dedicated his life to building bridges between the fields of business, media, technology, youth culture, pop culture and politics. Ashong has lectured on five continents on the use of media as a tool for human development, including recent talks at the London School of Economics, King's College (Cambridge), the Reconciliation Forum in Washington, D.C., the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and before UK Parliament on the subject of "The Obama Generation." He is a member of the internationally recognized Next Generation Leadership Forum and a participant in the Arts & Entertainment task force of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. Ashong is a Harvard graduate and currently resides in Los Angeles where he is the leader of the band Soulfège.
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Published on October 28, 2009