Sunday, July 25, 2010

Say You're One of Them / Uwem Akpan

Say You're One of Them.

A collection of short stories written by Uwem Akpan, a Jesuit priest from Nigeria. Fictional stories about children in Africa that are so heart-wrenching they become real. A man writing about children. But a man, an African man, who has captured the heart of Africa's plight through these children's stories. And made their plight our own.

They're not easy to read. Certainly don't read them all at once. Homeless children sniffing shoe glue on the streets of Kenya. Been there, seen that. But - if I'm honest with myself - never allowed myself to think of them as human beings until now. Rwanda. Genocide. Again, not easy reads. But about people who could really be us.

The one that completely shocked me was set in Nigeria. Just like a second book, Little Bee, written by Chris Cleave. Another man, a white English man this time, who manages to somehow channel this little black Nigerian girl and make her world our own.

The thing is. This is our world. It is happening in real-time as we sit in front of our computer screens or play with our children at the pool. And we know nothing about it.

Did YOU know there were oil wars in Nigeria? Did YOU know the Muslim North was fighting the Christian South - and that the oil in the south, I really didn't bother to pay attention. Because it's the same old story all the time.

That's why we need books like this.

BP and Shell and Mobil have been destroying the environment for decades. The only problem recently was that BP had the misfortune to do so in a rich, white country. No oil company has had to pay Africans for their destroyed land and rivers, for the loss of homes, towns and yes, the brutal slaughter of people who mattered so little that they were able to kill them without the rest of the world even caring.

Makes you really want to read these books, doesn't it? But I promise you - the good thing about these books, the reason these authors are great, is that they don't preach and philosophize the way I do. They let you know a person and hear their story, without pity, without sympathy.

They tell it honestly, from the minds of children, and let you take what you want from the telling.

They are fantastic stories first a foremost. Because they DON'T rub your face in it.

The first person I passed "Little Bee" onto was Lynn. Unwarned. (And the thing is - it tells you on the cover not to reveal the ending to anyone - it is a journey from beginning to end that must be read and absorbed alone without discussion.)

Poor Lynn. Her words (she worked for a newspaper in South Africa and is no slouch with the writing!) :
Little Bee is the most riveting story I have read in a while - I keep wondering what happened to her...... left me feeling apprehensive, and angry...
Thank you so much for letting me read her story..... ahh it broke my heart and challenged my own conscious...... you see I still drive my car around, would I give it up? since the petroleum I purchase is probably linked to the destruction and blood of others? 'Yes, yes yes,' my heart cries ! Then what? Buy an electric car? Can we afford it?
Next option - which brand of diesel /petrol could I support that is not linked to any evil? According to Forbes Fortune 500 - Mobil, Shell and BP are listed as the second, third and fourth richest companies in the world...... only beaten by Walmart listed first. Shell and BP are definitely in the Delta and I do not know much about Mobil and their history ...... Thomas doubts their are any oil companies that are not tainted with blood and destruction in some way .......

If you are a global economic power it is all about the money - you own the politicians, pretty much a licence to do what you like, start wars, displace (indigenous) communities, destroy the environment and the list continues..... our greed is not only linked to oil - how many brands are ethical when only the bottom line counts?... and marketers try and own the consumer, we live our lives consuming, complaining and ignoring the little voice when it tries to remind us of what we are accountable for when we support unethical companies by purchasing their products or working for them...... So what do we do? Go back and live the life of a plain lady like your friend? Or live the life of a renounciate and find a cave in the Himalayas ...... So how can we live an ethical life in the world of consumerism?

And, since the book made us feel so good, we of course want to share it with the rest of the group!

How's that for a bunch of stay-at-home mommies supposedly spending our mornings painting our nails and the afternoons taking it easy with the kids at the pool?!

What can we do? How are we, each of us, individually, going to save the world? How are we going to keep smiling and living happy lives when confronted with the atrocities around us? The list is long: oil, war, poverty, racism, can we live with ourselves knowing we are doing nothing about them?

Lynn again - with an answer -

'Mommy can you play with me?' ..... there's a start to my question this morning.... be a good mother, buy local, consume less, live a simple life, try and make a difference where I can .........

And Michael. Man in the Mirror. We can start by becoming better people ourselves. We can recognize our flaws - our own pettiness, our own selfishness, our own unfair prejudices and work to become more compassionate ourselves.

We can learn to recognize ourselves in others.

So that when we DO see somewhere where we can make a difference, we will help someone with a wheelchair, or someone who has fallen on the sidewalk. Love the neighbor's child - who really is quite the little monster - as our own.

I don't know that smiling and helping your elderly neighbor with the groceries is going to do anything about the atrocities in the world. But I do know it's a start.

Say You're One of Them. Uwem Akpan.

Little Bee. Chris Cleave.

Do read them. They're a look in the mirror.

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