By Anote Ajeluorou
How do children process traumatic situations the crassness of adult world subjects them? How are the abducted Chibok schoolgirls processing whatever horrors their abductors are putting them through? Are they looking forward to a future of possible freedom? What do they feel about a society that seems to have abandoned them to the insurgent wolves? How do children in Baga and other towns in the North East process the mass murders they witness daily of their parents and siblings?
These are the motivations of author of short story collection on children and Catholic reverend father, Fr. Uwem Akpan in his 2009 book Say You’re One of Them. He was also guest author at Port Harcourt Book Capital 2014 Book-Of-The-Month programme, which held at Presidential Hotel, Port Harcourt last Sunday.
The collection of five stories, an Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club in 2009, deals with children in dire situations in parts of Africa just like the Chibok schoolgirls. The first excerpt the author read is from the story ‘Luxurious Hearses’ in which a young, Moslem faithful, Jubril, submits his right hand to be cut off for stealing a goat, as enshrined in Islamic Sharia. In reading it Fr. Akpan took his audience back in time to kindergarten level.
He asked his audience to imagine themselves as children and then asked them to close their eyes and hold up their right hand with their left. Then he began to read to them, which seemed to transport his audience back in time. If anything else, ‘Luxurious Hearses’ presages current insurgent crisis with children continually falling victim in the world of adult madness.
But Fr. Akpan condemns such religious excess and zeal, and noted that while stealing a goat costs poor Jubril and many of his ilk their right hands, what becomes of politicians who steal billions and impoverish the likes of Jubril to the point of stealing? Therefore, according to him, only the poor bear the brunt of such draconian religious law while the rich ge away unscathed, a situation he attributes to religious hypocrisy.
Fr. Akpan urged his audience not to see Boko Haram insurgency as a northern problem alone. According to him, “What if Port Harcourt is bombed? Who has hijacked Islam and Christianity and turned them against the people? When I was in Lagos parish, our parishioners who ran from violence in the north always asked why they had to lose everything, relations and businesses. So, at that moment what are they feeling? And what happens to those stealing from the treasury?
“Cutting of hand was a big deal. They cut off their hands, then they run to the south. Am I supposed to feed them? Yes, I am supposed to give alms as a Christian, but not like this. And the governors, who sign the order, if we shake them upside down, are they free of corruption? The masses need to rise up.”
Fr. Akpan said although he didn’t start with writing children’s stories, he realised there weren’t stories that dealt with the psychological depth of a child’s feelings in situations of stress. And so, “I wanted to see how a child processes challenges in life he or she faces. What would a child who sees people being slaughtered in Baga think if he survived? He would be traumatised. It was a difficult book to write.
“Each of the stories has the theme of ‘who will be there for you in the final analysis? Who will save you? Who is your neighbor?’ Many of us are so frustrated in this country; things are so complicated. Students in universities are busy ‘hussling’ to survive; the girls take to prostitution. These things happen and we don’t even talk about them any more; it’s a charade”.
Fr. Akpan then took on leadership, both political and religious, as bane of Nigeria’s development, noting that wrong people seem to be the only ones in power in both spheres. According to him, “This is what happens if you don’t vote the right people to ensure good education for the kids”.
The Catholic priest tasked moderate MosIem clerics to speak up against the insurgent crisis. According to him, “Moderate Moslems have to step up. If criticism is coming only from outside, they can become defensive. Some Christians are not helping matters. We need to say this is not how it should be. Nigeria is not a country with radical Islam. A senator went to Egypt to marry a minor. I’m calling on human rights activists to step up and speak against these things”.
However, the priest isn’t one to shy away from shinning his lens inward into his Christian fold and the anomalies going on in it. “Even Christians are not free of these charade,” he noted. “The problem of Nigeria is not just Islam or Boko Haram. In the south, what has been going on? Where is the oil money? As a pastor or priest, if you’re not careful you can be co-opted into it. Pastors bless those who steal our money. Whatever religion has done to Nigeria, I can’t believe it; you can’t believe it.”
A student wanted to know if military regime isn’t preferable since civilians do not seem to have fared much better. But Fr. Akpan disagreed and emphatically said, “We don’t want military in power. We had them before and saw what they did. Until civilians came I didn’t know this country had so much money. Civilians will get things right some day. You can’t talk about anything during military; you can’t vote. We’re better off in a civilian regime than a military one.
“My disappointment is that the military should be fighting Boko Haram but they are not equipped enough to do so. So what happened to the budget for the military? Everybody is hurting in this country – North or South – the poor people are suffering. Ironically, the rich don’t see themselves as Northerners or Southerners”.
FOR Fr. Akpan the stories in his book still play themselves out all over Africa. He said he felt so traumatised while writing ‘Fattening for Gabon’, a story on trafficking of young women for prostitution, so much so that he had to abandon the story for four months before he could come back to it.
“While writing ‘Fattening for Gabon’ I was so pained by it I abandoned it for four months,” he said. “Prostitution is everywhere, but our leaders have performed so poorly. If our government is working, these evils won’t happen. The international community is also to be held responsible for taking custody of stolen monies from African leaders. Governments out in Europe collude in the corruption in Africa because they use the money to develop their societies over there. Rich countries know how to protect themselves; the rich know how to take care of themselves. For instance, no child of a rich man was ever killed in the Akwa Ibom child witch cases back then before it was stopped.
“Only constant vigilance and discipline can help curb corruption. Nigeria is a basket case, where everything crumbles. We want to see the foundation of nationhood in place.”
Clara George, one of the panel of four student reviewers of the book, read an excerpt from the title story, ‘Say You’re One of Them’.
To the students, Fr. Akpan, who had his mother among the audience, had these words, “Ask yourself, what do you want to be? Pass your stupid exams first before any other thing. Read widely and committedly. It may be writing, painting, engineering or blowing the trumpet. Ask God to reveal to you what He loves you to excel in. what is it He has equipped in you? But you have to study very hard”.
On the right way to raise up a child now in the era of multi-media, Fr. Akpan admitted that it “was very challenging indeed growing up today as a child, especially in the cities. In the village, everybody looks after and no video games or internet or phone. In our time, to ride a bicycle was our biggest ambition play. It was easier back then to raise a child; it’s very complicated now. Parents, spend time with your children; talk with them. Students should obey the Ten Commandments. Teachers are so ill-equipped they something extra to keep body and soul together”.
Director of Rainbow Book Club and Port Harcourt Book Capital 2014, Mrs. Koko Kalango, said bring Fr. Akpan was timely, as it extended the scope of the first host of Sub-Sahara Africa’s book capital. She said the stories resonate with the times as they also call on leaders to step up efforts to address issues plaguing the continent’s children so they could grow up leaders of tomorrow.