Uwem Akpan: Writing for the Children of Africa


How do you bring balance to your life, and the world? Colin Lowther and Robin Basselin look at the life and work of writer Uwem Akpan.

Transcript


Voice 1 

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Colin Lowther.

Voice 2 

And I’m Robin Basselin. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1

It is Christmas night in Nairobi, Kenya. Eight year old Jigana sits close together with his family. They live in a very poor area of the city. All around them, people are celebrating the Christmas holiday. But Jigana’s family is not. They are cold. And they are hungry. Jigana’s mother does not have food to feed her five children.

Voice 2 

But then, Jigana’s 12-years-old sister arrives home. She opens her bag. She has money. And she has brought food. Jigana’s sister has been working all night. She works to pay for food and for Jigana’s school. But it is not good work. She has sex for money. Jigana does not want his sister to work in such a way. But his sister is doing it to help him.

Voice 1 

Jigana and his sister are not real people. They are characters in a story called “An Ex-Mas Feast.” Uwem Akpan wrote this story. Like all of Akpan’s writings, “An Ex-Mas Feast” tells about children living in a difficult situation. Akpan’s stories are not real. But they tell real truths. Today’s Spotlight is on the writer Uwem Akpan.

Voice 2 

Uwem Akpan was born in Ikot Akpan Eda in the country of Nigeria. He had a happy life as a child. He lived with his mother, father, three brothers and many other family members. They all lived together in one big area.

Voice 1 

Both of Akpan’s parents were teachers. They loved stories. His mother would often tell him stories. Akpan would also listen to Bible stories at church. And after church, he would sit for hours listening to older men tell stories in the village. All these stories influenced Akpan. They made him want to tell his own stories. The stories of the Bible also strongly influenced Akpan’s faith. He wanted to share God’s story with people. So, he decided to become a priest.

Voice 2 

In 2000, Uwem moved to Nairobi, Kenya.  In Kenya, he studied to become a Jesuit priest. While he was there, he met many children who lived on the streets. Akpan was amazed by how strong the children were. They lived in very difficult situations, but they were not defeated.

Voice 1 

Akpan began spending time with children who lived on the streets in Nairobi. He wanted to talk with the children and learn more about their lives. Akpan met a boy named Richard. Although life was difficult for Richard, he was honest and gentle. Other children respected Richard. After a few months, Richard disappeared. Akpan never saw him again.  He does not know where Richard went. But Richard influenced him deeply.

Voice 2 

In 2003, Akpan became a Jesuit priest. But he could not forget about the street children he met in Kenya - particularly Richard. So, he decided he would write about their stories. Akpan wrote whenever he could.  But he decided he wanted to concentrate even more on his writing. So, in 2004, Akpan began a writing program at the University of Michigan, in the United States. Eileen Pollack is the head of the writing program at University of Michigan. Right away, she recognized his writing talent. She told CNN,

Voice 3 

“His stories were about the everyday problems of a boy living with his family on the streets in Nairobi, Kenya. They were about the horrible suffering of a Rwandan girl whose mother was from the Tutsi tribe and father was from the Hutu tribe. Akpan had what writers call ‘material.’  But he was also able to hear and write the way people speak. He also had beautiful words to describe his characters’ not too beautiful lives.”

Voice 1 

Akpan spent two years in the writing program at University of Michigan. He worked very hard. And he kept writing. In 2008, he finished his first book. It is called "Say You’re One of Them".  It is a book of short stories. The story from the beginning of this program is in that book.

Voice 2 

Each of the stories in Say You’re One of Them is from a different country in Africa. And all of them are about children who are victims. Akpan writes the stories from the child’s view. The stories shows what the child thinks and feels.  Akpan spoke with the New Yorker magazine.  He talked about why he wanted to write stories about children from all over Africa.  He said,

Voice 4 

“I would like to see a book about how children are living in these endless conflicts in Africa... It is scary and painful. And the world is not looking. I think stories let people meet people they would not usually meet. I want the world to hear these children’s voices. I want the world to see their faces.”

Voice 1 

When Akpan writes, he does not write for just one group of people. He tries to write for people all over Africa and the world. Akpan told the New York Times newspaper,

Voice 4 

“People in Nigeria do not always know what is happening in Rwanda. And people in Rwanda do not always know what happens in Nigeria. Children are sold as slaves in Nigeria and Benin. But you could live in Nigeria or Benin and not know that such an evil thing is happening.”

Voice 2 

It took Akpan 8 years to write Say You’re One of Them. The book was difficult to write. But these were stories that he thought must be told. Akpan told Oprah magazine,

Voice 4 

“In many ways, it was painful to write this book. In many ways, I also enjoyed writing it. But I needed balance to finish it. I always prayed, ‘Lord, do not let this pain or joy destroy me.’”

Voice 1 

Today, Akpan continues to be both a priest and writer. He believes his two jobs are connected. However, finding balance can be difficult. Akpan told the New Yorker magazine,

Voice 4

“I like to be a priest. I like to be a writer. Both give me energy. The teachings of the Catholic Church make it clear that the joys and pain of the world are the joys and pains of the Church. The Jesuits have a rich tradition of writing and helping people in need… Sometimes it is difficult, but I hope that I can balance being a priest and a writer.”

Voice 1 

The writer of this program was Lauren Anders. The producer was Michio Ozaki.  The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called “Uwem Akpan: Writing for the Children of Africa”.

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program.  Goodbye!

Question:

What stories would you tell about the place where you grew up?

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
kenhieuloilam
said on March 22, 2014

We build for beautiful good things. We build for peace. We wish beautiful good things. We wish peace. We struggle with difficulties. We struggle with not good things. We wish a beautiful good world. We go to beautiful good things. Each of our lives is a story. There is the good. There is the evil. We choose beautiful good things.

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ANIBAL
said on October 06, 2015

Balance is so important in our lives.The storyteller and the priest…..Two difficult careers.It is difficult to have success in both without love.He is a very energetic man.Sometimes we have to choose two roles in situations like the above related.Many men are father and mother, and many women are father and mother for their children.I respect these people in such situation.They are brave.

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msluan
said on March 13, 2017

He is a nice soul. Both to be a priest and writer.