The sun had gone down on Ex-mas evening. Bad weather had stormed the seasons out of order, and Nairobi sat in a low flood, the light December rain droning on our tarpaulin roof. I was sitting on the floor of our shack, which stood on a cement slab at the end of an alley, leaning against the back of an old brick shop. Occasional winds swelled the brown polythene walls, The floor was nested with cushions that I had scavenged from a dump on Biashara Street. At night, we rolled up the edge of the tarpaulin to let in the glow of the shop’s security lights. A board, which served as our door lay by the shop wall. -From An Ex-Mas Feast-
Uwem Akpan released his debut short story collection titled Say You’re One of Them in June 2008. An Ex-Mas Feast is one of the stories in that collection – although I read it as a stand alone story in The New Yorker. Jigana, an eight year old who is the eldest boy of his family, narrates the story. He reveals the horrifying living conditions of a street family who rely on their eldest daughter’s income from prostitution to feed them. Jigana represents hope for his family who want him to go to school and become educated. Most of the story takes place on Christmas Day as the family waits for Maisha to return from her work on the streets. The mother offers her children glue to sniff to stave off hunger and reads aloud the names of relatives in an attempt to celebrate the holiday.
Mama took out our family Bible, which we had inherited from Baba’s father, to begin our Ex-mas worship. The front cover had peeled off, leaving a dirty page full of our relatives’ names, dead and living. She read them out. Baba’s late father had insisted that all the names of our family be included in recognition of the instability of street life. -From An Ex-Mas Feast-
Thematically this short story examines survival, family bonds, and the idea of education as hope to elevate oneself from poverty. It raises questions about global awareness of what is happening to families and children on the streets of Nairobi. When Jigana tells of the rich white men driving a Jaguar who “hire” Maisha for a night of sex, the reader feels stunned by the gap which lies between wealth and poverty.
Akpan’s writing is stark, shocking and painful. The story, narrated by a child, leaves the reader feeling brutalized. Bookmarks Magazine reviewed Akpan’s collection and writes:
Without flinching or lecturing, Akpan shares the almost unimaginable horrors that threaten Africa’s most vulnerable children. A Jesuit priest, he also evokes the love, grace, and other spiritual values that can emerge from the fight for survival. -From Sept/Oct edition (No. 36) of Bookmarks Magazine, page 32–
Although not easy to read, I highly recommend this short story if only to raise awareness of what is happening to children living on the streets in Africa.