THOUGHTS ON UWEM AKPAN’s ‘AN EX-MAS FEAST’
by Su’eddie AGEMA
The name, Uwem Akpan doesn’t sound unfamiliar to a lot of readers and indeed, writers. However, getting people who are familiar with his works is not so easy. This might be because access to his work is not so easy…especially in countries like Nigeria. When you do, the price might not be so funny. It might be for some other reason. However, this does not reduce the quality of his work and their beauty. His collection of short stories based on children in different parts of the African continent has been a toast and won several hearts, as the Reverend Gentleman – no, not the name of a story or anything but Uwem Akpan’s profession (yes, Uwem Akpan is a Jesuit Priest) is a master craftsman.
One of the stories is ‘An Ex-mas Feast’ set in Nairobi, Kenya. It is a touching story narrated by Jigani, a street kid who is the first son of his family. The family live in a shack on the streets. The family which is near – okay, completely poverty stricken has every member working to make money. The father is a pick pocket; Maisha is a prostitute; Naema and Jigani go begging; even the ‘baby’ of the house is co-opted as an accessory to get sympathy from beggars. The mother monitors everything and makes sure that all the units perform right. Maisha is somewhat independent and not on talking terms with her parents though she brings back her proceeds to support the house. The whole family hopes to have Jigani go to school. It is what their entirety is centred around. So, the begging money and Maisha’s proceeds are all geared towards having funds to meet that end.
At this point, the whole tale doesn’t seem so strange or abnormal till we get to discover that the shack this family stays in is so small that the sleeping father in it would have his toes outside! Maisha, who is the eldest child, is twelve years old. Naema, who is younger, has a boyfriend… The parents have no control over what Maisha does and are even happy when they discover that she has white customers who drive in a Jaguar. Well, due to Maisha’s help, the family’s debt is forgiven. This makes the mother to love her daughter more and sing her praises.
The highpoint of the tale is probably when Naema returns in the rain, dripping with baby, looking all worn out and tired from her begging exercise with a simple message: ‘Maisha is moving out tomorrow…Full time’
There is shock and sadness everywhere for ‘No matter how rootless and cheap street life might be, you could still be broken by departures.’ In the midst of poverty, disharmony and all, there is the spirit and bond of kinship that does not want any one member to leave. Each family member feels bad and does different things to take their mind off Maisha’s leaving which her father insists would not take place. He even ties a trunk of hers, which has been lying for a long while in the shack. Meanwhile, Jigani feels guilty that he is the cause of his family disintegrating and decides not to go to school again. He informs his family, to their consternation. Despite threats from his father, he remains firm. Maisha comes back eventually with a feast of food. Her father runs to untie the trunk. Later, Maisha reconciles with her mother and they cry. Her father and mother insist that she should not go. Jigani threatens that he wouldn’t go to school if she decides to. She sleeps over it. In the end, some other events take place that leave a most memorable end to the tale that shows the strength of love and kinship that exists in families and how the actions of one person can affect the destinies of others forever.
Uwem Akpan’s story stands tall in terms of narration and fluidity as the story easily moves from one point to another. Its weak point might be said to be the weak start it has which might make some readers drop the tale. He however quickly spices this up by introducing conflict and a fight. The diction of the short story is simple though the infusion of some local words (like machokosh and shuka which are not explained) lengthens the reading speed of the work and would dampen the tale for many readers while leaving others a bit confused. This would also slow down the pace of the story. While one can easily blame the writer, it is notable that in some cases, these words would not have a ready interpretation in English which would leave the writer in a dilemma resulting in the words coming out like that. Furthermore, in some other cases, describing the words would kill the flow of the story and act as some sort of obstacle. In other areas, it might just be the writer giving the reader a little extra job which is not so wrong. As such, we also have some words like ‘kabire.’ However, it does not kill the story as a clever reader would try to fix such words into the context of what is being said and go on, then maybe check some resource for the meanings. In some other instances though, there are the presence of these ‘foreign’ (non-English) words that are quickly followed by English translations that would leave a reader more learned. Some examples include words and phrases like, Malaya (whore), Asante suna (which is a form of appreciation similar to ‘thank you’). Others we just find out by context e.g Bwana which is a term of respect for an elderly person or head of the family – yeah, sometimes, you wonder if you are right at all. There are also some expressions like Haki, Kai, which are simply expressions of surprise and the like. Elsewhere, we find mispronunciation of some words like tarling for darling; imachine for imagine; and fuunny for funny. Indeed, these mispronunciations are funny and leave us smiling J. Some readers might also find faults (or fall in love) with use of harsh words like ‘fuck’.
There is no mistaking that Uwem Akpan does a good job in the rendering of this tale which is quite realistic. Through his technique of narration and language, his tale comes alive. In all, he succeeds in showing a different side to Christmas that so many people take for granted. He brings a new face to poverty showing people who do not just fold their arms but fight strongly to get out of it. ‘An Ex-mas Feast’ celebrates the family and reminds us to take life and family more seriously and count our blessings more. Indeed, to remember that we are each other’s feast and one person’s actions can change the course of events of several others, forever. Let me give a warning that though this story is about children, and family with the narrator and the viewpoint coming from a child, it should not be mistaken as a children tale as the language is somewhat strong. There is also a strong imagery employed by the writer in the tale that wouldn’t really do well to a normal child.
With this view to this single tale out of many others in his collection, it leaves one with thoughts of rushing to the nearest bookshop to get the whole collection. God help us.