“Baptizing the Gun”
by Uwem Akpan
from the January 4, 2010 issue of The New Yorker
One thing that stood out to me before I read the story: Uwem Akpan is a priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in Lagos, Nigeria. I’ve never heard of him before.
His story is good — and it involves a Catholic priest in Lagos. It starts out with a matter-of-fact violent scene when a thief is captured, doused in petrol, and then lit on fire. All present cheer — justice! It reminded me of a similar event I witnessed in northern Brazil. There a thief had stolen a purse and a car gunned it until it ran him down, right in front of me. Miraculously the thief managed to get on his feet again, and it looked like his feet weren’t even touching the ground as he ran away. It’s a kind of brutality I am glad I don’t witness where I live now, but as shocking as it was for me in Brazil, it was rather matter-of-fact. In this story, the priest really just wants to get back to his home in a safer area.
A problem comes when the priest’s car stalled and won’t start back up. A man with a gun-shaped bulge in his pocket comes to help and then jumps in the car for the ride. The priest naturally fears for his life. This is Nigeria in 1999, a bit before their first elections in decades, but democracy as I know it is not in practice. The drive becomes a horrific series of police and militant checkpoints, everyone seeking a bribe and then coverage for the bribe. Where the priest once feared his life, eventually he just wants it all to end.
This is a well paced story. Never did I feel the desire to put it down, though it was a bit longer than many New Yorker stories. The intensity built nicely and believably, and the priest’s emotional fluctuations were well supported. All in all, a great way to start the 2010.
Feel free to share your thoughts below. In discussing such a short piece, I don’t think anyone should feel bad about putting in spoilers.