Oprah and Uwem
When a book is chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, both author and publisher rejoice. Selection by Oprah, whom many credit with helping to reshape American reading habits, guarantees stratospheric sales. With her most recent selection, Say You’re One of Them, a collection of short stories by Uwem Akpan, S.J., there was rejoicing in Jesuit circles as well. Ms. Winfrey announced the surprise pick—the first time she has chosen a book of short fiction—during a recent taping of her show in Central Park in New York City. When the Nigerian Jesuit’s book was published last year, it became an immediate bestseller, garnering enthusiastic reviews (among them Am. 8/15/08). Ms. Winfrey said the book made her “gasp.”
Father Akpan wrote for America all the way back in 1996, with a short article entitled “A Nigerian Roman Catholic Something.” There he deftly described navigating among a welter of different cultures and backgrounds: his own Annang ethnic group, his Nigerian nationality, his Catholic faith and his Western-influenced education. “It is my hope,” he wrote by way of conclusion, “that I will reconcile my African and Western inheritance, my histories.” He has already helped others move toward that reconciliation. His luminous stories, some of which have also been published in The New Yorker, have helped many Westerners begin to understand the challenges faced by young Africans, as well as their remarkable resilience. After Ms. Winfrey made her announcement, Entertainment Weekly caught up with Father Akpan. Was another book in the offing? “Not yet,” he said, “My parish has been very busy.”
Dialogue With the Stars
“In this place, I see almost a metaphor of the observatory’s mission: In the church, close to the pope, but on the border with the world, open to dialogue with everyone, with those who believe and those who don’t believe,” said José Gabriel Funes, S.J., on the occasion of the Vatican Observatory’s move from the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo to new premises at the edge of the papal villa.
For Father Funes “everyone” includes even aliens. Although establishing contact with aliens may be very difficult, Father Funes explained that there is no opposition between belief in the existence of aliens and belief in God. He added that the science of astronomy can be at the service of dialogue in many ways. It helps us understand that “all the people of the earth are under the same sky and gaze upon the same heavens.” The Argentinean astronomer explained that “it is obvious that today you cannot do research without collaboration. One country on its own cannot build a huge telescope: it is necessary to work with other people, and with other religions and cultures as well.”
In order to mark the International Year of Astronomy, an exposition on telescopes will open at the Vatican Museums on Oct. 15. In addition, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will host a congress on astrobiology from Nov. 6 to 11 that will examine the search for life in the universe.
Grim Subject, Good News
Finally some good(ish) news to report for a change. Ten thousand fewer children are dying each day than were perishing in 1990, according to a report from Unicef released last month. Unicef says the number of children who succumb to disease, hunger or contaminated water before they reach the age of 5 has declined to “just” 24,000 each day. That may not seem cause for much celebration, but the figure represents a 30 percent reduction over 20 years, an achievement that offers a glimmer of hope that the somewhat parsimonious investments made by industrialized powers so far as part of the Millennium Development Goals are paying off and saving lives.
The new figure brings the world closer to its M.D.G. target of reducing the 1990 level of under-5 mortality by two-thirds by 2015, but this progress can be reversed by the stroke of a budget-cutting pen. And it cannot be ignored that thousands of children are still dying every day from an array of preventable causes, including common afflictions like diarrhea. Every year 4 million newborns die within 28 days of birth, and maternal mortality in pregnancy and childbirth has improved only slightly in two decades.
Save the Children argues that the next step toward dramatically lower childhood mortality would be the eradication not of disease but of health service “user fees.” These tiny charges, introduced in the 1980s and 90s, often in response to International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending requirements, are as little as $1 or $2 per clinic visit, but they are still high enough in the developing world—where those figures represent a day’s income—to block young mothers from prenatal services and keep children from basic care that can prevent life-threatening conditions. On Sept. 23 a $5.3 billion U.N.-administered financing package was approved to roll back user fees in Malawi, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nepal and Burundi. Now such fees need to be eliminated in the rest of the developing world, a small investment from the West that promises a big payoff in reduced childhood mortality.