The Thing Around Your Neck

The Thing Around Your Neck A Private Experience Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Chika and an unnamed woman climb into a small store through the window. Chika is trembling and wants to thank the woman for grabbing her and leading her to this hiding place. Chika and the woman talk about how they lost things as they fled. Chika lost her Burberry purse; the woman lost a necklace of plastic beads.
The items the two women lost indicate their relative socioeconomic status: Chika is wealthy enough to own a designer purse, while the unnamed woman's prized possession is a cheap piece of plastic jewelry. However, they both seem to mourn the loss of these items with equal emotion.
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Chika can tell the woman is a Hausa Muslim, and thinks that it's obvious that she herself is an Igbo Christian. The narrator says that Chika will soon learn that as she and the woman sit in the store, Hausa Muslims are hacking and clubbing Igbo Christians outside. Chika thanks the woman for leading her to the store, and the woman says that this store is safe. Chika agrees, though she knows nothing about riots. She'd only ever attended a pro-democracy rally at the university with her sister Nnedi.
Chika primarily notices the differences between herself and this woman. Chika views herself as being wholly different than her companion; she knows little about how to insure her safety during a riot. The narrative style of this story reinforces this sense of separation and difference as it shifts from describing the experience in the store and what's happening outside. In a way, this sense of disconnection from the violent reality of one’s immediate surroundings reflects “Cell One,” when Nnamabia would dramatize his experiences in prison as if they were part of a story, and not happening to real people.
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Chika had been in the market buying oranges while Nnedi looked at groundnuts when people suddenly started shouting in several languages that someone had been killed and a riot was starting. Chika ran into an alley and the woman grabbed her. Chika and the woman stand quietly in the store and listen to people running outside.
The description of the many languages gives the impression that moments before the riot began, people from a variety of backgrounds were coexisting without issue. At this point, with only this knowledge, the violence of the riot seems particularly senseless and tragic.
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The narrator says that later, Chika will see burned cars and discover that the riot began when a Christian man drove over a Koran on the road. The Muslim men nearby drug the man out of his car and cut off his head. The woman invites Chika to join her in sitting on her wrapper on the ground. Chika resists, but the woman says that they'll be in the store for a long time. Chika says that she doesn't know where Nnedi is, and the woman says that she's safe.
In addition to reinforcing the differences between Chika and the woman, the narrative style continues to create a feeling of senselessness as it shifts from telling the reader what actually happened to what Chika personally experiences. The woman is a voice of reason and knowledge here; it appears as though she's done this before.
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The narrator explains that later, Chika will walk around with a photo of Nnedi, but she'll never find her. In the present, Chika tells the woman that she and Nnedi are visiting their aunt on a school vacation. She says that she's studying medicine and Nnedi is studying political science. Chika wonders if the woman knows what "university" means, and wonders too if she's only talking about university so she can pretend that Nnedi is safe. She realizes that she believes the riot shouldn't affect Nnedi or herself; riots only happen to other people.
Though both Chika and the woman are Nigerian, Chika thinks of herself as wholly different from the woman. In her mind, the woman is someone who regularly experiences riots, while Chika and Nnedi are people who should be exempt from such violence. This is an act of depersonalization on Chika's part; it allows her to view people like this woman as "other," and as a homogenous group separate from herself.
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The woman asks Chika what her aunt does, and says that Chika's aunt is also safe. Chika says she can't believe the riot is happening, and the woman says the riot is evil. Chika wishes Nnedi were here to explain that riots happen when religion and ethnicity are politicized. She feels guilty when she wonders if the woman is capable of understanding that.
From Chika's descriptions, Nnedi isn't necessarily knowledgeable about riots through experience; her expertise comes from studying political theory. But because of her lived experience, the Hausa woman can conceptualize the riots much more succinctly and in a more human way.
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The woman asks Chika if she's seeing "sick people" yet, and Chika explains that she is. The woman says that she sells onions, and Chika expresses hope that the riots won't destroy the market stalls. The woman says matter-of-factly that the riots always destroy the market.
The text confirms that for the woman, riots are simply a fact of life. Chika is learning that Nnedi's theoretical descriptions allowed her to separate herself from people like the woman, even as she is supposedly understanding them.
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The woman says that her nipple burns like pepper. She removes her bra and offers her breasts to Chika. Chika remembers her pediatrics rotation and how embarrassed she was last week examining a little boy with a heart murmur. Chika examines the woman's cracked nipples and asks the woman if she has a baby. The woman says her baby is a year old. Chika tells the woman to use lotion on her nipples after nursing. The woman says this is her fifth child, but her first time experiencing cracked nipples. Chika lies and says that her own mother experienced the same thing with her sixth child, but thinks that her mother only has two children and had a British doctor on call.
Here, Chika uses lies to build a sense of camaraderie and friendship with the woman. She essentially fabricates common ground to make a connection. As she does so, she's also forced to acknowledge that this woman is human, with normal human problems, not a faceless "other person" who experiences riots. This then makes Chika continue the process of humanizing the riots and learning to see them as more than Nnedi's theoretical descriptions.
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Chika tells the woman to use cocoa butter, as the woman explains that her first daughter is lost in the riot. The woman starts to cry and asks Allah to keep her daughter and Nnedi safe. Chika wishes that all of them had stayed out of the market that day.
The woman uses stories in very much the same way that Chika does. Praying is an attempt to control the story in her mind of what's happened to her daughter, and by including Nnedi in her prayers, she makes a connection to Chika.
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The woman finds a tap in the store and surprisingly, it runs. She washes and prays. Chika wishes she could pray and touches her finger rosary, thinking of Nnedi's dismissal of religion. The narrator says that later, Chika's family will offer Masses to pray for Nnedi, and Chika will think that they're a waste of money. When the woman gets up from praying, Chika says she's going to leave and that she can't smell any smoke. The woman says it's dangerous and sits down. Chika tells the woman that she'll come back with her aunt's driver to take the woman home, and then climbs out the window.
Though in the future she will scorn it as Nnedi did, in the present Chika is actively looking for the type of comfort that religion provides. The story again contrasts Chika and the Hausa woman, as it makes it very clear that the woman is an expert on riots while Chika only knows what Nnedi has told her from her own secondhand, theoretical knowledge.
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Outside, the streets are quiet. Chika comes upon a stinking burnt body. The narrator says that later, Chika and her aunt will drive through the city and see other bodies and Chika will wonder if they were Muslim or Christian. Chika will hear on the radio that the riots were "religious with undertones of ethnic tension" and throw the radio at the wall.
Chika can't tell which side these people died for. This suggests that the violence touches both sides equally--neither group is exempt from the consequences of the riots. What Chika hears on the radio sounds like something Nnedi might say, illustrating the difference between a theoretical understanding and a more human understanding.
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In the present, Chika returns to the store and crawls in through the window again. The woman remarks that Chika's leg is bleeding, wets her scarf, and wraps it around Chika's leg. The woman offers Chika a bucket to use the toilet, but Chika refuses. The woman goes to the back of the store with the bucket and returns, apologizing for the stench. The two sit quietly and later, the woman goes to sleep. Later, the narrator says, Chika will read about the “violent” Hausa Muslims and remember examining the Hausa Muslim woman's nipples.
The woman mirrors Chika's kindness and medical assistance by caring for Chika's wound. The woman's kindness makes it clear to Chika that it's impossible to truthfully say that all Hausa Muslims are violent and evil: this woman, who happens to be Hausa Muslim, has five young children and believes the riots are evil.
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At dawn, the woman crawls out the window. Chika hears her speaking Hausa to someone outside, and then the woman climbs back in. She explains that the danger is over and they need to leave before the soldiers arrive. The narrator says that Chika will walk all the way to her aunt's house and her aunt will lament ever asking Chika and Nnedi to visit. Chika unties the woman's scarf from her leg, and hands it to the woman. The woman instructs Chika to wash her leg and "greet her people." Chika returns the sentiment.
In a matter of hours, the communal experience that Chika shared with the woman is over. Both of them can return to their respective lives with the knowledge that they weathered the violence of the riot with a member of the opposite religious and ethnic group—and perhaps developed a more nuanced, complex view of humanity in the process. Though the reader is only privy to Chika's thought process and development, the woman might have also gotten reinforcement that Christians can be kind.
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The narrator says that as Chika walks home, she'll realize that she'll never find Nnedi. Chika turns to the woman and asks to keep the scarf. The woman agrees and they climb out the window.
The scarf will remind Chika of the kindness of the Muslim woman and remind her that riots happen to actual people with lives and families, not a faceless "other."
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