As a coastal region, people in what is now Nigeria experienced contact with Europeans early. Nigeria became an official British colony in 1914, and in 1960, Great Britain granted Nigeria its independence as a Commonwealth country. From 1967-1970 the country experienced a civil war, which pitted the conservative Nigerian government against the secessionist state of Biafra. The Biafran Conflict figures into a number of stories in the collection, as does the ongoing religious and ethnic violence that Nigeria still experience. These conflicts have their roots in Nigeria's colonial experience and as such, one of the book's primary concerns is to explore colonialism and its legacies, particularly the legacies of physical and cultural violence.
It's the final story in the collection, "The Headstrong Historian," that provides the reader with a starting point for all the violence of the previous stories. Because it follows three generations of a Nigerian family, beginning in the late 19th century and ending at an indeterminate point after 1972, this story gives an overarching sense of the beliefs and practices that shaped the Nigerian people's relationships with their colonizers and the West in general. Nwambga, a woman of the first generation, learns from a friend that people become rulers because they have better guns, not because they're better people. The idea that there's power in violence and in possessing better weapons repeats throughout the stories, particularly in "Cell One." Nnamabia laughs at police attempts to subdue student gang activity with their "rusty guns," since the students themselves have modern weapons with which to fight back. The cell one narrator notes that the thieves and gang members of her university neighborhood had "mastered the swagger of American rap videos," indicating that the senseless violence of the gangs was partially due to America's cultural influence over the world. This mirrors the way that Nwambga's children and grandchildren embrace the power of Europeans and use that power to violently force native people to adopt European social systems and religions.
Many characters embrace Western culture in an attempt to protect themselves from violence. Though embracing Western culture has its benefits—including education, financial success, and for some characters, the opportunity to immigrate to America—in many cases it leads the characters to reject, hide, or minimize their native culture to avoid further violence from Westerners, and in some cases, from their Nigerian peers. Though Nwambga's son Anikwenwa is able to win Nwambga’s legal disputes for her because of the power afforded to him by his Western education, he also participates in forms of cultural violence against his mother and her beliefs. He refuses to attend Nwambga's funeral unless she agrees to be baptized, and treats non-Christians as though they're diseased. A hundred years later, in "The Arrangers of Marriage," Chinaza suffers at the actual hands of Americans as some of her Nigerian foodstuffs are seized at customs, and then suffers the humiliation of her husband's insistence that she change her name to her English middle name, speak English even at home, and cook only American foods. Though Chinaza's husband claims to want the opportunity to experience success in America and believes that this can only happen through assimilation, Chinaza feels violated and lost as she's forced to give up her culture. Other Nigerian characters feel similarly violated and isolated living in America, where their culture goes mostly unacknowledged or is rudely questioned by their white American neighbors. They experience firsthand the effects of colonization: their own culture is considered strange, primitive, or less-than, while Western culture is held up as superior and “normal.”
The third generation of "The Headstrong Historian," Grace, suggests through her actions that there is a way to combat the violence of colonialism. Though Anikwenwa insists that Grace receive her education in a Catholic school, Grace then uses her Western education to return to her roots. She writes a book about the physical violence in colonial Nigeria, advocates for Nigerian history to be taught in Nigerian schools, and in her old age, she changes her name to Afamefuna, the name given to her by her grandmother. This final act in particular suggests that the legacies of colonialism can begin to be broken down when individuals like Grace celebrate their culture and tell their stories, rather than deny and erase them.
Colonialism and Violence ThemeTracker
Colonialism and Violence Quotes in The Thing Around Your Neck
They may have once been benign fraternities, but they had evolved and were now called "cults"; eighteen-year-olds who had mastered the swagger of American rap videos were undergoing secret and strange initiations that sometimes left one or two of them dead on Odim Hill.
"You cannot raise your children well, all of you people who feel important because you work in the university. When your children misbehave, you think they should not be punished. You are lucky, madam, very lucky that they released him."
"We have only spent a week here with our aunty, we have never even been to Kano before," Chika says, and she realizes that what she feels is this: she and her sister should not be affected by the riot. Riots like this were what she read about in newspapers. Riots like this were what happened to other people.
But I am a Western-educated man, a retired mathematics professor of seventy-one, and I am supposed to have armed myself with enough science to laugh indulgently at the ways of my people.
Perhaps... I would not need to worry about our grandson who does not speak Igbo, who, the last time he visited, did not understand why he was expected to say "Good afternoon" to strangers, because in his world one has to justify simple courtesies.
Kamara wondered where the child's mother was. Perhaps Neil had killed her and stuffed her in a trunk; Kamara had spent the past months watching Court TV and had learned how crazy these Americans were.
The next day at breakfast, Isabel used just such a tone when she sat next to Ujunwa and said that surely, with that exquisite bone structure, Ujunwa had to come from Nigerian royal stock. The first thing that came to Ujunwa's mind was to ask if Isabel ever needed royal blood to explain the good looks of her friends back in London.
He laughed and said the job was good, was worth living in an all-white town even though his wife had to drive an hour to find a salon that did black hair. The trick was to understand America, to know that America was give-and-take. You gave up a lot, but you gained a lot, too.
The summer you knew that something had to happen to Nonso, so that you could survive. Even at ten you knew that some people can take up too much space by simply being, that by existing, some people can stifle others.
She wanted Azuka to learn the ways of these foreigners, since people ruled over others not because they were better people but because they had better guns...
It was Grace who would read about these savages, titillated by their curious and meaningless customs, not connecting them to herself until her teacher, Sister Maureen, told her she could not refer to the call-and-response her grandmother had taught her as poetry because primitive tribes did not have poetry.