31 pages 1 hour read

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A Private Experience

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 2009

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “A Private Experience”

“A Private Experience” is a short story by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It is set in the 1990s in Kano, Nigeria, during an imagined riot involving Hausa Muslims and Igbo Christians that takes place under the regime of General Sani Abacha. First published in 2004 in the Virginia Quarterly Review, a revised version appeared in The Observer newspaper in 2008. It appeared in Adichie’s 2009 short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck, which was nominated for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Best Book (Africa), and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Adichie is the author of several award-winning novels: Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, and Americanah. Her stories are set in Nigeria and the United States and frequently deal with disparities in class, education, wealth, gender, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and politics. She is also known for her popular TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” and her essay, “We Should All be Feminists.” In 2008, she received a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship known as the “Genius Grant.”

This guide refers to the version of “A Private Experience” in the e-book edition of The Thing Around Your Neck published by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Content Warning: The source material features instances of ethnic and religious stereotyping, ethnic cleansing/genocide, murder, and hate crimes.

Two women flee from a market in Kano, Nigeria, when a riot erupts between Hausa Muslims and Igbo Christians. The protagonist, Chika, who is Igbo and Christian, is rescued by a woman, who is Hausa and Muslim, and the two climb through a window into a dark and dusty abandoned store. Told from Chika’s point of view, the woman’s name is never revealed. Chika and her sister, Nnedi, were in different parts of the market when the riot began—Chika was buying oranges and Nnedi groundnuts—and Chika has no idea where her sister is.

Chika takes stock of her rescuer, recognizing from her facial features, accent, and scarf that she is Hausa. She wonders if her rescuer is assessing her, too. Chika is from a privileged background: The store is smaller than her walk-in closet at home, she dropped a Burberry handbag in the market, and she is a medical student. She considers the woman’s scarf garish and cheap and assumes that the necklace the woman says she lost is made of plastic.

A flash forward reveals that “as she and the woman are speaking, Hausa Muslims are hacking down Igbo Christians with machetes, clubbing them with stones” (44). By contrast, the Hausa woman reassures Chika and explains in Pidgin English how riots typically unfold. Chika is afraid, and while she is politically aware, she feels that riots are things that happen to other people, not her and her sister. Another flash forward reveals the cause of the riot: An Igbo Christian man drove over a copy of the Koran that was on the road, and some Muslim men nearby pulled him from the vehicle, cut off his head with a machete, and took the head to the market, inciting others to “join in.”

In the intimate, secluded space, the woman removes her green wrapper—a skirt-like garment—revealing a cheap black slip underneath. She places the wrapper on the dusty floor and invites Chika to sit because it will not be safe to leave until late that night or the following morning. Chika does not sit, worried about dirtying the woman’s garment. She shares her anxiety about her sister’s well-being and the woman reassures her, though a flash forward reveals that Nnedi will never be found.

The sisters are visiting their aunt, a government worker. Chika is a medical student at the University of Lagos, and her sister is studying political science. She feels certain that the Hausa woman is uneducated and doesn’t know how universities work, but the woman’s questions prove her wrong. She calls the riots a “work of evil” (48), and Chika imagines her sister explaining the political aspects of it, making one of her arguments about the current government or British colonialism. She also reflects on her struggles at medical school—she doesn’t feel confident examining patients.

The woman is a trader who sells onions at the market and explains that every time there is a riot, the market is destroyed. Chika is hesitant to ask how many she has witnessed. She has heard about both Hausa Muslims attacking Igbo Christians and Igbo Christians taking revenge. She then tells Chika that her nipple hurts, burning “like pepper” (49), and asks Chika to examine her. Chika sets aside her discomfort and carefully examines the woman. She believes it’s irritation from breastfeeding and recommends lotion to ease the dry, cracked skin. The woman seems skeptical, explaining that this is her fifth child, and Chika lies to her, telling her that her own mother had six children, experienced the same dryness, and fixed it with lotion. The woman agrees to try it, and she confides that her daughter was at the market selling groundnuts, and she doesn’t know where she is. Chika absentmindedly asks if she means her baby, and the woman rebukes her for not listening. The missing child is her oldest daughter, Halima. The woman sobs quietly, her crying “private, as though she is carrying out a necessary ritual that involves no one else” (51). She prays to Allah to keep Nnedi and Halima safe, and Chika nods.

These stores are scheduled for demolition, so the women are surprised to find a working faucet. The woman washes and prepares to pray, and she smiles for the first time. She washes her face and hands, removes her scarf, places it on the floor, kneels facing Mecca, and prays. Chika feels this is another private moment and averts her eyes. She wishes she had faith herself, and she touches the finger rosary she wears to satisfy her mother. A flash-forward shows that the family will keep praying for Nnedi to be found safe, “though never for the repose of Nnedi’s soul” (52). Chika will recall the woman praying and refrain from expressing skepticism about religion, as she would have in the past.

After they have been hiding for three hours, Chika thinks the riot must be over and wants to go and find her aunt and sister. The woman warns her the danger is not over, but Chika is stubborn and climbs out the window. She expects the woman to try to stop her, but she says nothing. Chika uncertainly navigates the silent street and hopes that she will find a taxi and that Nnedi will be inside it. She comes upon a charred corpse, still hot and smelling “of roasted flesh” (53). A flash-forward reveals that Chika and her aunt will later see many burned bodies, and Chika will not be able to distinguish Hausa from Igbo corpses. She will listen to BBC Radio and be enraged by their reductive report, which describes the riot as “religious with undertones of ethnic tension” (54).

A horrified Chika runs back to the abandoned store, and the woman lets her back inside. Chika’s leg is bleeding, and she is so distressed that she has disconnected from her body—the blood looks like tomato paste to her. The woman helps Chika clean the wound and binds her leg with her scarf. She sets up a makeshift toilet using an empty container, which she sets at the back of the store for privacy. The woman uses it, and the odor makes Chika feel nauseated and dizzy. The woman puts the container outside, washes her hands, and sits beside Chika. The two sit in silence. Shortly after, they hear raucous chanting that suggests the riot is not over yet. The woman settles down to rest, but Chika cannot. She will later read a report in The Guardian that talks of “the reactionary Hausa-speaking Muslims in the North” and their “history of violence against non-Muslims” (55). A grieving Chika will remember the woman’s gentleness.

Chika is unable to sleep and keeps envisioning the burned corpse she saw; in her imagination, it is pointing accusingly at her. As dawn arrives, the woman gets up, opens the window, and climbs out to investigate. Chika hears her greet someone but does not understand their conversation because it is in Hausa. The woman returns and tells Chika the riot is over, and she is leaving before the soldiers arrive and start to harass everyone. Chika removes the woman’s colorful scarf from her leg, hands it back to the woman, and thanks her. The woman asks her to greet Nnedi and her relatives, and Chika asks her to greet the baby and Halima. Before she climbs out the window, Chika asks if she can keep the scarf in case her leg starts bleeding again. The woman hesitates, then agrees, handing the scarf to Chika with “a slight, distracted smile” (56).

The final flash forwards show Chika walking back to her aunt’s home because she cannot find a taxi. She picks up a blood-stained rock on the way home and keeps it, realizing that she will never see Nnedi again.

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