I still don't understand!
When I see that the last book I blogged about was The Good Soldier, I begin to sweat a little. I've read quite a few books since I finished that, and some of them are worthy of serious comment. I may never get to them all, however, and so I'll do the best that I can.
One of the books I read while I was on vacation was Many Thing You No Understand by Adaora Lily Ulasi. I picked this book up at the library. It was published in Great Britain in 1970, and I have no idea if it was ever released in the United States, nor if the author wrote any other books.
She was born in Nigeria, the daughter of an Ibo chief, and some of the incidents in Many Thing You No Understand are based on incidents she recalled from her childhood. After reading the book, I can’t help wondering...which ones?
The story takes place in pre-WWII Africa, when much of the continent was ruled by Britain. The first sentence of the story is a tongue-in-cheek indication of the remoteness of the story location. You take the train from the coast and in four days you’re at Ukana, a former village which now enjoys the rank and style of a township.
In this remote location, a single British man, an Assistant District Officer, is employed to administer justice and uphold the law. He keeps court hours, and listens to property disputes, accusations of adultery and incest, and cases involving theft, handing down sentences of fines or jail time as required. Most of his business is conducted through an interpreter, and there is a lot of humor in the manner in which the interpretations are handled.
Assistant District Officer (ADO): Mr. Jonah Udochi. On July 26th a consignment of corrugated iron, the property of I.O.A. Ltd. was found on your premises, covered with palm leaves. What do you say to that?
Interpreter: The ADO said, that you thief IOA. zinc. What say?
ADO: Ask him whether the corrugated iron got there by osmosis?
Interpreter: He said, they come to your house by wind?
ADO: Tell him that he should be ashamed of himself!
Interpreter: Mr. Udochi, the ADO say, shame, shame!
However, in spite of some humor, this is not at all a light-hearted story. It is a clash of cultures and values, and of the methods of dealing with those clashes.
The chief of a nearby village dies, and, according to custom, some 20 or 30 thirty heads are buried with him. The new ADO, who has only been stationed at Ukana for six months, is horrified by the practice, but would have had no cause to interfere except for one thing. The brother of one of the “heads” acquired for the burial brings an accusation against the men who waylaid and killed his brother, including learning their identities and giving their names to the court.
Presented with the names and the positive witness, the new ADO is prepared to arrest the culprits and pursue justice. His much more experieced District Officer would greatly prefer that the matter be dropped, and in fact, it appears that is what is likely to happen. The accuser and chief witness is suddenly reduced to babbling madness, and sent away for treatment.
Should the British officers seek out the accused (who are hiding while their own deaths are being asserted)? What caused the sudden illness of the witness? Is it better to let the whole matter fade away? The inexperienced ADO and his superior strive gently over the best way to handle things, until the ADO himself begins hallucinating feverishly.
No one--but no one--comes right out and says so, but it is clear that witchcraft or poison is behind some of the “illnesses.” Neither British doctors nor the local witch doctor are able to cure the symptoms.
The conclusion of the story is a bit chilling. The British officers not only fail to achieve justice for the murdered brother (to say nothing of the 20-30 others), but they individually fall prey to the culture they are trying to control. One loses his job; the other loses his life.
I found this story interesting--I’m always intrigued by the interaction of different cultures--but rather unsatisfactory. Aside from showing that the “civilized” English culture was really no match for the “uncivilized” people of Ukana, very little in the way of useful suggestion is made. After reading this book, I’m still in the same position that the title asserts: Many thing you no understand.
It’s all well and good to tell me I don’t understand, but I would prefer a book that went a step further than that and tried to enlighten me a bit as well.