Meeting someone new for the first time often fills individuals with a range of emotions, questions, excitement and curiosity. As is true for anything new, the thrill of being able to start fresh or experience something unknown is an incredible notion. The short story “A Private Experience” depicts two women who come from completely different backgrounds. Chika, a Christian medical student is caught in the middle of a riot. She finds shelter in an abandoned store with the help of another woman whose name is not presented in the story. The two hide in a small closet with the riot ensuing over a Christian man running over the Koran with his car followed by a Muslim man beheading him for it. These two total strangers seek refuge together and comfort one another during an unfortunate time. Chika and the woman do not share the same culture, religion, or class status, but defining attributes are pushed aside when they are just two humans trying to survive a traumatic situation. Chika was brought up with the cultural background of a Christian, while the other woman’s faith is Hausa Muslim. While Chika comes from a well-off background and is being educated to become a doctor, the woman comes from poverty and sells onions to barely make a living. Although the two are polar opposites in terms of class, faith, and education, Chika puts her ethnocentric beliefs aside to join forces with the woman, as it is the only way to survive.
Throughout the stories in The Thing Around Your Neck religion is ever-present, whether in the focus or the background. This topic is presented between characters such as Chika and the unnamed woman in “A Private Experience” and the relationship between Anikwenwa and Nwamgba in “The Headstrong Historian”. These stories depict religious differences that are responsible for conflict and violence, for example in the riots in “A Private Experience”. However, in a simpler setting, Adichie shows characters attempting to appreciate one another’s differences, discovering similarities and showing compassion and open-mindedness towards one another. While religious confrontations outside the store leads to mayhem, inside the store, Chika observes a respectful silence and distance while the Muslim woman prays (Adichie 51). She expresses even feeling “strangely energized” (Adichie 52) afterwards, as this was such a new sensation to her. In turn, the unnamed woman, far from judging Chika on religious grounds, continues to offer her protection and support, such as when Chika is injured (Adichie 54). The two exchange sympathies, blessings and hopes for their respective family members who are missing, putting aside their differences to show basic human kindness to one another.
These two unusual suspects are polar opposites in terms of wealth, education, and religion. Although they seek shelter together to protect themselves from the outside, it is evident from the beginning that the two are not alike. Before they even meet Adichie sets up the disparities between the characters in the description of how they both lose a sentimental item. The woman lost her necklace while Chika lost her Burberry handbag that her mother had bought her on a recent trip to London (Adichie 43). This is the first time the reader gets a glimpse inside the mind of Chika as she hears the woman sign and begins “imagin[ing] that she is thinking of her necklace, probably beads threaded on a piece of string” (Adichie 43-44). Chika is displaying a very natural and common human trait, which is to judge someone before getting to know him or her. Just by the way this woman looks leads Chika to form preconceived notions about her status compared to her own. Aside from judging the woman on her material goods, as time goes on the two continue to get to know each other while in hiding. The second instance of the presence of disparities is when education is brought up. The woman begins the conversation in her broken syntax asking, “Where you go school?” (Adichie 47). The woman’s broken English can correlate to her being a foreigner, and her lack of education or intelligence. Once Chika explains to the woman that she goes to the University of Lagos in which she is studying medicine, Chika again questions whether or not the woman knows what it means to go to a University (Adichie 47). Furthering herself from being able to relate to the woman Chika describes how she does not live here, but rather is visiting her aunt who is a “director at the secretariat” (Adichie 48). Although both the woman and Chika are Nigerian, Chika’s experience so far with the women reinforces her feeling of being complete opposites. In Chika’s mind, she has the feeling that the woman is used to this terrifying situation and that this is something Chika should never experience. This initial mindset of being better or viewing someone else as less than because of cultural differences is an instance of lack of knowledge about the world as a whole.
While Chika was hiding throughout the riot she had the unexpected company of a woman who she knew nothing about, but in turn grew to understand regardless of their differences. Despite both characters having different religions, their kindred friendship is a perfect example of how trauma and suffering bring even the unlikeliest of people together in order to find any bit of comfort. As they spend more time together, Chika and the woman begin to share life stories. The woman tells Chika that her nipples are chaffed due to having another child which reminds Chika of being back home and helping a young boy while she was in medical school (Adichie 50). Furthermore, Chika recalls how in her family, when someone is hurt or ill their mother would simply call the family doctor. However, she recognizes that sharing this example of privilege with the woman will only disconnect them further and decided to keep it to herself in order to preserve the connection they are making. Had they not been in a situation of trauma, Chika would not have withheld the truth to make the woman feel better, but in this case, she needed an ally. This is an important moment for the audience to see how compassionate Chika is as she chooses to comfort the woman while she is in pain and in doing so, creates a connection with her. The woman returns a similar favor when Chika cuts her leg. She quickly uses her own scarf to help control the bleeding and to bandage Chika (Adichie 54). It is evident that the two women have created shared understanding of friendship and trust which helps them get through this experience.
The way in which Adichie depicts Chika and the woman’s relationship in The Thing Around Your Neck is comparative to the way Jamaica Kincaid writes about Lucy and Mariah in Lucy. Chika does not believe she should be in this riot just like Lucy does not take in her appreciate American culture during her experience there. In speaking to Mariah she laments, “It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t my fault. But nothing could change the fact that where she saw beautiful flowers I saw sorrow and bitterness” (Kincaid 30). Lucy does not see the beauty in the flowers in America because of her preconceived notions from school. The daffodils that Mariah is trying to get her to appreciate is something that has been a negative impact in her culture and her upbringing forces her to value such ideas. Similarly, Chika is put in a situation that is foreign to her, while the woman has had to deal with conflicts like this her entire life. The woman in turn comforts Chika and tries to calm her because she knows that Chika is not familiar with these types of situations.
“A Private Experience” demonstrates that religious differences can be overcome, at least on a small scale, and to respect someone else's culture. The story also argues that cooperation and tolerance are to be valued as they lead to the survival of both women, while outside, in the midst of religious conflict, many lives are lost. Adichie also expresses the idea that different cultures are supposed to be experienced and appreciated. Although the situation with Chika and the woman is gruesome, they share an appreciation for one another and find friendship in an unlikely place. Thus the reader is left with a feeling of hope and comfort knowing that no matter the circumstances and underneath the layers of clothes, religion, and education we are all the same; we are all humans.