Death in Saro-Wiwa's A Forest of Flowers: Reading Questions

Giridhar Mallya, Dave Washburn, and Molly Yancovitz (English 27, Postcolonial Studies, Brown University, Autumn 1997)

See also other reading questions created by the previous (Spring 1997) class in this course.]

1. In the second paragraph of "The Bonfire", Saro-Wiwa's narrator explains:

Among us, death has been divided into three categories. The death of an ordinary man or woman who lives in a house, owns one or two pieces of land, a canoe, one or two pieces of cloth and not much besides, causes a ripple, hardly a stir. A ripple by Dukana standards is like an earth tremor. A stir is an earthquake. And an earthquake happens when a big man dies. The town is torn apart and the heavens weep. There is yet a thrid category. And that is when several people die in quick succession. As happened in one quarter of Dukana recently. Very serious questions then arise, as they did on that occasion. (34)

Where do the deaths of Nedam--who was killed in a blaze set by enraged townspeople -- and Dabo -- the mad beggar from "A Family Affair" who is buried alive -- fit into the scheme outlined by Saro-Wiwa. Or, why don't these deaths fit into such scheme?

Who or what legitimates these murders? The concept of shame acts as a driving force in the actions of this community, its families and its individuals. How do these deaths portray the manner in which Dukana deals with shame? It seems as if public shame is often transformed into a personal, hidden shame. Dabo's family rid itself of its public object of shame but must accept that they have murdered their kin. The angry youths who lit Nedam's house on fire and the community must accept they have killed another townsperson? Or do they not feel such shame? With these stories, what is Saro-Wiwa trying to say about the ethics of Dukana? From what perspective is he commenting? [Giridhar Mallya]

2. In the story "The Stars Below," Ezi, the main character, undergoes a transformation in which he goes from fighting for a personal standard of beauty and ideals that stands in direct conflict with Nigerian life and work as he sees it, to embracing a sort of new vision of unity with Nigeria and his fellow people. What triggers this sudden shift?

3. The citizens of Dukana discuss death and the fear of dying frequently in comparison to people living in a more cosmopolitan setting. The community seems forced to deal with these subjects more often as a result of their poorer standards of living. In nealry every short story, death or the fear of dying manifests itself through the experiences of lost friends from childhood, plagues, lynchings, (on more than one occasion) and black magic. "There were two subjects that dominated the [funeral] gatherings. The first was when the next tax raid was going to be carried out and what to do at the beginning of the raid. The second, and infinitely more important, was who had what poison or juju. Every death in Dukana made ignorance of so vital a subject a near-disaster." (54) Why are these two subjects such essential parts of every death in or related to Dukana? [Dave Washburn]

13. I was surprised by the role of murder in some of Saro-Wiwa's stories. Both "A Family Affair" and "The Bonfire" describe unsettling murders of Dukana men. I was interested in the connections between death, the fear of disruptions in the community, and the importance of supernatural forces and personal accountability.

In "A Family Affair," Dabo, after selling his soul to the devil to earn money, going mad, and disgracing the family, was buried alive by his relatives. "Then when they heard no more sounds, when they felt sure their troubles had been buried deep in the bowels of the earth, they looked at each other, turned upon their heels and picked their silent way through the secretive forest back to Dukana" (33). This story is one of many that displays the drastic measures undertaken by the townsfolk to eliminate the "ripples" that affect the community. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the society to battle the supernatural forces of the devil and of other men. The townspeople link their beliefs in supernatural powers to their murderous actions in order to justify their violence.

In "The Bonfire," Nedam is held accountable for the death of Alee, and thus is burned to death by the youth of Dukana. This action alleviates the fear of death amongst the townmembers. "Once in a while, the town indulges in a great witch-hunt to preempt all evil and evildoers. This cleanses the town in a most welcome manner, so that people can go about their daily chores without the horrifying fear of death" (34). I find it interesting that these violent deaths are justified, in fact required, by the community members in order to maintain control over their lives. Thus just as the belief in supernatural power provides an explanation of the world, murder is equally important, as it provides a means through which this world balance can be maintained. Is this a valid interpretation of the ability of the community to justify its violence? Why is the need for control and understanding so important? It is interesting that the explanations provided by outsiders (such as Alee dying of diabetes) are not satisfactory. [Molly Yancovitz]

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