Unanswerable Question

10 10 2011

There was a hunter who went into the bush to kill a monkey.  He had looked for only a few minutes when he saw a monkey sitting comfortably in the branch of a low tree.  The monkey didn’t pay him any attention, not even when his footsteps on the dried leaves rose and fell as he neared.  When he was close enough and behind a tree where he could clearly see the monkey, he raised his rifle and aimed.  Just when he was about to pull the trigger, the monkey spoke.

‘If you shoot me, your mother will die, and if you don’t, your father will die.’

The monkey resumed its position, chewing its food, and every so often scratched its head or the side of its belly.

This story was told to young people in my village once a year.  The storyteller, usually an elder, would pose this unanswerable question at the end of the story in the presence of the children’s parents.  Every child who was present at the gathering was asked to give an answer, but no child ever did, since their mother and father were both present.  The storyteller never offered an answer either.”

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Beah

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Beah

I just finished reading A Long Way Gone:  Memoirs of a Child Soldier by Ishmael Beah, from which this excerpt comes.  Beah was driven from his home at age 12 when rebels attacked his village in Sierra Leone.  Separated from his family, he traversed the jungles of Sierra Leone for over a year with a group of other boys in the same predicament.  When Beah was 13, he was chosen to become a soldier in the government army.  Once addicted to the cocaine and marijuana that were more bountiful than food, Beah quickly climbed the ranks to “junior sergeant” and was nicknamed the Green Snake for his deception and deadly aim.  At age 16, he was released to UNICEF and was successfully rehabilitated.  Beah ended his memoir with the story of the Unanswerable Question, above. 

I was running with a friend yesterday, and we were talking about this book along with the Rwandan genocide and Jewish holocaust.  We pondered how evil can enter in and so completely change a person, or even an entire nation, to be able to commit such heinous acts of physical and psychological torture on former friends and members of their own families.

Is this kind of evil inside all of us, we asked each other?  What would it take to turn me into someone capable of killing my own spouse, children, or neighbors? 

I decided I’d rather die than to commit such acts. 

I finished the last few pages of Beah’s story later that afternoon, and I was struck by his answer to the Unanswerable Question.

“When I was seven I had an answer to this question that made sense to me.  I never discussed it with anyone, though, for fear of how my mother would feel.  I concluded to myself that if I were the hunter, I would shoot the monkey so that it would no longer have the chance to put other hunters in the same predicament.”

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4 responses

13 10 2011
shanksr

I’m glad there are no talking monkeys in Tennessee to ask me that. But in all seriousness, this makes me so thankful..just for so many things!

18 10 2011
Kory

It makes me really thankful too. I would like to believe that most of the people that commit such awful crimes are mentally ill, therefore they don’t really know or have control over what they are doing.

25 10 2011
Lou Seumanu

I especially like your last paragraph – and I did start a blog – two in fact – just a few months ago! I always write letters to my children at Christmas – sometimes more often, but at least once a year. They know their letters will be in their stockings! Probably wouldn’t do anything you said not to – just a little bit inhibited! But that’s just me. Congratulations on being freshly pressed!

27 10 2011
neettyjealm

I definitely appreciate your writing style. This is a good post! Thanks!

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