A Plague of Yellow Plastic Ducks

By Jonathan Pinnock

 

I first heard of the Uginko people from a neighbouring tribe, the Belboqa. I was visiting the Belboqa in order to document their circumcision ceremony: a prolonged, complex and ultimately extremely painful ritual that only took place every three years, and then only if the weather was deemed to be propitious. However, whilst I waited to find out if the ceremony was indeed going to take place, I took the opportunity to cast around for other potential subjects to study in case the whole thing fell through. The last thing I wanted to do was come back from an expensive expedition like this empty-handed. That would put the funding for future trips at risk, after all.

 

Apart from their spectacularly unpleasant circumcision ceremony, the Belboqa did not have much to offer the curious anthropologist. They had little in the way of an artistic tradition, and their pottery was of no merit. The hierarchy of the tribe was pretty conventional: the headman laid down the law, which was enforced by a number of elders, most of whom came from his immediate family. The status of the women was marginally above that of the scrawny dogs that roamed freely through the village, although those who were deemed to be more attractive were able to exert a small amount of leverage by withholding or allocating sexual favours. This was all pretty depressing, so I started to look further afield, and that’s when I started to find out more about the Uginko.

 

From discussions with the elders, I succeeded in establishing three significant facts: first, that the Uginko and the Beloboqa had until comparatively recently been deadly foes; second, that an unprecedented peace treaty had been established in the last year between the two neighbours; and third, that the Uginko were now referred to by the Beloboqa as “The Duck People”.

 

After several weeks of negotiation, I was permitted by the headman of the Beloboqa to see the token of their respect that the Uginko had given him to conclude the treaty. To this end, I was invited into his hut: a privilege which had hitherto been denied me. We sat drinking the revolting beer that members of the tribe had brewed, looking warily at each other and waiting for the appropriate moment for the revelation. Finally, after an hour or so, the headman nodded at me, turned away and began to rummage in a wooden chest in the corner of the hut. There was a brief moment of panic where it appeared that the famed trophy might have been lost, and then he turned back to me in triumph. He was holding a small, yellow, plastic bath duck.

 

***

 

Much to my amazement, the Beloboqa circumcision ceremony did eventually take place, and it was every bit as gruesome as I’d been led to believe, although that is the subject of a different story altogether. And having documented this, I was all set to return home. But something was nagging at the back of my mind: who were these strange Duck People? Could I really call myself a true anthropologist if I didn’t at least pay them a visit? It took some persuading, but I managed to get one of the Beloboqa elders to take me to their neighbours. He found it extremely funny that I should be remotely interested in the Uginko, and (not for the first time in my life) I felt that I myself was also being analysed as the object of an anthropological study.

 

It was two days’ journey through some pretty inhospitable jungle, but as dusk began to fall on the second day, we reached the Uginko village. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw there. The entrance to the compound was guarded by two men, each of whom bore a headdress, the chief feature of which was a yellow, plastic duck. They nodded to my guide, and let us through. As we entered the village, the headman strode out to greet us. On his head, he wore a slightly larger duck. A further enormous duck had been fashioned into a kind of penis gourd, and around his neck was a necklace made out of tiny miniature ones. I couldn’t help myself, and began to laugh. Much to my surprise, the headman threw back his head and joined in the laughter.

 

He motioned for us to sit down, and beer was fetched. Gradually, the entire village came out to see what was happening, and a large crowd gathered around us. Every single member of the village was wearing plastic ducks of various shapes and sizes. There appeared to be a vague ranking associated with the number and size of the ducks worn by each member. Several of the men wore penis gourds similar to the headman’s and I surmised (correctly as it turned out) that these were the village elders. The ranking of the women seemed to be based entirely on the number of the smaller ducks that they had strung around their necks.

 

With my guide acting as interpreter, the headman expounded the strange tale of the Uginko. It seemed that up until a couple of years ago, their main motivation in life was to kick the living shit out of the Beloboqa whenever the opportunity arose. Warfare was largely ritualistic, although frequently it got out of hand to the extent that some of the more enthusiastic participants sustained a life-threatening injury. Then one day, a plague of yellow plastic ducks descended out of the sky onto the Uginko village.

 

I asked the headman to repeat this. He leaned back his head and laughed, before repeating that it was a plague of yellow plastic ducks, and from the tone of his description, it sounded like the term “biblical” could safely be ascribed to it. Crucially, it seems that, rather than being viewed as a portent of disaster, the Uginko took this as a sign that the Gods were looking favourably on them. After all, Gods that bestow a rain of plastic ducks on you are probably Gods that have not only a sense of humour but also a relatively benign disposition.

 

This revelation had a profound effect on the Uginko. Firstly, it became immediately apparent to them that the interminable wars against the Beloboqa (and several other neighbouring tribes) were really rather silly. Secondly, it became acceptable to poke fun at the headman and his elders. If the Gods could laugh, then so could everyone else. This, in turn, led to a fracturing of the hierarchical nature of their society – which led, surprisingly, not to a breakdown but to a more progressive and fluid structure, in which even the women took part in government. I had become aware of the more assertive nature of the women in the tribe, and I now realised that some of them were also elders.

 

Finally, it was clear that the tribe as a whole were a happy people. It’s hard to be miserable when you’re surrounded by yellow plastic ducks. As he concluded his speech, the headman lifted his hands up to the skies and thanked the Gods for bringing the ducks. The Uginko were now the blessed people. The honoured people. The Duck People. I glanced at my friend from the Beloboqa. He seemed baffled by it all. I wanted to tell him that there was much he could learn from the Uginko, but of course my rôle is always to observe and document, and never to influence. For who am I to say what is right and what is wrong?

 

I spent two weeks living with the Uginko, and I have to say that in all my travels to do fieldwork in the five continents of the world, I have never encountered a more content, welcoming or happy people. So, I can hear you saying, surely they would be the ideal subject for proper anthropological study? Of course, you are right. But for the first time in my life, my instinct is in the opposite direction: let us leave the Uginko to their ducks. I have therefore changed a number of crucial facts in the foregoing account in order to preserve their curious lifestyle for a little longer.

 

***

 

On the 19th of May, 2006, the container ship MV Corinthiana ran aground in a hurricane on the rocks off the coast of Peru, spilling its cargo of yellow plastic ducks of assorted sizes into the sea. In the midst of this a localised tornado developed that lifted the ducks up into the air, carrying them far inland and depositing them in a remote part of the rainforest. These are the bald facts. But to be honest, I prefer the Uginkos’ version of the story.

 

 

Jonathan Pinnock was born in Bedfordshire, England, and – despite having so far visited over forty other countries – has failed to relocate any further away than the next-door county of Hertfordshire. He is married with two children, several cats and a 1961 Ami Continental jukebox. His work has won several prizes, shortlistings and longlistings, and he has been published in
such diverse publications as Smokebox, Every Day Fiction and Necrotic Tissue. His unimaginatively-titled yet moderately interesting website is at www.jonathanpinnock.com.

 

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Published on April 5, 2009 at 1:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

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