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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun
The Nigerian Civil War or Biafran War has spawned quite a few literary works, of which this may be the best-known. The book switches back and forth between the early Sixties, after independence but before the War, and the later Sixties when the war was in full swing. Adichie, who is Igbo, i.e. from the people on the losing side, spares us no detail about both the political and military upheaval and the corruption and brutality, though she is relatively fair-handed, accepting that corruption was not limited to the Hausa people of the North.
The story follows a few key characters who spend most of their time in the Igbo area, which was, for a short span, to become the independent Republic of Biafra. Odenigbo is a university professor in Nsukka. He has strong views on political issues, being critical of the government, the British as Nigeria’s former colonial masters and still intervening in Nigerian affairs and the non-Igbo Nigerians. He frequently has people of similar views at his house for discussion. He hires Ugwa, a thirteen-year old boy, as his houseboy. One of the many charms of this novel is that we partially see events through Ugwa’s eyes. Odenigbo later meets Olanna, who has done her Master’s in London and has been offered a position at the University of Nigeria where Odenigbo works and the two eventually move in together, though, initially, Olanna is against marriage. Olanna has a twin sister, Kainene. They are daughters of a chief, who is not averse to corruption nor averse to extramarital relationships. Olanna is the pretty one but less forthcoming than her less attractive sister. Kainene gets to know Richard Churchill, an Englishman who has come to Nigeria to write about Igbo-Ukwu art. (He will later change the subject of his book to a sort of travelogue/commentary and then to a book about the Biafran War). Initially, he stays with Susan, a British Council employee. Indeed, she almost drags him to her house, to give him somewhere to write in peace but they soon become sort of lovers, at least till he meets Kainene. Richard and Kainene soon become lovers and move in together.
The initial part of the book, to which Adichie will return, concerns the vicissitudes of the lives of these five people and those connected to them though, primarily, through Odenigbo, we follow the Nigerian political situation. When the first coup took place, people were generally surprised. This was soon followed by a second coup, led by military officers from the primarily Hausa Muslim North. This led to attacks on other ethnic groups, particularly the Igbo and, during this period, many Igbo were murdered. All of this is described from the perspective of the main characters in this book. Adichie spares us little and we see some of the brutal killings. Richard even witnesses a customs officer brutally shot at Kano Airport just because he is Igbo. After Biafra declares independence, it is hoped things will settle down but, as we know, Nigeria was determined to retake Biafra, not least because of the oil. First there is what they call a police action, which soon becomes a full-scale war. The main characters in this book have to flee the advancing Nigerian troops and gradually retreat further into Biafra. Again, Adichie spares us little detail.
The full horror of the war is depicted through the main characters. We see death, rape, brutality, corruption, starvation, kwashiorkor, arbitrary violence and bombing attacks on civilians. Other countries come in for much criticism, particularly Britain and the Soviet Union but also Egypt and the United States. The main characters suffer – Ugwa is twice conscripted (he gets away the first time when Olanna bribes the soldiers taking him away), Odenigbo’s mother is shot when she stays at her home in Abba and all see death, brutality and suffer themselves from all the horrors of war. Only five countries recognised Biafra and it was never going to survive, without technology or resources and with a brutal, punitive action by the Nigerians. Even after the war is over, the brutality continues.
The impact of this novel is, of course, the war. Adichie is, of course, an Igbo, so she very much gives it from an Igbo perspective though she is not afraid to admit that the Igbo are not perfect – the dogmatism of Odenigbo, the corruption of Olanna and Kainene’s families and the fact that pretty everyone has an extramarital relationship. Clearly, it is difficult to read a war novel without thinking of which combatant, if either, had right on their side. Would an independent Biafra have worked? Adichie does not really get into that, though, clearly, Odenigbo and other Biafrans think so. What clearly does not work is the Igbos being subordinate to people of a different culture (many of the Northern Nigerians are Muslims) and there is no doubt that many of the Biafrans are critical of both the British for creating and their leaders for joining a federated state with these people of a very different culture. We can read this novel as a good war novel and a good story about people caught up in a war but it is, above all, about the suffering of the author’s people, a suffering which, to some extent, still continues.
First published 2006 by Fourth Estate