Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel about the Biafra-Nigerian civil war, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
Half of a Yellow Sun was a novel I read last summer. My sister had mentioned the book as having reminded her of what happened during the 1967-1970 Biafra versus Nigeria civil war. The clincher to read it, though, came after the Igbo Women’s Association of Connecticut, USA (IWAC) sought but failed in their effort to invite the author to their twenty-year debut anniversary.
Born in 1961, I was six when the war began and nine when it ended. I consider myself a child of the civil war. But until now I’d hated to reopen those old wounds and nightmares lurking in my memory that the war had created.
The book begins with a lengthy background; Pretty Olanna, who has a twin sister name Kainene, was visiting Nigeria from London where she went to school. Odenigbo was a mathematics teacher at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. Serendipity struck, and they met at Ibadan. Olanna liked the maverick, bumptious nature of Odenigbo, so she discarded Mohammed, her Hausa boyfriend of northern descent, and eloped with the lecturer to Nsukka.
Ugwu, a young lad from a rural area, was the couple’s male servant. Ugwu reverently called Odenigbo ‘Master’. The young man quickly copied the presumptuous ways of the educated and the civilized as he cooked for and served Master’s colleagues, who frequently visited to talk about the ideals of post-independence Nigeria.
About one-fourth into the novel, the noose around their social drama began to tighten when Major Nzeogwu, an Igbo man of southern stock, struck in a coup which resulted in a disproportionate killing of northern leaders. One such leader was the Sardauna of Sokoto. Swept up in the prevailing sentiment of nationalistic idealism, some of the Igbos gloated over the killings.
In a counter-coup response, and perhaps in an inevitable rage erupting from a long-held antipathy against the Igbos, the Hausas not only killed a lot of Igbo officers; they followed it with murdering the Igbo men, women and children who lived among them, the Igbos being a peripatetic group of people.
Unable to stop the ruthless massacre, the Igbos left the northern part of Nigeria and returned to the south, their geographical home of origin. They established their own sovereign state which they called Biafra. Irked by this resolve for survival and self-reliance, the Federal Republic of Nigeria invaded them. The Igbos fought back. The Federal Republic cut them off from commerce and food, and left them to die.
By the end of the war, it had brought out the best and worst in Igbo humanity: people dying for their fellow-men as well as people betraying their fellow men.
The book is tainted by a number of love triangles. Olanna had an affair with Richard, her twin sister’s European lover, while Master tumbled the village girl his mother had wanted him to marry instead of Olanna. Ugwu had his shares of peccadilloes too, bedding Chinyere, a house girl to one of Odenigbo’s friends.
Before the war ended, one of the twin sisters went missing. Rather than face the certainty of her demise, the family chose to cling on to the illusory hope that she was alive somewhere, wandering, perhaps amnesiac – which summed up most of the emotional mix of the conflict.
My sister is right. The book captures the general atmosphere, angst, expectations, and in the end the despair of the Igbos during the civil war.
The author portrays the general social maladies created by the civil war: families crammed into one room, the hunger, starvation, betrayal, vengeance, brutality and yes, promiscuity. The use of phrases such as ‘a wooden comb’ took my imagination forty years back in time.
What surprised me about the book is the litany of lewd scenarios it contains. The characters are continually slipping in, tumbling, thrusting, and penetrating each other with little warning.
When my fifteen-year-old son asked me what the book was about, I told him that the author was writing about the social and political upheaval that existed during the Biafra-Nigerian civil war. ‘It’s an adult book’, I added quickly. The many sexual scenes, though distasteful, compel the reader to turn to the next page.
The greatest moment of euphoria for me came when Tanzania became the first country in the world to recognize the plight of Biafra and the Igbos. It was a courageous act that saved thousands of Igbo children who would otherwise have died of starvation. Someone worked tirelessly to make that happen.
Born in 1977, Chimamanda Adichie was ten years too late to witness the beginning of the war, but that hasn’t stopped her from giving a good testimonial of what happened. A good read.
To see who brought about the Tanzanian breakthrough, I suggest that the author and her readers look at Chapter 10 of Austine S.O. Okwu’s memoir, In Truth for Justice and Honor: A Memoir of a Nigerian-Biafra Ambassador.
Reviewed By Anselm Anyoha MD