I heard Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘The Danger of a Single Story’ Ted Talk a couple of years back. It made me think about the political and media influence on structuring a story that leads to a one-sided prejudiced opinion in our minds.
“I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
So what happened in the Nigerian story post-independence from the British in 1960? The world perceived Nigeria as a homogenous and united country because the British had decided that way, overlooking the fact that their means to subjugation had always been ‘divide and rule’. Hence the repercussions were ought to rise.
The newly independent Nigeria grappled with issues of unresolved resentment between the Hausa-dominated North and the Igbo majority East. Six years after the independence, the result was the Biafran secession. Biafra existed as an independent country on the world map for four years. However, the world termed it the period of the Nigerian Civil War from 1967 to 1970.
‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was published in 2006. Her Nigerian root lends her the strong authentic voice for the narrative on the war-torn phase of the country. Adichie, interestingly, weaves together themes of love and betrayal, war and violence, colonialism and politics in this book.
“…it is Beeafra, not Ba-yafra.”
The story revolves around Olanna and Kainene – the fraternal twins from the elite Igbo family from Lagos. Olanna and Kainene are joined together just like their country but harbor differences. Caricatured in contrast – Olanna is the subtle patriot in love with Odenigbo, a professor and nationalist working at the Nsukka University. Kainene is a cynic with a dry sense of humour and is entrepreneurial, running her father’s business. She meets Richard, a British expatriate fascinated by Igbo-Ukwu art.
I think Richard had a strange presence in the book. As a sympathizer of the Biafran cause, he tries to understand the country more closely and works at writing a book. He later writes articles for European publications regarding the atrocities in Biafra.
On the other hand, the social gatherings at Odenigbo’s house are a peep inside the intellectual minds at work in Biafra. There are diverse opinions, arguments, and counter-arguments on topics of nationalism, identity, politics, western influence on the African continent, and so forth. In one of the evening gatherings, Odenigbo explains the meaning of the Biafran flag to his guests.
“Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.”
The title of the book is the reference to the half of a yellow sun on the Biafran flag.
However, the character that resonates the most, above the glitterati of the twin sisters’ lifestyle, is Ugwu the houseboy at Odenigbo’s house. This thirteen-year-old from a bush village, pulled out from the school when he was in standard two, by his father after their crops failed. Ugwu promises his westernized master to be a fast learner, trying to impress with his broken English and later with his culinary skills after Olanna moves in with Odenigbo. Ugwu and Odenigbo’s mother in parallel to Olanna and Kainene presents the crude and unpolished perspective about the rural areas.
Ugwu finds employment and financial stability at Odenigbo’s house but is drawn away from his family and loses many of his rural traits. While Odenigbo’s idealistic stand on Biafra is put on a pedestal, Olanna insists on Ugwu to evade conscription and continue as house help. Though finally caught and recruited in the army, you get a glimpse of dehumanizing on both fronts of the war. Incidentally, during this time Ugwu finds the book, ‘Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass, An American Slave: Written by Himself’ wedged behind a blackboard. It is symbolic of how the oppressed across geographical, ethnic and time barriers are united in their hardships and experience of brutality.
As Nsukka comes under siege, Odenigbo, Olanna, their baby, and Ugwu move out, first to Abba and then to Umuahia. Their living conditions deteriorate over time; there is food crisis and lack of resources. Odenigbo, rather than helping his family, turns to local cheap alcohol to save him from the pessimism of their losing cause.
What makes ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ an interesting read? It absolutely has to be the realistic portrayal of war-torn Biafra. The graphic details of severed bodies, children dying of malignant diseases, and people fleeing from their homes under airstrikes are disturbing but Adichie doesn’t hide behind purple prose to refer to the brutalities of war. ‘Starvation’ was the primary weapon of war used by Nigeria against Biafra. Starvation broke Biafra but it also awakened the world to the sad realities in Biafra. Protests and demonstrations were held in London, Moscow, and Czechoslovakia. But in the end, only Zambia, Tanzania, Ivory Coast, and Gabon recognized Biafra.
Adichie interweaves excerpts from a book titled ‘The World Was Silent When We Died’ within the narrative to state how the first world countries sided with Nigeria, providing arms and political support to crush Biafra.
The narrative goes back and forth with glimpses of the Biafran war and the time before the trouble in the early 1960s. Interspersed are the speeches of the political leaders and the war propaganda during times of misery and poverty. This book is such a compelling read because it brings forth the civilian perspective and their ordeal in a war-ravaged situation. At the end of it, the lives of innumerable unnamed civilians are at stake, torn by the ravages of war and pushed to the fringe on access to basic amenities.