The title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s book is not a wistful lovey-dovey hook for a romantic novel – something like “Half of my Heart” or “The Sun Rises Upon Love” (I made these up) – but a specific reference to the flag of Biafra, an African nation that sprang briefly into existence in the late 1960s. The red, black and green of the flag is similar to those of other African states, and the half yellow sun at its centre is all that differentiates the Biafran flag from the pan-African flag adopted in the 1920s to represent the rights of black people. The sun was meant to represent the glorious future of the nascent country, while the red at the top memorialised the massacre of mostly Igbo people – especially in northern Nigeria where the population was predominantly Muslim – which sparked the push for an independent nation in the south, where the population was predominantly Christian. Added to this is the cultural divisions which exacerbated the political problem and were exploited by Nigeria, supported by Britain. Nigeria had only gained independence from British rule in 1960. As in the case of many colonised places, the boundaries of the nation were defined by the colonisers, rather than the social and political history of the region. And while Nigeria was nominally independent, the British still had strategic interests in the country’s oil deposits, much of which were in the territory claimed by Biafra when it seceded from Nigeria. The import of this history for Adichie is evident in the engrossing narrative she delivers, by dramatizing the lives of the intellectual class who supported the secession, the impact and horror of the massacres, the subsequent war to force the Biafran people to submit as unified Nigerians, the impact on ordinary lives and the massive number of deaths caused by the war, mainly due to starvation. In her Author’s Note, Adiche reveals in that she was not only inspired by her parents’ stories of the period, but by her uncle who was a soldier in the Biafran army and was wounded fighting the Nigerian forces.
In the tradition of Realist fiction, Adichie tells the story of a few key characters to represent this period. There is Ugwu, a poor peasant boy who has an opportunity to better himself in the employ of Odenigbo. Odenigbo not only promises Ugwu an education, but exposes him to his intellectual social group that visits the house frequently to discuss political issues, the future of their country and black identity. Odenigbo lives with Olanna, a beautiful woman who has chosen an academic life and, against the wishes of her parents, distains marriage. Olanna’s fraternal twin, Kainene, lacks Olanna’s physical beauty, but is herself a graduate willing to take over the operation of their father’s business. And then there is Richard, so English that his surname is Churchill. Richard has been drawn to Nigeria to write about Nigerian roped pots which represent an advanced level of production for their period of history, an incredibly important cultural find dating back more than a thousand years. Richard has ‘gone native’. He learns the Igbo language and immerses himself in all matters pertaining to Igbo culture. When Biafra is declared a nation independent of Nigeria, he is excited because he is there from the beginning: he can be a true Biafran, and he adopts a Biafran sense of identity. He also becomes Kainene’s lover.
The strength of this book is that it works both as an engrossing personal drama, as well as bringing to life a now obscure period of world history. Adichie first immerses the reader in the personal lives of her characters – Ugwu’s leaving home to work for Odenigbo and the fomenting intellectual desire for cultural independence and identity – and gradually brings the shocking events that precipitate Biafra’s secession and the subsequent war against Nigeria and Colonial forces to the fore. In doing this, Adichie does not assume any pre-knowledge of her subject of her reader. For general readers, like myself, there is a sense of organically entering into the story of the conflict and its issues without being overburdened by alienating detail. And the personal story of Adichie’s characters dovetails neatly with this to create an entirely readable and engrossing narrative. Odenigbo’s intellectual circle may talk about ideology, pan-Africanism and Colonialism, but Adichie offers a horrifying insight into the cost of the struggle in real human terms. Olanna, for instance, sits next to a woman on a train who plaits the hair of her daughter’s severed head, lying in a calabash. Soldiers abuse their power at checkpoints in frighteningly violent ways. Women are gang raped by soldiers. Massacres occur openly. There is a sense of reality about Adichie’s writing that is not easily gained by reading mere factual accounts of the conflict. We understand the characters and their relationships, how their personal lives are put under pressure by the historical moment.
But importantly, we don’t idealise them as victims as part of a Manichean representation of the conflict. While colonial forces remain off-stage Iagos and Nigerian forces are restricted to their obvious atrocities, Adichie’s characters are also confronted with their own transgressions. Odenigbo, for all his high-minded ideals is easily led into an affair, as is Richard. Women, it turns out, are the locus of sexual struggle that is as much defined by the tension between an intellectualised anticipation of a Biafran future, as it is in contradistinction to their culture’s traditional beliefs. Arize, Olanna and Kainene’s cousin, has become anxious about finding a husband. She works as a seamstress which helps support her family, but without an education she does not have the same opportunities afforded her cousins. Instead of Olanna moving to Nsukka to marry Odenigbo, as Arize assumes, she is taking a position in the department of Sociology at the university. But this does not mean that educated women are free from traditional expectations, however. Olanna’s father is willing to trade her sexual favours to Chief Okonji for a business contract without seeking her consent. And this is not an anomaly. Eberechi, a girl Ugwu desires, is forced into the room of an army officer by her parents. Odebigbo’s own mother shamelessly makes her young servant, Amala, available to her son to undermine his relationship with the overly-educated Olanna, whom she calls a ‘witch’. And the appellation is not a mere slur. Traditional belief and magic are in tension with a vision of an educated future for the country, which Odenigbo sees as the only means by which Biafra can free itself from its colonial past. Yet his brief relationship with Amala, itself, is one of disproportionate power. Meanwhile, his mother seems to dabble in spells, Mrs Muokele, Olanna’s friend, believes she receives portentous visions, and Ugwu is convinced Odenigbo’s mother is using black magic against Olanna. It is not a minor point, given that Olanna’s own mother believes
Too much schooling ruins a woman. There is a correlation between the emancipation of women in the novel and the promise of independence for Biafra through education.
But the antithesis to education is not only superstition and belief, but violence. Violence is practised on a large scale against the Biafran people, particularly its Igbo caste. Whether it be at the hands of the enemy or traditional patriarchal paradigms, Adichie’s representation of sexual repression and misogyny is an effective symbol, also, of the oppression of the Biafran cause. Yet, while soldiers may injure or rape women during war, Adichie again avoids a propagandised account of the conflict by personalising the issue and complicating our feelings. Ugwu, whom we are inclined to like and identify with – he is only a child as the novel opens – also has some disturbing attitudes to women which suggest his own brutalisation. Having read about the use of tear gas to subdue members of the Western House of Assembly –
they all passed out - he is excited by the prospect of obtaining tear gas to use against Nnesinachi, a girl whom he desires, like a rape drug. More disturbingly, having been forcibly conscripted, much like the English press gangs of the eighteenth century, Ugwu feels intimidated enough by other soldiers to participate in the gang rape of a girl. His sense of shame haunts him, particularly when he discovers his own sister, Anulika, has suffered the same fate. Yet Ugwu’s personal shame – his own misguided attitudes – cannot be separated from the historical and social impetus that result in these actions.
Adichie’s writing is skilful throughout. Able to deliver horrific set pieces, she is also capable of subtlety. Violent episodes are balanced by more insidious dangers. Odenigbo not only understands the importance of education, but also the importance of establishing the country’s own narrative. This lies at the very crux of colonial power. Racism is blunt and ugly and is part of the narrative of Western ideologies against black nations. But it is the danger of attempting to speak against that from within those same ideological constructs that is debilitating. Odenigbo understands that pitting pan-Africanism against Colonial ideology is the same dead end that produced Nigeria, to the detriment of the nuanced cultural differences of the region. Pan-Africanism, despite its appeal as a panacea to colonial narratives, is itself a construct of a white understanding of Africa and as realistically as untenable to Odenigbo as Nigeria. So, there is either a certain irony or hopeful sincerity in making Richard the mouthpiece of Biafran culture. Either the British remain as cultural arbiters, as represented by Richard in his writings about the roped pots and Biafran war, or we accept that his identity is not predicated upon race. Certainly, when Richard speaks to two American journalists who are supposedly interested in reporting the war, he is angered by their limited interest in the conflict, which seems mostly confined to the one Italian oil worker who has been killed (
One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person), the country’s oil, and their prejudicial lascivious opinions of the sexuality of Biafran women. Theirs is a far different interest to Richard’s naïve admiration for the complex roped pots of the region which surpassed technologies in other countries of the time that they were produced. Yet Okeoma, a friend of Odenigbo’s, accuses Richard of condescension:
You sound surprised, as if you never imagined these people capable of such things.. But as readers, we know Okeoma’s assessment is unfair. It is a testament to the sophistication of the book that Adichie can tell a gripping account of the terrible atrocities enacted on the people of Biafra throughout the conflict, as well as maintain a subtle and complex human drama. Sometimes characters we want to like do odious things. Sometimes people like Richard, from a culture wishing to suppress Biafra, can also be genuine. Half of a Yellow Sun is not only a compelling historical drama, but it is a complex, subtle and realistic representation of humanity.
About a quarter of her class attended school. She taught them about the Biafran flag. They sat on wooden planks and the weak morning sun streamed into the roofless class as she unfurled Odenigbo’s cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. 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.
She told him the Hausa in the North were a dignified lot, the Igbo were surly and money-loving, and the Yoruba were rather jolly