WHILE THE WORLD WATCHED Half of a Yellow Sun By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Reviewed by E. Frances White
… Starvation was a Nigerian weapon of war. Starvation broke Biafra and brought Biafra fame and made Biafra last as long as it did. Starvation made the people of the world take notice and sparked protests and demonstrations in London and Moscow and Czechoslovakia. Starvation made Zambia and Tanzania and Ivory Coast and Gabon recognize Biafra, starvation brought Africa into Nixon’s American campaign and made parents all over the world tell their children to eat up. Starvation propelled aid organizations to sneak-fly food into Biafra at night since both sides could not agree on routes. Starvation aided the careers of photographers. And starvation made the International Red Cross call Biafra its gravest emergency since the Second World War.
This excerpt from a clever book-within-a-book in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, confronts the reader with one of the novel’s central ironies. Enforced starvation, the very tactic that crushed Nigeria’s breakaway southeastern region, briefly independent and known as Biafra, also brought it the international attention that sustained its rebellion for three years. Those who are old enough will recall that the first images of starving African children to pierce the consciousness of the West came from Nigeria’s 1967 to 1970 civil war. Adichie’s successful historical novel manages to capture the many complexities and ironies of one of Africa’s first postcolonial conflicts.
Adichie, who won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Hurston/Wright Legacy Prize for her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, is skilled at drawing her readers into the daily terror and brutality wrought by war. We watch as the characters’ genteel world of academia disintegrates, tugging at our own senses of security. Both kwashiorkor, the silent killer of children, and bombs drive men and women to heroics, cowardice, and craziness. Adichie has done her homework well. Importantly, she writes into a rich tradition—virtually every major Nigerian writer has felt compelled to address this devastating civil war. Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, and Wole Soyinka have weighed in. Because of Nigeria’s lively tradition of feminist writers, Adichie is also fortunate to follow in the footsteps of Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa, each of whom has written about the particular horrors women face during war. Moreover, Half of a Yellow Sun represents an entry by Nigeria’s new crop of wonderful writers, such as Helon Habila, Chris Abani, and Sefi Atta, into a necessary confrontation with their country’s bloody past.
Ugwu, the author of the book-within-a-book, undergoes a tremendous transformation as he comes of age during this civil war. The book begins when he arrives from the country as a 13 year old to be the “houseboy” of Odenigbo, a math professor and armchair revolutionary at University of Nigeria at Nsukka, the intellectual center of the Biafran independence movement. Indeed, until the war breaks out, the precocious Ugwu seems to be following in the footsteps of Odenigbo, whom he thinks of as “master” even though he is forbidden to call him that. (Odenigbo calls Ugwu “my good man.”) Both come from largely Igbo villages and adapt well to Western style education. Their relationship is complex and at times problematic—enabling Adichie to explore class conflicts in the postcolonial era. Ugwu arrives at Odenigbo’s house during peacetime, when the false promises of independence—granted in 1960—were just beginning to reveal themselves. The house becomes a setting for passionate but friendly-at-first debates that express a range of intellectual positions in the run-up to the war.
Odenigbo and Ugwu are a fascinating pairing. As Nigeria descends into bloody civil war, naive Ugwu’s experiences help him find his voice. He takes up writing as a way of dealing with his bewildering and disturbing experiences: facing both the shortcomings and strengths of his master; participating in atrocities as a child soldier; and sustaining serious physical damage during battle. Many of the war’s most harrowing experiences are shown through his eyes. In contrast to his servant, Odenigbo becomes more and more mute, as his idealism is dashed along with Biafra’s hopes. At the beginning of the book he is a man sure of his opinions and place in the world. By the war’s end, his narrow ethnic nationalism seems empty. With no defenses against slights to his manhood, he sinks into alcoholism. Yet, Ugwu dedicates his book to Odenigbo. But for Odenigbo, Ugwu would never have learned to read, write, or challenge the injurious values he learns in school.
Adichie effectively uses pairing of characters and themes throughout the book. Its central pair are the twin sisters Olanna and Kainene. Readers of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart may remember that twins, among precolonial and colonial Igbo-speaking peoples, were seen as abominations and bad omens for the entire village. They were left out in the forest to die. As Achebe—whose praise for Half a Yellow Sun can be found on its back cover—illustrates in his novel, Christian missionaries used that tradition to convince some members of Igbo societies of the “inhumanity” of their own customs and, thus, to convert them to Christianity. The tensions between Christian and indigenous beliefs may, indeed, be another pairing in this book. But surely it is no accident that Olanna and Kainene are twins. They are daughters of Nigeria’s new, corrupt elite; their parents even try to prostitute them to gain economic and political advantages. Their closeness is strained at the beginning of the novel by their perverse relationships with their parents; they both rebel against their parents’ values but cannot recognize their similarities to one another.
Their conflicts symbolize the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra, whom Adichie has also twinned in this book, and are as well a warning to present-day Nigerians to look beyond their differences before they descend into final destruction. The pointlessness of the twins’ disagreements represents the futility of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalism. Part of the book’s chilling quality comes from the almost seamless way people move from thinking of themselves as Nigerians to thinking of themselves as Biafrans. How quickly the word “Nigerian” shifts from self-identity to epithet. Comrades become vandals; neighbors become saboteurs. People no longer see their destinies as intertwined. Olanna and Kainene learn through the terror and shocks of wartime that nothing—neither sexual infidelity nor personal jealousy—should estrange them from one another.
Also coupled in Adichie’s novel are Richard, a British expatriate who falls in love with Kainene, and Madu, an officer in the Biafran army who also loves her. Richard moves to Nigeria with plans to write about what he sees as exotic art—ninth century Igbo-Ukwu pots, which are just then being rediscovered in Nigeria and known in the West. He often seems like a lost soul. At the beginning of the book, he finds himself out of place in the expatriate community. Kainene, in an act of rebellion against her parents, rescues him from that world and takes him as a lover. He gets caught up in the Biafran struggle for independence and wants to become the literary voice of the Igbo people—but this is a role that only someone like Ugwu can fulfill. As his confusions grow, it becomes clear to the reader that he has exoticized both the Igbo-Ukwu pots and Kainene. Ultimately, Richard discovers that there is very little meaningful room for him in postcolonial Nigeria. Meanwhile his rival for Kainene’s affections, Madu, emerges as a man of integrity, resilience, and fortitude, who represents the best of Biafra’s culture despite the missteps of Biafra’s politicians.
It is appropriate to end this review with the epilogue from Ugwu’s book, the poem, “Were You Silent When We Died?” After all, much of the world stood by while children starved and over one million people died. World powers, including Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union, protected their oil interests by arming the Nigerian government. The book’s critique of our complicities is painful to read.
Did you see photos in sixty-eight
Of children with their hair becoming rust:
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads,
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust?
Imagine children with arms like toothpicks,
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin.
It was kwashiorkor—difficult word,
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin.
You needn’t imagine. There were photos
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly,
Then turn round to hold your lover or wife?
Their skin had turned the tawny of weak tea
And showed cobwebs of vein and brittle bone:
Naked children laughing, as if the man
Would not take photos and then leave, alone.
E. Frances White is a professor in the Gallatin School and vice provost for faculty affairs at New York University. Her most recent books include, Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability and Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History, with Iris Berger.