“I do hereby solemnly proclaim that the territory and region known as and called Eastern Nigeria, together with her continental shelf and territorial waters, shall henceforth be an independent sovereign state of the name and title of The Republic of Biafra.”
~Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of three central characters before and during the Nigerian-Biafran War of 1967-1970. The first character we meet is Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old boy from a small village, who comes to the town of Nsukka to take up a position as houseboy to Odenigbo. Odenigbo is a university professor who regularly plays host to a lively gathering of friends who are all very opinionated on the political issues facing Nigeria. His girlfriend, Olanna, is the daughter of a rich businessman and is an educated woman with a degree in sociology. Early in the book she travels to Nsukka to live with Odenigbo and Ugwu. The third main protagonist is Richard Churchill, an Englishman drawn to Nigeria by his interest in Igbo-Ukwu art. Richard falls in love with Kainene, Olanna’s intelligent and sarcastic twin sister.
This is the first book I’ve read by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and also the first time I’ve read anything on this subject. However, my unfamiliarity with the history, politics and geography of Nigeria wasn’t a problem, because the book explained things very well, on a personal, as well as a political level. The important thing to understand is that the nation of Biafra was formed when one of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, the Igbo, attempted to secede from Nigeria and establish their own country – but the newly-created Republic of Biafra received little support from the rest of the world and lasted less than three years. The Biafran flag (shown to the right) consisted of red, black and green horizontal stripes, with half of a yellow sun in the middle.
The book has an unusual structure: as well as being told from the alternating viewpoints of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard, the story also moves backwards and forwards in time. This structure didn’t really work for me, as I felt it disrupted the flow of the story. It also took me a while to start to feel anything for the characters, which was a problem for me at first. What I did like, though, was that the central protagonists were all from very different backgrounds which gave us the opportunity to see things from three entirely different perspectives.
Then suddenly, the Republic of Biafra was established, the war began, and from this point I became swept into the story and really began to love and care about the characters. We were given some vivid and harrowing descriptions of the suffering of the Biafran people – how children were dying of starvation, how people were murdered and abused, how homes were being destroyed. There’s one memorable scene where Olanna is sitting next to a woman on a train who is holding a calabash containing the severed head of her daughter. There was a lot of violence in the book, but I never felt that it was gratuitous.
The characters all develop over the course of the story, which is always a good thing. Ugwu was probably my favourite character. At the beginning of the book he arrives in Odenigbo’s home as an uneducated teenage boy, who feels bewildered by the new life he has suddenly been thrust into, but as he learns he grows in confidence and becomes a valued member of the family. However, there’s an incident near the end of the book that disappointed me and made me lose respect for him, although the fact that this occurs shows us how war and fear makes people behave in ways that they wouldn’t normally.
The other character I found particularly interesting was Richard. As an Englishman and initally an ‘outsider’, he comes to consider himself a Biafran and wants to write about his experiences, but eventually begins to question whether it’s right for him to tell this story or if it should be left for somebody else to tell. There were also several scenes which took place towards the end of the war when he was accompanying two American journalists who had come to report on the war. The ignorance and insensitivity of the journalists gives an idea of how the situation may have been viewed by some of those outside Nigeria.
There are a few surprises at the end of the book and it certainly didn’t conclude the way I was expecting it to. I can’t really say that I ‘enjoyed’ this book but I’m glad I read it because I now have a much better understanding of this period of Nigerian/Biafran history – and also because the story itself was so moving and one that really affected me.
I’ll leave you with a quote from the book in which Odenigbo explains why his mother, a woman from a small bush village, feels threatened by an educated woman like Olanna.
“The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”