Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

21 May 2007

Just finished this amazing novel about the civil war in Nigeria during the 1960s. Perhaps I found the story all the more compelling because having visited Nigeria, I knew some of the areas written so vividly about: Port Harcourt, Lagos, Calabar. The novel helped me understand the country I saw: a country lurching under the weight of poverty and corruption, and inter-ethnic conflict. The novel is told from the perspective of three people: Ugwu, a rural villager who comes to work for a socialist academic Odenigbo; Olanna, the partner of Odenigbo, and Richard, an English writer who falls in love with Olanna’s sister, Kainene. The book shifts from the early 1960s, just after Nigeria achieved independence from British colonial rule to the late 1960s, when the Igbo people attempted to achieve their own independent state within Nigeria called Biafra. Odenigbo becomes a vociferous cheerleader for the Biafran state while Olanna and Ugwu are sucked into the conflict because of their Igbo ethnicity. The novel details the idealistic, optimistic nights of the 1960s when so many Nigerians felt so much hope for their country which had been freed from the shackles of colonial rule. The conflict between the Yoruban and Hausa people in Nigeria and the Igbo people barely flickers across these pages, but it is clearly there in the background. Suddenly, after a military coup by the Igbo top-brass is crushed, a fully fledged civil war ensues: Odenigbo and Olanna, together with Ugwu, their ‘servant boy’ and their ‘Baby’ flee Nsukka, their home town, flee the Nigerian soldiers, retreating into the heartland of the new state they dub Biafra. The carnage they encounter is terrifying, and their suffering is appalling.

The novel explained so much to me. It showed me that Nigeria is clearly still reeling from this conflict and shows what a miracle it is that the country is once more a democracy of sorts, and still hanging together. It showed the legacy of colonialism sowed the seeds of the conflict, and it explained how prejudice and corruption continue to stop the country functioning properly. This is a huge book in so many ways: very ambitious and subtle in scope.

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