Thursday, 12 October 2017

#28 A book with a colour in the title

 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Ever since I first saw Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the TEDx talk ‘We Should All be Feminists’, I have loved her joyful spirit, her sunny wit and endearing confidence. Picking up Half of a Yellow Sun, I was keenly aware of the many voices that have constantly reminded me of how great a storyteller she is, but was determined to come to my own conclusion. Five chapters later, I was completely hooked. 

The novel is set in Nigeria   during the Nigerian civil war or otherwise known as the Biafran War which took place between 1967 -70, and killed nearly one million civilians. The war unfolds gradually in the backdrop as the author skillfully navigates through the narratives of Ugwu, the thirteen year old houseboy of Odenigbo, an erudite Professor at Nsuakka University; Olanna, young, well-educated and extremely beautiful and who is in love with Odenigbo and lives with him; and Richard, the Englishman who is infatuated and madly in love with Olanna’s enigmatic twin sister, Kainene. 

Though Kainene and Olanna are twins, they are not alike – neither in how they look nor in their nature. However , as the story unfolds we see how they are at times drawn apart and also thrown together by forces beyond their control. They belong to the Igbo community in Nigeria. Besides Igbo, there are the Hausa and Yoruba communities which constitute the three majority communities in Nigeria. Reading this book made me realize our misguided belief that Africa is one homogeneous entity, with similar languages and cultures (this identity was popularly given to Africa by its colonizers, called pan-Africanism).  For instance Nigeria has over 520 different languages!! And each accompanies accents that differentiate each tribe from the rest, their religions, customs and traditions are also different. These marked differences were given a bit of encouragement by the British colonizers that began a violent animosity between the Muslim-majority Hausa in the North and the Christian-majority Igbo. It flared into a civil war in 1967 when the Igbo, led by their army commandant and politician, Lieutenant Colonel Ojukwu, declared Biafra, a secessionist state, their own new republic.

However, it was a country that lived for only three violent and tragic years. No one recognized the newly formed state.  Nigerians , backed by the artillery provide by the West unleashed a violence that tore apart the country. Ojukwu’s forces made some initial advances, but Nigeria’s superior military strength gradually reduced Biafran territory. The state lost its oil fields–its main source of revenue–and without the funds to import food, an estimated one million of its civilians died as a result of severe malnutrition. We probably remember the word Biafra with images of severely malnourished and dying children that have come out of the war.
The flag of Biafra with 'Half of a Yellow Sun' 

Amidst this tragedy, we have our principal characters fighting their own inner conflicts, desires and beliefs. Ugwu, the houseboy is immensely likeable with his innocence at the start of the novel, to his extreme loyalty towards his Master and Olanna. Odenigbo, being a well-respected academician, is also a strong believer in socialism and makes sure that Ugwu is educated and insists he call him by his name and not ‘sah’ as he continues to call him. Olanna and Kainene, different as they are, realize that they are entwined to each other in a way that probably only twins can be. Richard, being shy and nervous, becomes an outsider/insider in this civil unrest, since he has gradually learns to speak in fluent Igbo. He becomes the voice for the people during the crisis in foreign news supplements. What strikes us as a hard-hitting truth when we read their story is that these are people who are intensely flawed themselves. The war also brings out parts of their own selves that they would have been reluctant to admit to otherwise. There are more characters that abound in the pages and the narrative slips back and forth in time in the four sections that the book is divided into. 

Coming to this book after reading Schindler’s Ark, the tragedy that unfolds for the Igbo people, as well as all those who were caught in the conflict, seemed eerily similar to what happened during the Jewish Holocaust. The citizens, overnight become enemies of the state and are stripped of everything they own. The hatred, suspicion and violence that engulf them leaves a searing reminder in the survivors of the horrors they witnessed.

It is often easy to forget these man-made disasters and hide the truth behind statistics and reports. But with a storyteller like Adichie, the human conflict is given voice and is not forgotten. Without doubt Adichie is a magical storyteller. She weaves a historical-fiction with masterful skill, her language keeps us enchanted. 

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