A brilliant story teller on the birth of Biafra and the war, the war, the starving millions. This is a hard book.
I was a child in Wellington during the Nigerian civil war. We learned about the starving children of Biafra and I am still haunted by those first images of black children with distended bellies, held by women with arms so thin they seemed to contain no flesh at all. I didn’t then know the reason for the big bellies but I do after reading Half of a Yellow Sun. The systematic malnutrition of babies and children by the Nigerian generals, aided by British weapons and ammunition was causing acute protein deficiency, leading to the condition known as kwashiorkor.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story is centred around five linked people, who lose all control over their lives as Nigeria erupts into civil war and they become “Biafran” for the three long years of the secessionist state’s existence. All are interesting and fully engaging characters and we walk with them as their stable and happy world disappears fast into chaos and brutality.
The teenage Ugwu is bright and cheerfully opinionated, he goes from his village to become the house boy — “my good man”— to Odenigbo, a political mathematics professor and sometime revolutionary. They are joined by the beautiful and wealthy Olanna, also feisty and deeply in love with her strong man, and the three form a family to which Baby is added. Olanna has a semi-estranged twin sister, Kainene, who is brittle and acerbic. We mainly see her through the eyes of Richard, a shy British journalist and struggling novelist, and she is elevated by the way he is completely captivated by her, inexplicably perhaps, but their love feels more real because of this. Love just is. It’s a truth.
Between these five characters each relationship is clear and compelling, examining many different types of love. There is a substantial cast of secondary characters who, through their relationships with the others, offer highlights and shadows to make this community come alive.
War breaks and they are forced to flee their comfortable homes to progressively worse conditions. They face shocking revelations on the journey. Each character goes through their own personal hell while sharing the communal hell of their lovers, family and friends, villagers and the millions of displaced and victimised fellow Biafrans.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a reference to the flag of Biafra. In May 1967, following a series of violent massacres by the Hausa people of Northern Nigeria triggered by assassinations, the Igbo people in the east unilaterally declared Baifra as an independent, Igbo state. The Nigerians responded with a brutal civil war. The British and Russians supplied Nigeria with weapons and ammunition, insisting on a “one state solution” to Nigeria rather than a country divided on tribal lines. Recent opinion puts more emphasis on the detrimental effect a divided country would have on the role of Shell-BP in Nigerian oil. By January 1970 the war ended, there were over two million dead and the half of a yellow sun flag of Biafra came down forever.
Reading this book is an enthralling lesson in a difficult history. It doesn’t offer any answers other than to highlight the horror, with the heartfelt hope that men will learn to find new solutions to differences, other than military. I strongly recommend it as an appalling and unsettling read for a book club. We should be appalled and unsettled about things that matter, and discuss the effect politics, racism, and money has had on lives throughout history.