This is a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
More than a work of fiction, this felt like a work of history. The Igbo Pogrom (or genocide, if you’re not being fussy about words) of the 1966 and the politics of Nigeria in the 60s has been captured in these pages through the eyes of Ugwu, a young man who goes to the city to cook for Odenigbo, a college Professor.
During this period, about 40000 – 60000 people were killed, by bullet or through starvation. Through it all, there remained people who survived, mentally and physically, and built the country after the Pogrom. This novel is a fictional account of one such family.
Odenigbo introduces the city life to Ugwu, through his liberal friends, and by his own eccentricities. As Ugwu settles into his “Sah’s” house, he learns to cook, tend, and looks after Odenigbo very well. Odenigbo’s girlfriend, Olanna, comes down as well. For a while, things seem normal; great, in fact. Olanna and Odenigbo adopt a child (whose biological father is Odenigbo, but mother is.. well, not Olanna; you’ll have to read the book to know more about the descent of the baby girl). Still the houseboy, Ugwu joins school, and hopes to become a professor like Odenigbo one day.
But soon, the Igbo Pogrom breaks out. The tribes in the north of Nigeria (Hausas) kill Igbo tribes, including Olanna and Odenigbo’s families and friends.
Through the novel, Odenigbo is chockfull with disbelief at what is happening. During the most peaceful and hopeful times, he and his colleagues (all liberal professors) publish journals, demanding a more democratic government from the short lived Republic of Biafra. The Republic of Biafra was established in a coup that has since been infamously known as the precursor to the Pogrom; due to its brashness in supporting the Southern Nigerean people, Igbos, over the Northern ones. The feeling of humiliation felt by the Northerners is said to have sparked off the anger that the Hausas took out against the Igbos.
When the civil war (the Pogrom) breaks out, he, Olanna and their baby move to his mother’s place, at the very last minute, away from the violence. Soon the Hausa tribes come close to finding them there as well. Then, with no choice left, they move to the refugee camps, where life hits a low. Olanna and Odenigbo suffer through blows, as they are unable to feed or clothe their child, never mind themselves. Ugwu remains loyal and supports them throughout. The way they flee from the refugee camp when the Hausas descend on them there as well, is a tale in itself.
As in this review, the book is deeply attached to the chilling history of Nigeria. The characters have not been compromised in the bargain, though. Their descriptions are rich; they’re likable and still very flawed. I’ve come to think that this is Adichie’s hallmark (despite my admittedly limited exposure to her work) – characters that one can like, but characters that are not Mary Sues. The development of each character, Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, is memorable; not perfect, but so well done that I still remember little details about them. Like Ugwu’s anger at some of Odenigbo’s friends because he felt they were disrespectful towards his Master; Olanna’s wit and sharpness as a writer, and then a mother; Odenigbo’s spirited debates with his colleagues every evening in his house, etc. There are other characters, too, that are cunning, crazy or incredibly principled, who evoke certain distaste or respect from me even after months of reading the book.
Adichie sparkles in every page of this page turner. The human spirit and the bloody politics of Nigeria is so remarkably interwoven that you cannot see one without the other. If only one could study all of history this way!