High life plays on the gramophones and radios of Half of a Yellow Sun. Olanna and Odenigbo dance to its tunes. When Olanna meets newcomers to her quiet university life in Nsukka, Nigeria, she wonders whether they like high life. High life is the music of Nigeria in the 1960s. It is the music of the Igbo people about to be slaughtered in the Nigeria – Biafra War of 1967-1970.
Music was the inspiration for me to finally pick up this novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie though it wasn’t high life. It was Seat at the Table by Solange, the centerpiece of a live journal performance by VERSO/.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a story of Nigeria. Almost all of the characters are Igbo, as is Adichie herself. Most of the action takes place in the eastern half of Nigeria that is soon to become, briefly, the Republic of Biafra.
We hear this story of Biafra from the perspective of 3 characters: the privileged and beautiful Olanna, the houseboy Ugwu and the Brit Richard who falls in love with Olanna’s sister Kainene. To add to this kaleidoscopic view, Adichie jumps back and forth in time, from parts labelled The Early Sixties to others titled merely The Late Sixties.
The sections are obviously meant to mirror the before and after of war. The timeline is short but grim:
- 1960: Nigeria wins its independence from Great Britain
- 1966: in January and again in July, members of the military attempted a coup d’etat. From June until October, Northern soldiers slaughtered 80,000 to 100,000 Igbo people.
- 1967: on May 30 the largely Igbo dominated eastern half of Nigeria secedes, calling itself the Republic of Biafra. Its flag depicts half of a yellow sun. War starts on July 6.
Millions died in the conflict, many of those from hunger. Biafra surrendered in 1970, ending one of the bloodiest conflicts in post-independence Africa.
The sisters Olanna and Kainene stand at the center of Adichie’s novel. We hear the high-flown debates in Odenigbo’s house while Olanna listens to high life playing in the background. We see the northern Hausa soldiers slaughter members of Olanna and Kainene’s Igbo family. As war comes, men disappear from the lives of Kainene and Olanna, some as volunteers and others as conscripts in the war to save Biafra.
men at war
The great flaw in this novel lies with the men, who refuse to come to life. The most egregious example is Richard, Kainene’s lover. His life in England is dull. He catches a fleeting glimpse of Igbo-Ukwu art and this is reason enough for him to come to Nigeria. His character seems to serve no purpose other than to illustrate the impotence of the vanquished white colonial. The fact that Richard also suffers from an erectile dysfunction makes the metaphor all the more heavy-handed.
Even Odenigbo, Olanna’s lover, turns out to be a lot of hot air. When Biafra declares independence, Odenigbo is jubilant. When war soon follows, he’s shocked. As the war drags on, Odenigbo sinks into apathy. It’s the women who have to keep life going. Pampered Olanna learns to make soap from ashes and cakes out of Red Cross flour. Kainene deploys her business smarts to feed the refugees. Yet both transformations strain credulity.
The houseboy Ugwu is the only fully realized character in this novel. We meet him, age 13, on his first day in the home of his new master, Odenigbo.
Ugwu stood by the door, waiting. Sunlight streamed in through the windows, and from time to time, a gentle breeze lifted the curtains. The room was silent except for the result of Master’s page turning. Ugwu stood for a while before he began to edge closer and closer to the bookshelf, as though to hide in it, and then, after a while, he sank down to the floor, cradling his raffia bag between his knees. […] To think that he would sit on these sofas, polish this slippery-smooth floor, wash these gauzy curtains.
Ugwu is the voice of innocence before the fall. He is in many ways an avatar for Adichie. Too young to have lived through the war itself, Adichie has long known she would write this novel. In the Q&A at the back of my Harper Perennial edition, Adichie explains:
I wrote this novel because I wanted to write about love and war, because I grew up in the shadow of Biafra, because I lost both grandfathers in the Nigeria-Biafra war, because I wanted to engage with my history in order to make sense of my present, because many of the issues that led to the war remain unresolved in Nigeria today, because my father has tears in his eyes when he speaks of losing his father, because my mother still cannot speak at length about losing her father in a refugee camp, because the brutal bequests of colonialism make me angry, because the thought of the egos and indifference of men leading to the unnecessary deaths of men and women and children enrages me, because I don’t ever want to forget.
The war scars Ugwu as it does all the people of Biafra. Ugwu grows up and becomes as flawed as any man. Yet somehow he also emerges from that conflict as a wiser version of himself.
He wanted to scrub furiously. He feared, though, that it would change nothing. Perhaps the house was stained to its very foundation and that smell of something long dead and dried would always cling to the rooms and the rustle of rats would always come from the ceiling.