by Dimakatso Komape
Half of a Yellow Sun takes its title from the emblem for Biafra, the breakaway state in eastern Nigeria that survived for only three years, and whose name becomes a global embodiment for war by starvation. Chimamanda’s powerful focus on war’s impact on civilian life and the trauma beyond the gutters earns this novel a place alongside great works such as James Joyce’s Ulysses and The Odyssey by Homer.
Chimamanda takes her time in explaining in full detail the impacts of the war. Covering the decade to the end of the Nigeria-Biafra war of 1967-70, the novel first develops its characters in a period of peace and having plenty after Nigerian independence in 1960. Among the protagonists are Odenigbo, or “the Master’’, a radical maths lecturer at the University of Nsukka, and Ugwu, a village teenager who becomes his houseboy, but whom he enrolls at the university staff school. A novel that descends into dire hunger begins with Ugwu’s devoted creativity in the kitchen, confecting pepper soup, spicy jollof rice and chicken boiled in herbs. Beer and brandy flow as he serves the Master’s friends while absorbing snippets of intellectual debate in the era of Sharpville and the struggle for US civil rights.
Ugwu’s territory is intruded by Odenigbo’s lover, Olanna, the London educated daughter of a rich businessman in Lagos and the household is later disrupted by its links with Olanna’s occasionally estranged twin sister Kainene and her English boyfriend, Richard.
Ethnic differences are signalled between the mainly Igbo protagonists- whose persistent switching between English and Igbo languages is easily conveyed- and those such as Miss Adebayo, and the Hausa prince Mohammed. These differences assume deadly significance after the seemingly Igbo-led 1966 military coup, which becomes an excuse for anti-Igbo slaughters after the counter-coup six months later. The novel captures horror in the details of “vaguely familiar clothes on headless bodies”, or corpses’.
As Biafran secession “for security’’ brings a refugee crisis, a retaliatory Nigerian blockade, and all-out war, and the world refuses to recognise the fledgling state, the focus is on the characters’ grief, resilience and fragmenting relationships, which is quite interesting. Chimamanda richly captures the long and distinguished history of the Biafran war.
This book is a great way to learn about the past injustices that happened in Nigeria and get a good love story that touches your soul because of how real it is. Chimamanda is part of a new generation revisiting the history that her parents survived. She brings to it a coherent intelligence and compassion, and heartfelt plea for the memory of what had happened in Nigeria.