Engaging with history to make sense of the present

“The author pushes us to see Africa not just as a tragedy, but as a failure of the modern world,” writes Shruti Sonal.

“The real tragedy of our postcolonial world is not that the majority of people had no say in whether or not they wanted this new world; rather, it is that the majority have not been given the tools to negotiate this new world.”

The above quote is not just a line from the novel under review, but in many ways, a summation of the reality that faced the African continent after the waves of decolonisation. Even after the imperial powers withdrew, the legacy and arbitrarily drawn borders that they left behind paved the way for a chaotic future for Africa. Power struggle among elites, deepening ethnic strife and foreign attempts to exploit the oil resources led to civil wars in many of the newly independent countries. Thus, the post-colonial tragedy was there for all to see: the people of Africa had been given borders and identities, but not the tools to make sense of their new reality.

“Half of a Yellow Sun”, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie navigates through this tragedy that shaped the tumultuous decade of the 1960s in post-colonial Nigeria. Set against the backdrop of the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70) which stemmed from the nationalist aspirations of the Igbos for secession and creation of a new nation- Biafra. Created as a colonial entity by the British, Nigeria was divided between a Muslim-dominated North and a south mainly populated by Christians. Following independence in 1960, three provinces were formed along tribal lines, the Hausa and Fulani (north), Yoruba (south-west), and Igbo or Ibo (south-east). As a result of the legacy of the colonial rule, the post independence institutions in Nigeria were dominated by the North, leading to resentment among the Igbos. Ethnic tensions increased after a military coup in 1966 which led to General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Igbo, taking over as President. This was followed by a northerner-led counter coup a few months later against the ‘infidels’. Aguiyi-Ironsi was killed and widespread reprisals were unleashed against the Igbo. Fearing marginalization within the state, on May 30, 1967 the Igbo-majority province declared its independence as the Republic of Biafra. After a three year long brutal civil war, Biafra was reconnected with Nigeria. The civil war thus witnessed not only struggle between the Nigerian government and the secessionists, but also Igbos and other ethnic groups like Yorubas and Hausa-Fulanis. Remnants of the colonial rule and the struggle for oil in the region escalated and complicated the war in several ways. It is these multi-layered perspectives that the novel aims to provide on the war and its consequences.

The author of the novel Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born on 15th September 1977 in Nigeria and grew up in the university town of Nsukka, where most of the novel is based. Although she was born after the end of the civil war, she experienced the angst of a generation who grew up in the shadow of the war. She lost both her grandfathers in the war and admitted in several interviews that “Half of a Yellow Sun”, and her previous novel “Purple Hibiscus” were both means of engaging with history to make sense of the present. With her family history as the background, she set out on an ambitious task to recapture the optimism, chaos and disappointment that shaped the Nigerian Civil War.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Source – Facebook

The book, in its essence, is a war novel, driven by the emotions, impulses and conflicts experienced by its characters amidst political turmoil. Adichie takes through the aspirations and fears of three distinct characters, whose lives intersect and are changed by the civil war. Ugwu, a boy from a poor village, works as a househelp for a university lecturer named Odenigbo who advocates the Igbo cause initially. Olanna, a young attractive woman, abandons her life of privilege to live with her ‘revolutionary lover’- the Professor. The third is Richard, a shy Englishman in love with Olanna’s twin sister and intrigued by the land of Africa. The three of them are at first overjoyed by the declaration of Biafran independence. Ugwu and Olanna, influenced by the ideas of the revolutionary professor, celebrate the rewriting of identities falsely created by the colonial rulers. Richard starts identifying himself as a “Biafran” as he feels like he belongs to the newly created nation as he was there at the time of its birth. However, very soon, the optimism fades away and these lives are thrown into a storm, losing not only their initial hope, but also home, love and integrity.

Like many other works of post-colonial African literature such as Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” and Shimmer Chindoya’s “Harvest of Thorns” this novel brings to light numerous pertinent questions about the narratives and perceptions revolving around socio-political developments in Africa. First and foremost, it highlights the clash between ethnic and tribal identities on one hand, and constructed nationalities in the postcolonial period on the other. The following quote by Odenigbo, demonstrates the chasms that continued to be present in Nigeria after the formal decolonisation:

“My point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe…I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”

The novel also questions the outsider gaze which often shapes the narratives and our understanding of wars and peace in Africa. The initial perceptions of a “Dark Continent” and the current understanding of Africa as a “poor continent” are both driven by eurocentric viewpoints and fails to provide a true and cohesive picture of the place. It is this tendency that Adichie questions through the use of British character.  For instance, when Richard tries to write articles about the ongoing civil war, he experiences an inner conflict. The author writes,

“He felt more frightened at the thought that perhaps he had been nothing more than a voyeur. He had not feared for his own life, so the massacres became external… the echo of unreality weighed down each word.”

Using the three diverse characters, the novel also explores themes of intersectionalities between gender, race, class and ethnicity that shaped the war. It questions what war meant to a poor househelp, daughters of a privileged man and a foreigner in a country torn apart. It also reminds us that within a single community, the experiences of a conflict differ based on the positioning of an individual on the wide spectrum of factors that shape identity.

The title of the novel itself is carefully chosen, to reflect upon the half-baked dream and collapse of the utopian ideal that Biafra was imagined to be. The movement had their insignia and flag with the picture of a Rising Sun, and “Half of A Yellow Sun” showcases the divisions that it brought and the unfulfilled dreams it left behind. It reminds us of how similar the historical trajectories of many African countries are and how people were moved and eventually disappointed by ideas they passionately believed in.

The book is thus a must read for anyone who wants to move beyond headlines. The author pushes us to see Africa not just as a tragedy, but as a failure of the modern world- of both those who inflicted the wounds by slicing borders and creating identities, and also the rest, who stood mute as it was done so. It however does not see history as artefacts of the past, but also reminds us of the dangers it carries to the present and warns us about the future that awaits us if we don’t learn from it. It is a valuable addition to the body of post-colonial literature on Africa, and manages to address both individual stories and larger human narratives that shape our world.

Shruti Sonal lives in Bengaluru, and works as a freelance writer for The Hindu and The Wire.

Read all reviews by Shruti Sonal

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