Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is one of the most acclaimed and prominent contemporary Nigerian authors working today. Adichie was born on September 15, 1977 in Enugu, Nigeria. She and her family moved to the city of Nsukka when she was little so that her father could work at the University of Nigeria as a professor and pro-vice-chancellor, and so that her mother could work there as a registrar (Mullane, 2014). Adiche grew up with a bilingual education in English and Igbo respectively (Mullane, 2014). She eventually moved from Nigeria and immigrated to the United States when she was a teenager to attend Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic, Connecticut (“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” 2018). She earned a bachelor’s degree from there with a major in political science and a minor in communication (Mullane, 2014). She also earned a master’s degree in creative writing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland (“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” 2018). It was during this time period that Adichie became passionate about writing and decided to pursue writing as a career. She has published a short story collection (The Thing Around Your Neck), two book-length essays (We Should All Be Feminists, Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions), a memoir (Notes on Grief), and three novels (Purple Hibiscus, Half of a Yellow Sun, Americanah) as of to date.
Half of a Yellow Sun
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wasn’t alive during the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) and didn’t personally experience it, but it still tremendously affected her and her family’s lives. So much so that she wrote a novel about it entitled Half of a Yellow Sun, which was released in 2006. Both of Adichie’s grandfathers died in refugee camps during the war, and she subsequently dedicated Half of a Yellow Sun to the both of them (Mullane, 2014). She had other family members who also experienced the war and interviewed them about their experiences in preparation for the novel (Mullane, 2014). Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun focuses on Nigeria before, during, and after the Nigerian Civil War through the perspective of five different characters – Ugwu, an Igbo houseboy; Odenigbo, an Igbo mathematics professor; Olanna and Kainene, Igbo twin sisters; and Richard, an English expatriate and journalist. The war lasted from 1967 until 1970 and was fought between the Nigerian government, mostly comprised of Hausa-Fulani people and the Republic of Biafra, mostly comprised of Igbo people who wanted to secede from Nigeria. The main theme of Half of a Yellow Sun is about the horrors of war and what it does to people. Adichie doesn’t shy away from describing in great detail the devastating consequences of the war nor thrusting her characters into situations in which they must face these consequences. Ugwu is forcefully enlisted into the Biafran army and is badly wounded after being struck by a shrapnel (Adichie, p. 367). He also participates in the gang rape of a bar girl (Adichie, p. 365). Odenigbo’s mother is shot to death by a soldier (Adichie, p. 299). His and Olanna’s wedding is also interrupted by air raids and bombings by the Nigerian army (Adichie, p. 202). Olanna witnesses a woman carrying her baby’s severed head in a calabash while riding the train (Adichie, p. 149). Richard witnesses many Igbo people shot to death by soldiers at the airport on the way back to Port Harcourt (Adichie, p. 153). He also witnesses, along with Kaiene, Ikejide’s decapitation due to being struck by a shrapnel (Adichie, p. 317). Kainene travels to a Nigerian occupied market in hopes of obtaining food for the refugee camp she runs and never returns, which leads the reader to conclude she has died (Adichie, p. 405). The picture Adichie paints of the Nigerian Civil War and its impact on Nigeria’s Igbo population is not a pretty one.
How Colonialism Created An Ethnic Conflict
What created the tension between the Hausa and Igbo people that ultimately led to the Nigerian Civil War? This aspect of Half of a Yellow Sun is the most fascinating and isn’t explicitly answered in the novel. The root of the Nigerian Civil War can be traced back to British colonialism. When British explorers, traders, and missionaries arrived in Nigeria in the 18th century, they noted it was composed of distinct ethnic and religious groups who lived in their own regions (Howard, 2017). The Hausas lived in the North, the Yorubas lived in the Southwest, and the Igbos lived in the Southeast. The northern region of Nigeria was predominantly Muslim, having been struck by a jihad movement in the 1800’s organized by the local rural and pastoralist Fulani group (Gilbert and Reynolds, p. 211). Their goal was to establish Islamic states and spread Islam as a political, social, and religious system (Gilbert and Reynolds, p. 211). This region was ruled by the Islamic Sokoto Caliphate until the British defeated and abolished it in 1903 (Howard, 2017). Despite this, the British still operated in the North with the assumption that Islam was the default religion of the Hausas and concluded Christian missionaries weren’t needed there. (Iwuchukwu, p. 15). This made the southern region of Nigeria a target and preference for Christian missionaries. The Yorubas were able to maintain their pantheistic religion that viewed Olodumare as the creator of the world, humanity, and lesser divinities. However, they also adopted aspects of Christianity such as its trinity which can be seen through their orisas, lesser gods who had their own special areas of power (Gilbert and Reynolds, p. 63). Igbos, on the other hand, went on to fully embrace Christianity. Many Igbos felt that Christianity offered visible social advantages and that if they associated with Christian missionaries, there was a chance they could “escape various forms of colonial over-rule” (Ekechi, p. 103). As a result, they were quite receptive to missionary propaganda (Ekechi, p. 103).
The Amalgamation of Nigeria
In 1914, the British amalgamated the northern and southern regions of Nigeria into one country, mostly as a convenience of colonel administration (July, p. 554). It was essentially easier to rule over Nigeria if it was a single country. The British government was primarily concerned with its own economy and the efficiency of its own organization, and didn’t even bother to consider the potential consequences of amalgamating Nigeria (July, p. 554). The Hausas, Igbos, and Yorubas were all prideful groups that were “noticeably unsympathetic, if not uncomprehending, towards each other’s efforts at self-improvement,” and the British were aware of this (July, p. 554). The issue with dismissing the cultural differences between the Hausas, Igbos, and Yorubas and forcing them to just be “Nigerian” is perhaps best summarized by Odenigbo, who tells Ugwu at one point, “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” (Adichie, p. 25). The British were imperialists who believed it was their right to dictate the identity and lives of the Hausas, Igbos, and Yorubas.
Tension between Hausas and Igbos
Sociologist and philosopher Karl Marx is famous for his writings about the conflict theory, which views society as being in a state of perpetual conflict because of its competition for limited resources (Thomas et al., p. 16). These conflicts often play out in real life between different ethnic groups and eventually lead to war, and that is exactly what happened with the Hausas and Igbos. The Hausas feared for their ability to control their own destinies in a fast changing society (July, p. 555). Igbos, on the other hand, were typically among the most educated, wealthiest, and prosperous people of Nigeria (Achebe, p. 74). Their backgrounds enabled them to fulfill high ranking, senior positions such as administrators, managers, technicians, civil servants, and more (Achebe, p. 74). Igbos were partly helped by their culture, which embraced change and competition, unlike Hausas, who were hindered by their conservative and traditionalist society (Achebe, p. 74). They were also helped by the culture of educational excellence they acquired from the British (Achebe, p. 77). The British as a Christian colonial power naturally favored the predominantly Christian Igbos over the predominantly Muslim Hausas as well. These are some of the factors that gave Igbos an unquestioned advantage over other groups in securing credentials for their own advancement in Nigerian colonial society, and this caused deep resentment for the Hausas (Achebe, p. 74).
Post-Independent Nigeria—Marked by Violence
Nigeria finally gained independence from the British in 1960, but nothing immediately good came out of it. Post-independence Nigeria was marked by years of inflation, unemployment, political corruption, and much more (July, p. 555). A coup led by mostly Igbo junior officers on January 15, 1966 killed Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, premiers Ahmadu Bello and Samuel Ladoke Akintola, and many others. The underlying anti-Igbo sentiment that existed finally reached its boiling point after this event, as the federal government started carrying out anti-Igbo pogroms (July, p. 555). These pogroms led to the killings of thousands of Igbos living in the northern region of Nigeria, as well as the destruction of their homes and properties (July, p. 555). F. Ndokwa, an Idoma civil servant, experienced this pogrom in real life and was interviewed about his experience decades later in 2004. Reflecting on this terrible event, he shared, “On 16 May 1966, there was commotion in my school (Zaria Provincial Secondary School). A mob invaded the school. When they entered my classroom they ordered all of us to lie down with our faces on the floor. Students who were not from Northern Nigeria were dragged out of the room. My friend, from Oji River, was among those slaughtered in full view of other students. I also witnessed the Sunday massacre in which many Igbo were killed, houses burnt and shops looted. In fact it was like an offence to be an Igbo. We tried to hide our friends. We gave them Hausa names and smuggled some away from the neighborhood. Students formed surveillance groups and manned the entrance to the school until curfew was declared and the school was closed down” (Uchendu, p. 397). The federal government failed to respond to requests made by Igbos to stop the pogroms (Achebe, p. 90). It was no longer safe to be Igbo in Nigeria, and soon pressure was put on Igbo leaders for the creation of a secessionist Igbo state (Howard, p. 39). On May 30, 1967 army officer and military governor Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu declared the eastern region of Nigeria as the new independent sovereign state of Biafra (Howard, p. 36). The war immediately followed this secession. If the British amalgamation of Nigeria never occurred, there’s a strong possibility these series of events wouldn’t have taken place. Forcing two distinct ethnic and religious groups to live in the same country and compete against each other was bound to create chaos and instability.
How was Half of a Yellow Sun received?
Before Half of a Yellow Sun was published, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had already collected several literary prizes for her writings. She received the PEN, O. Henry, and BBC prizes for short stories she had written early in her career (“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” 2018). Her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, received the Hurston/Wright Legacy Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book (“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” 2018). Her Half of a Yellow Sun, was also met with critical acclaim. It received the Orange Broadband prize for Best English-Language Novel Written by a Woman (“Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie” 2018). In 2020, Half of a Yellow Sun was voted as the best book to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the prize’s 25 year history by members of the public (Flood, 2020). Adichie was praised by critics for accurately capturing the spices, smells, and textures of Nigeria (Gallagher, p. 29). She was also praised for representing the diverse groups of people who make up Nigeria, such as the wealthy elite, feisty and brutal soldiers, simple village people, intellectual nationalists, corrupt politicians, well-meaning but ineffective priests, and the British and American expatriates (Gallagher, p. 29). In her review of Half of a Yellow Sun, author and historian E. Frances White stated that Adichie skillfully draws her readers into the terror and brutality caused by the war and that she has done her homework. While Half of a Yellow Sun was well received by the academic community overall, the novel did receive some criticism as well. Yacoubou Alou of Zinder University was critical of Adichie’s inclination towards telling a single and unbalanced story that is slanted towards the Igbo perspective and Biafran activism (Alou, p. 106). In addition, Alou criticized Adichie for displaying a general disdain for Hausa people and defining them primarily by their ethnicity and religion instead of more personal, humanizing characteristics (Alou, p. 107). One could argue this makes Adichie’s perspective of the Nigerian Civil War skewed or biased. The title of the novel alone suggests where she stands—“Half of a Yellow Sun” is a description of the symbol on the Biafran flag. It’s important to note Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is an Igbo woman whose family was strongly affected by the Nigerian Civil War. That is the perspective she chooses to write from, and it’s ultimately what makes Half of a Yellow Sun so compelling to read. Adichie shines a spotlight on the uniquely Igbo experience during one of the most violent, chaotic, and life-defining events in Nigerian history.
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White, E. Frances. “While the world watched.” The Women’s Review of Books, May-June 2007, p. 10+. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A180217907/LitRC?u=rock77357&sid=LitRC&xid=6ea24033.
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VanZanten Gallagher, Susan. “Remember Biafra?” Books & Culture, Jan.-Feb. 2008, p. 29. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/A173971653/LitRC?u=rock77357&sid=LitRC&xid=1070c0c9.
Howard, R. T. “BIAFRA 50 YEARS ON: The Civil War That Resulted from the Division of Nigeria Was a Major Human Disaster That Should Not Be Forgotten.” History Today, vol. 67, no. 6, June 2017, p. 36.
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Alou, Yacoubou. (2017). Emerging Themes in Chimamanda N. Adichie’s Fiction: Ethnic and National Identity Narratives in Half of a Yellow Sun and “A Private Experience”. IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science. 22. 105-109. 10.9790/0837-220203105109.