Where and what is Biafra? Mention that name to anyone in my generation, and the image that springs to mind immediately is of starving children in refugee camps, victims of yet another African famine or war. Mention it to many young people now, and they will ask you where or what Biafra is, because it only existed for three brief, ruinous years as an independent African Republic, breaking away from Nigeria in 1967 and fighting a brutal war the Igbo nationalists were ill-equipped for and which descended into a war of starvation as the Nigerian forces closed the borders, and the rest of the world except for Tanzania refused to recognise it.
That then is the stark and horrific background of this exquisitely beautiful novel, which explores the lives, the loves, and the suffering of its characters in an incredibly sensitive, dignified, and deeply moving weaving of the narrative through time, beginning before the war in a period of peace and for some, plenty, after Nigeria declared independence from British colonial rule in 1960. (As a Brit, I hang my head in shame at much of our colonial history, and this is no exception. Malnutrition is referred to as ‘Harold Wilson disease’). First published in 2007, it bursts with vitality and richness, exuberant colours and scents, and I became entirely wrapped up in the characters, racing through the book much too fast really on this, my second reading of it.
Food, or the lack of it, is an ever present theme. We meet the first two central characters, Odenigbo, a radical professor, and his new houseboy, Ugwu, a village boy, forming a bond through the food Ugwu cooks, and the education Odenigbo, his house, and his visitors provide for Ugwu.
“Ugwu turned off the tap, turned it on again, then off. On and off and on and off until he was laughing at the magic of the running water and the chicken and bread that lay balmy in his stomach.”
Olanna and her twin sister, Kainene, are the daughters of a wealthy Lagos businessman; very different people, and a difficult relationship. After her father again tries to push her in the direction of one of his business contacts, Olanna leaves and moves in with her lover, Odenigbo, while Kainene develops a relationship with Richard, an Englishman who has been drawn to Nigeria by archaeological finds he wants to write about, stays because he falls in love and finds other things to write about. Including, eventually, writing about the war for foreign publications, because the Biafran leadership believe that the outside world, knowing the truth of what’s happening from a white man in Biafra, ‘cannot remain silent while we die’.
These then are our central characters. There is a jump in time, fast forwarding four years, during which something dreadful has happened that we do not learn about for a while, but which we know has had a huge impact on the characters. As the refugee crisis develops, the Nigerian blockade and the refusal of the rest of the world to do anything to help drives the newly born state and its citizens to starvation. We feel our characters grief and bewilderment, recognise and admire their resilience, wonder what has affected the relationship between the sisters in particular.
The language in this novel is lovely, with the cadences and rhythms of African language neatly juxtapositioning with English, and poignant highlighting of the ethnic differences which crucially affect the country; for example, Olanna’s ex-boyfriend is a Muslim Hausa prince from the North. It’s hard for me to say more without spoiling the end for you, but what I am going to say is, this is fantastic. If you have not already read it, you should. I know little of African history save from a British colonial perspective as I was taught in school, which I know is wrong in many ways – Odenigbo tells Ugwu that,
“they will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger. That is rubbish. Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park’s grandfather was born. But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park.”
I’m going to embark on Nelson Mandela’s ‘Long Walk to Freedom’, a weighty tome but one I am looking forward to even more now, I need to know more about African history and politics from an African point of view after reading this.
And as always, if you would like Mum’s copy of Half a Yellow Sun, please get in touch with me and I will post it out to you at no cost, this is all about gifting Mum’s love of reading forward.