February 25, 2012

Biafra, the Unacknowledged Holocaust, Documented in "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi

"Half of a Yellow Sun" is both a love story and a story of war, and I’m not certain which of the two makes more of an impact on the reader.  I decided to read this novel after I listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's speech at Narratives for Europe in Amsterdam.  A very entertaining and natural speaker, Ms. Adichi, in the most affable manner, cut President Sarkozy’s speech to shreds! Still reeling under that impact of Ms Adichi’s impeccable articulation, I came across “Half of a Yellow Sun” in my school library, and I couldn’t help but pick it up.

Ms Adichi claims she wrote the novel “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, 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.”  With so many goals to achieve, Chimamanda set herself up for a difficult task of presenting a war that the world didn’t remember or recognize, and a story of love that unfolds within that unacknowledged war. 

Set in the backdrop of the three year war fought by the secessionist state of Biafra against the Nigerian Federal Military, the novel is stark and even gory in it’s depiction of the senseless slaughter and vitriolic violence that happened in South East Nigeria even as the rest of humanity watched unashamedly, or as Adichi’s alternate storyteller in “The Book” states, “The World Was Silent When We Died.” Admittedly, majority of readers will come out of this reading with a new awareness of the legacy the British left behind in post-colonial Nigeria.  The reader will know how Biafra came to be; who were these Biafrans; why did they choose to secede from the rest of Nigeria; why did Biafra last only three years, and what happened to it at the end of those three years? With her vivid portrayal of a strife torn nation, Adichi compels the reader to wonder why no one intervened to stop this massacre which cost the world a million lives!

The backdrop of the Biafran massacre would not have been as compelling had not Adichi woven some dynamic characters into this conflict ridden landscape.  There are the twin Igbo sisters, Olanna and Kainene, who being born into wealth and status, choose diametrically opposite lifestyles  but share a common zeal for independence and a highly evolved sense of justice.  Ugwu, the thirteen year old houseboy and narrator of the story for the major part, represents the poorer sections of Igbo society. Richard, the shy white British journalist and the world’s only real window into Nigeria at the time, is the paramour of one of the twins. Then there is the revolutionary academician Odenigbo, who lives through the tumult of secession, desperately holding on to his vision of an independent Biafra. The Biafran experience is enmeshed in the lives of these characters as they negotiate peace for themselves and for their people in post colonial Nigeria. It is in the story of their lives in those three Biafran years that love takes on a new meaning as does the definition of loyalty.  The characters take on an environment that is hostile, relentless, and in flux from one moment to the next. Their relationships evolve in this uncertain atmosphere where betrayal is expected but not forgiven, and love lies in the stealth of darkness and death, but there is no silver lining that awaits!

An enchanting and informative read.

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