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Nigeria during the civil war period that culminated in the failed State of Biafra and the resulted in the death of many Igbo people, is the backdrop for Chimamanda Ngozi Addichie’s acclaimed novel “Half of a Yellow Sun.” The book could be understood as a sequel to Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart” which was set in pre-colonial Nigeria and depicted the disintegration of traditional Igbo society and culture under British colonial rule. A patrilineal but collective society in the densely populated southeast of Nigeria, the Igbo’s decentralization left them easy prey for colonialism and for their northern Muslim Hausa brethren, with whom cold-war warrior nations found common cause. Rich in oil and other natural resources, Nigeria seven years after independence, suffered from ethnic and religious differences between its Hausa, Igbo, and southwestern Yoruba cultures. The southern delta region of Nigeria is where the oil is and outside of Lagos, in the southwest, is where almost all the population is. Nigeria is the most populated country in Africa, accounting for about 1 of every 5 Africans. Where the Hausa-Fulani live in the north, outside of Kano, it is relatively sparsely populated.

There is a line in Ms. Adiche’s novel which refers to the Igbo as the Jews of Africa. This overstates its lineage as traders and understates that of other indigenous societies. Nonetheless, there in an undercurrent of Igbo cultural dominance in government and economics as a reason for its rivals’ resentment and resulting coup against its short-lived government. This perceived superiority is only expressed through Igbo characters after sectarianism surfaces so it may overstate the point.

There are two principal Igbo characters in the book that reflect the characterization of the persecuted Jew, Igbo, or other successful trading cultures as intellectual and wealthy. Odenigbo, a university professor and “socialist revolutionary”, who lives in his rarefied world of university and tennis clubs. He debates his fellow intellectuals about post-colonial Nigeria while at tea, without having contact with the bush people. Kainene, the uglier but practical twin sister of Odenigbo’s girl friend and wife, Olanna, is Odenigbo’s polar opposite. She is taking over her wealthy parents’ business of lucrative government contracts, a life Olanna’s beauty and English upbringing allows her to avoid. They are Igbo’s elite and the center of the book. Intellect and economics without the control and weaponry of the military is a doomed strategy for independence or survival.

In part, the novel traces the degradation of Olanna’s lifestyle from privileged family and university life, to Biafra’s refugee camps. Life does not make her as practical as Kainene, but it pushes her closer to Kainene and away from Odenigbo. The novel is also an expression of future hope through Ugwu. A tribal Igbo boy, Ugwu evolves from man-servant to Odenigbo, to conscripted soldier, to as capable a writer as Richard. Richard, Katiene’s expat white British boyfriend, is the voice of the Biafra cause to cynical foreign media, and as well as a source of romantic tension in the novel. Other smaller characters are used to express sectarianism, corruption, economic status, and romantic relationships. There is only one Hausa character in the book, an old English educated ex-boyfriend of Kainene, who as an elite, is above the fray.

The interesting aspect of this novel is that unlike traditional Igbo culture, the leading characters principally are strong women. Except for Igbo Colonel Madu, at all economic levels the novel accessorizes men. While the novel blends history and culture and is a very fast read, the tragedy that was Biafra was described but not felt by me. It was like a canvas on which traditional human and romantic relationships were painted. They could have been easily been transposed into another scene. Clearly, there are descriptions of brutality, disease and starvation, but the storyline to me predominates. Perhaps I have become immunized or I anticipated a bottom-up point of view. I remember the posters of starving Biafran children with distended bellies more than I remember any scenes in the book. It may be because it is descriptive but not visual, or because there was Bangladesh, Rwanda, and countless other examples before and after Biafra.

I think Ms. Adiche may want to revisit in her next novel Nigeria in the immediate post-civil war period. A multi-cultural view of the ethnic cleansing would prove interesting. Throughout this novel there are snippets from the forthcoming book that one of the characters intends to publish after the war. It is justly entitled “The World Was Silent When We Died.” It is a theme that never goes out of style.

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