Shortly before Christmas, the charismatic Jacob Zuma won the leadership of the ANC from under the nose of South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki. Where Zuma is a people’s person, educated by the university of life and a champion of the poor, Mbeki is cold, intellectual and apparently incapable of showing compassion to those who suffer. Zuma is also a Zulu, South Africa’s largest ethnic group, while Mbeki is Xhosa – the same tribe as Nelson Mandela. Zuma was acquitted of rape in 2006, but is due to stand trial for corruption later this year. It has not taken South Africa’s political analysts long to begin imagining the worst case scenarios should the popular ANC leader be found guilty. Taken alongside the violent protests against Kenya’s apparently rigged elections, it is clear that in Africa tribal loyalties are not to be taken lightly.
How strange then, to have this so acutely in mind as I read Chimimanda’s Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Half of a Yellow Sun. The novel takes a group of characters through the Nigerian-Biafran war of 1967-70, where after a short-lived coup by Igbo officers in the Nigerian army, Igbo people living in the north of Nigeria were sought out and massacred. The Igbo responded by declaring their southern part of the country an independent state, which they called Biafra. Blockaded and bombed, they were eventually overpowered and Biafra was returned to Nigeria. However, the Nigerians’ most powerful weapon against the Biafrans was starvation, and the enduring image of that war is of tiny children, with the sticklike limbs and severely bloated bellies that denote kwashiorkor, or malnutrition.
While Adichie admits in the author interview at the back of my copy of the book that she changed certain small details, she remains true to the central events of the time. In this way, Half of a Yellow Sun was a history lesson for me – it brought to life a war that was happening as I was conceived and born, a war that for me was more the haunting eyes of starvation than the attempts of a people to create their own nation. But it is so much more than the dry bones of history. Adichie fleshes out her story with a set of characters as different from each other as their human need to survive is the same.
The story is largely seen through the eyes of three people. There is Ugwu, the houseboy brought in from the country to tend to the needs of the professor Odenigbo. Ugwu is about thirteen (no-one is really sure) and has passed the equivalent of Grade Four, but shows such a natural intelligence in his tasks that the professor allows him to continue his education. While this education happens largely offstage, Ugwu’s growing understanding of the world around him, of people, his compassion and love for the family that he serves clearly indicates his progression. Late in the novel, he joins his mistress Olanna in teaching children in the refugee camp where the family work – a development that shows he is no longer servile but a beloved equal.
Olanna, daughter of a chief, is the novel’s second main protagonist. She disdains the wealth and rarefied social life her parents offer her to live in the provincial town of Nsukka with her “revolutionary lover” Odenigbo and teach in the university there. She swallows her pride to adopt Odenigbo’s love-child, Baby, to whom she and Ugwu both become devoted slaves. While she adores her husband, she watches with a distaste that is hard to contain as his revolutionary fervour becomes fervour for alcohol. Odenigbo, it seems, is one of those hardline theorists whose theories drift away like gunpowder after the first shots are fired. It was not that she wanted him to go to war to prove his love for her, but that the war, and Biafra’s losing of it, took away from him the strength and manliness that in peacetime he appeared to possess.
The third protagonist is the Englishman, Richard, who drifts to Nigeria in the guise of being a writer. He very soon becomes enamoured of Olanna’s powerful and enigmatic sister Kainene, and shifts away from the superficial expat world of parties, cocktails and sexual favours to be her live-in lover. They never marry, but he turns to calling her his wife. Richard loves the Igbo, their culture and customs, and during the war is used by the army as a one-man propaganda machine. He is the outsider dying to be the insider, and he proves his devotion by staying the course of the war instead running away with the other expats. He speaks the language of the Igbo and speaks for the Igbo as a writer.
Half of a Yellow Sun is a hard book to read in that the descriptions of suffering are acute and painful. Rape – a ghastly tool of war – is also present, as are starvation, tragedy and deprivation. But Adichie’s characters are redemptive as they survive and cope, by helping others and receiving help from those more fortunate than themselves. Olanna and Kainene start the book disengaged from each other, become estranged during the course of the story and then are bound together once again in twinship and kinship. They build around themselves a small tribe of husbands, children and servants, as well the desperately ill and dying for whom they care in the refugee camp. I hope I’m not misrepresenting the book: while the subject matter is tough and Adichie does not flinch from addressing it, it is thread through with a sly and teasing humour. (At one point, Kainene says of Harrison, her houseboy, who cooks up some lizards for the family: ‘”You’d think it was roast beef, the way he’s going on about it.”‘)
Adichie is a powerful writer. Her prose never flags; it is glittering and strong. Here is a passage where Alice, a neighbour, discovers that her family have all been killed in her hometown:
She was strengthened, emboldened, by the madness of grief and she fought off everyone who tried to hold her. She rolled on the ground with such force that the stones cut her skin in tiny red gashes. The neighbours said oh and shook their heads. Odenigbo came out of the room then and went over and picked Alice up and held her, and she stayed still and began to weep, her head resting on his shoulder. Olanna watched them. There was a familiar melding to the curve of Odenigbo’s arms around Alice. He held her with the ease of someone who had held her before.
There are two things happening here. Firstly, the tiny gashes on Alice’s skin echo the machete wounds which Olanna witnesses when members of her family are murdered in the north at the beginning of the novel. The horror of war is underscored once again for Olanna, while simultaneously she realises that her husband has been sleeping with Alice. For Olanna, the degradation of war and the humiliation of her husband being unfaithful to her are one.
Aidichie says fiction is the soul of history, and this is what she achieves in her wonderful book: bringing humanity and soul to an African conflict that has long been relegated to the history books. She wraps and envelops you in her story, and sweeps you along inexorably to the end. I had the shivery feeling throughout that I was watching the birth of a classic, and I am delighted beyond adequate expression that Africa has produced another writer of her calibre and sensitivity. I think this book will be taught in schools and universities along with other classics from the continent such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing and JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. I hope that one day a writer with as fine an eye, as clear a voice and as great compassion will write a book about South Africa’s recent past, bringing soul and humanity to my country’s history.
This is my first book of 2008. I have no doubt that at the end of this year, it will be one of my favourites.