5. The book: The World Was Silent When We Died
He writes about starvation. Starvation was a Nigerian weapon of war. Starvation broke Biafra and brought Biafra fame and made Biafra last as long as it did. Starvation made the people of the world take notice and sparked protests and demonstrations in London and Moscow and Czechoslovakia. Starvation made Zambia and Tanzania and Ivory Coast and Gabon recognize Biafra, starvation brought Africa into Nixon’s American campaign and made parents all over the world tell their children to eat up. Starvation propelled aid organizations to sneak-fly food into Biafra at night since both sides could not agree on routes. Starvation aided the careers of photographers. And starvation made the International Red Cross call Biafra its gravest emergency since the Second World War (237).
This excerpt from a clever book within Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, confronts the reader with one of the novel’s central ironies: enforced starvation, the very tactic that crushed Nigeria’s break away southeastern region, briefly independent and known as Biafra, also brought it the international attention that sustained its rebellion for three years. Those who are old enough to remember will recall that the first images of starving African children to pierce the consciousness of the west came from Nigeria’s 1967 to 1970 civil war. Adichie’s successful historical novel manages to capture many complexities and ironies of one of Africa’s first post-colonial conflicts.
Adichie, who won the Commonwealth Writers Prize and Hurston/Wright Legacy Prize for her first novel, Purple Hibiscus, is skilled at drawing her readers into the daily terror and brutality wrought by war. We watch as the seemingly genteel world of academia disintegrates and tugs at our own senses of security; we see both the silent killer of children, kwashiorkor, and bombs drive men and women to heroics, cowardice, and craziness. Adichie has done her homework well. Importantly, she writes into a rich tradition—virtually every major Nigerian writer has felt compelled to address this devastating civil war. Chinua Achebe, Cyprian Ekwensi, and Wole Soyinka have wade in. Given Nigeria’s lively tradition of feminist writers, Adichie is fortunate to follow in the footsteps of Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa, each of whom unveiled the particular horrors women face during war. Moreover, Half of a Yellow Sun represents an entry by Nigeria’s new crop of wonderful writers, such as Helon Habila, Chris Abani, and Sefi Atta, into a necessary confrontation with Nigeria’s bloody past. To paraphrase Toni Morrison from Beloved, this is clearly not a story for Nigerian writers to pass on.
Ugwu, the character who writes the book within Half of a Yellow Sun with which this review opens, undergoes tremendous transformations that are wrought by coming of age during this civil war. The book begins when he arrives from up country as a 13-year old to be the ‘houseboy’ of Odenigbo, a math professor and armchair revolutionary at University of Nigeria at Nsukka, the intellectual center of the Biafran independence movement. Indeed, until the war breaks out, precocious Ugwu seems to be following in Odenigbo ‘s footsteps, whom he calls Master. Both come from largely Igbo villages and adapt well to western style education. Their relationship is complex and at times problematic—allowing the Adichie to explore class conflicts in the post-colonial era. Ugwu arrives at Odenigbo’s house during peacetime when the false promises of independence—granted in 1960 were just beginning to reveal themselves. The house becomes a setting for passionate but friendly-at-first debates that express arange of intellectual positions in the run up to the war.
Odenigbo and Ugwu are a fascinating pairing. As Nigeria descends into its bloody civil war, naive Ugwu’s experiences help him find his voice. He takes up writing as a way of dealing with his bewildering and disturbing experiences, including facing both the shortcomings and value of his Master; participating in atrocities as a child soldier, and sustaining serious physical damage during battle. The war’s most harrowing experiences are seen through his eyes. On the other hand, Odenigbo becomes more and more mute, as his idealism is dashed along with Biafra’s hopes. He begins the book as a man sure of his opinions and place in the world. By war’s end, his narrow ethnic nationalism seems empty and, with no defenses against slights to his manhood, he sinks into alcoholism. Yet, Ugwu dedicates his book to Odenigbo. But for Odenigbo, Ugwu would never have learned to read and write and to challenge many of the injurious values taught in school.
The book’s central pair is the twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene. Many readers might recall from having read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart that twins had special significance among pre-colonial and colonial Igbo-speaking peoples. Since twin infants had been seen as abominations and bad omens for an entire village, they were left out in the forest to die. As Achebe, whose praise for Half of a Yellow Sun can be found on its back cover, illustrated, Christian missionaries used that tradition to convince some members of Igbo societies of the inhumanity of their own customs and, thus, to convert them to Christianity. The tensions between Christian and indigenous beliefs may, indeed, be another pairing in this book. Surely, it is no accident that Olanna and Kainene are twins. They are daughters of Nigeria’s new, corrupt elite; their parents even try to prostitute them to gain economic and political advantages. Their closeness strained at the beginning of the novel by their perverse relationships with their parents, they both rebel against their parents’ values but cannot recognize their own similarities to each other.
Their conflicts symbolize the civil war between Nigeria and Biafra and are a warning to present-day Nigerians to look beyond their differences before they descend into final destruction. The pointlessness of the twins’ disagreements represents the futility of Nigeria’s ethnic nationalism. Part of the book’s chilling quality comes from the almost seamless way people move from thinking of themselves as Nigerians to thinking of themselves as Biafrans. How quickly the word Nigerian shifts from self-identity to epithet; comrades become vandals; and neighbors become saboteurs. People no longer see how their destinies are intertwined. Olanna and Kainene learn through the terror and shocks of wartime that nothing—neither sexual infidelity nor personal jealousy—should estrange them.
Also coupled in Adichie’s novel is Richard, a British expatriate who falls in love with Kainene, and Madu, an officer in the Biafran army who also loves her. Richard moves to Nigeria with plans to write about what he sees as exotic art, 9th century Igbo-Ukwu art, which is just then being rediscovered in Nigeria and known in the West. He often seems like a lost soul. At the beginning of the book, he finds himself out of place in the expatriate community. In an act of rebellion against her parents, Kainene rescues him from that world and takes him as a lover. He gets caught up in the Biafran effort for independence and tries to become the literary voice of the Igbo people, a role that only Ugwu could fulfill. As his confusions grow, it becomes clear to the reader that he has exoticized both the Igbo-Ukwu pots and Kainene. Ultimately, Richard discovers that there is very little room for him in post-colonial Nigeria. Meanwhile his rival for Kainene’s affections, Madu, emerges as a man of integrity, resilience and fortitude and represents the best of Biafra’s culture despite the missteps of Biafra’s politicians.
It is appropriate to end this review with the epilogue from Ugwu’s book, “The World Was Silent When We Died”. After all, many people stood by while children starved and over one million people died. World powers, including Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union, protected their interests in oil by arming the federal government. The book’s critique of our complicities is painful to read.
“WHERE YOU SILENT WHEN WE DIED?”_____________
Did you see photos in sixty-eight
Of Children with their hair becoming rust:
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads,
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust?
Imagine children with arms like toothpicks,
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin.
It was kwashiorkor—difficult word,
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin.
You needn’t imagine. There were photos
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly,
Then turn round to hold your lover or wife?
Their skin had turned the tawny of weak tea
And showed cobwebs of vein and brittle bone:
Naked children laughing, as if the man
Would not take photos and then leave, alone (375).
e. Frances White is a professor in the Gallatin School and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs at New York University. Her most recent books include, Dark Continent of Our Bodies: Black Feminism and the Politics of Respectability and Women in Sub-Saharan Africa: Restoring Women to History with Iris Berger.