Half of a Yellow Sun takes place in Nigeria in the 1960s. The book begins when Ugwu, an Igbo boy from a bush village, goes to Nsukka to work as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a professor and radical. Odenigbo is in love with Olanna, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Nigerian. Olanna moves in with Odenigbo and meets his friends, who argue about politics every night. Ugwu becomes an excellent cook and goes to school. Meanwhile Richard, a white Englishman in Nigeria, leaves his girlfriend Susan when he falls in love with Kainene, Olanna’s sardonic twin sister. Richard moves to Nsukka and befriends Odenigbo and Olanna. Odenigbo’s mother “Mama” visits and calls Olanna a witch, which upsets her greatly. Olanna and Odenigbo start trying to have a child.
The narrative jumps a few years ahead, when the Nigerian government is overthrown. The Northern Hausa blame the Igbo for the coup. There is then another coup, and this time many Igbo soldiers are killed. Olanna now has a child she calls “Baby,” and she takes her to Kano to visit her relatives. The violence against the Igbo becomes a pogrom, and Olanna’s relatives are brutally murdered. She escapes on a train to Nsukka and sees a woman carrying her daughter’s severed head in a basket. Meanwhile Richard watches Igbo civilians being murdered at the airport. Colonel Ojukwu, the Igbo leader, announces that Southeast Nigeria will secede and become the Republic of Biafra. All the characters are overjoyed at this.
Nigeria then declares war on Biafra to annex it. Britain and Russia supply arms to the Nigerians, who advance against the confident Biafrans. Nsukka is evacuated, and Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, and Baby move to the cities of Abba and then Umuahia. Their living situations get progressively worse as the war continues and Biafra’s food and money runs out. Odenigbo and Olanna get married, but there is an air raid during the reception. The narrative is sometimes interrupted by a book called The World Was Silent When We Died, where an unknown author describes the larger political forces at work in the war.
The story returns to the early sixties, to the time before the war. Olanna goes to London, and while she is away Mama visits Odenigbo with a girl named Amala. Odenigbo sleeps with Amala, and when Olanna returns home she finds out. She moves out and gets very depressed. Olanna learns that Amala is pregnant with Odenigbo’s child. She gets drunk one night and seduces Richard. Richard and Olanna both agree not to tell Kainene, though Olanna soon tells Odenigbo.
Olanna and Odenigbo get back together. Olanna decides to adopt as her own Amala’s child, which is a girl and unwanted by Amala and Mama. Olanna names the child Chiamaka but calls her Baby. Kainene then finds out about Olanna and Richard, and she stops speaking to Olanna. She burns the manuscript Richard was writing but doesn’t leave him.
The story returns to the late sixties. The situation in war-torn Biafra rapidly declines, and there is starvation and violence everywhere. Nigeria blockades all aid to Biafra, and most foreign countries ignore the conflict. Richard starts writing articles about the suffering Biafrans, and Kainene runs a refugee camp. Odenigbo’s mother is killed, and he gets depressed and starts drinking.
Kainene finds Olanna and, her perspective changed by the war, forgives her. The sisters grow close again. Ugwu falls in love with a girl named Eberechi, but then he is forcefully conscripted into the army. He fights some battles and then takes part in the gang rape of a bar girl. He is badly wounded in a subsequent battle, and everyone thinks he is dead. Umuahia falls to the Nigerians and Olanna’s family moves in with Kainene. They find Ugwu in a hospital and take him home. Children start regularly dying of kawashiorkor, a disease of starvation and malnutrition.
One day Kainene crosses enemy lines to find food if possible, and doesn’t return. Richard and Olanna search for her frantically but find nothing. Finally Biafra surrenders and Nigeria is reunified. Olanna’s family returns to Nsukka to find their house looted and all their savings liquidated. Ugwu returns to his village and learns that his sister was gang raped by soldiers. He starts writing about his experiences, and it is revealed that he is the author of The World Was Silent When We Died. Kainene’s disappearance remains a mystery.