Half of a Yellow Sun

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Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Icon
Loyalty and Betrayal Theme Icon
War and Violence Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
Love Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Half of a Yellow Sun, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Icon

Half of a Yellow Sun mostly deals with the Nigerian Civil War (also called the Biafran War), which took place between 1967 and 1970. Nigeria had only recently freed itself from British colonial rule at the time, and the country of Nigeria was itself an arbitrary unification (by its colonizers) of over 300 different ethnic groups. The largest of these were the Igbo in the Southeast, the Yoruba in the Southwest, and the Hausa in the North. Adichie paints a picture of this hopeful young country in its new independence through scenes at Odenigbo’s house, where politicians, professors, and poets argue and laugh together. But despite Independence in 1960, Nigerian politics were still under British influence (which wanted to maintain its access to Nigerian resources), mostly through the way the government was arranged – so that the autocratic Northern Hausa had the most control. Ultimately the tensions between the ethnic groups (exacerbated and sometimes even created by England) led to the massacres of Igbo people in 1966 and the Civil War that followed, with the secession of the Republic of Biafra in the Southeast.

Half of a Yellow Sun is told from the point of view of mostly Igbo characters – Ugwu, Odenigbo, Olanna, and Kainene – who are all affected by the massacres and the war, and hold a desperate hope in the future of Biafra. Adichie also gives us the viewpoint of an outsider, the white Englishman Richard, who though he belongs to the colonizers comes to identify closely with the Biafran cause through his love of Kainene (and yet, at the same time, can never actually be Biafran or completely extricate himself from the colonialist context or to separate his own objectification of Biafrans from his love of Kailene. Ultimately none of the political sides come out blameless in the conflict, just like the characters in the novel. England started all the trouble by colonizing and oppressing Nigeria, stirring up ethnic tensions, and supplying arms to Nigeria during the war; Nigeria used starvation and genocide as weapons of war, and the Biafran soldiers committed their own atrocities against the Nigerians and even their own people. The power of the novel is then to show human faces of different aspects of this conflict, and to portray individual tragedies and victories that bring to life events most Westerners aren’t even aware of.

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Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Quotes in Half of a Yellow Sun

Below you will find the important quotes in Half of a Yellow Sun related to the theme of Colonialism and Nigerian Politics.
Part 1, Chapter 1 Quotes

“There are two answers to the things they will teach you about our land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass. You must read books and learn both answers. I will give you books, excellent books.” Master stopped to sip his tea. “They will teach you that a white man called Mungo Park discovered River Niger. That is rubbish. Our people fished in the Niger long before Mungo Park’s grandfather was born. But in your exam, write that it was Mungo Park.”

Related Characters: Odenigbo (speaker), Ugwu
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old boy from the village Opi, has been brought to Odenigbo's house to serve as his houseboy. In exchange, he is provided with room, board, and an education at the campus primary school.

In this quote, Odenigbo expresses his discontent with the colonial history that he knows Ugwu will be taught in school. He advises Ugwu as to what he must write to do well in school, but also wants to make sure that he passes on the true history of Nigeria, not the history that British colonialism has written into the textbooks. This quote epitomizes Odenigbo's frustration with postcolonial Nigeria: the true answers for an independent nation are very clear, but obscured by the shadow that remains of the imperial British empire. In order to succeed and maintain social mobility, one must pander to colonial enterprises; but to preserve any sort of native identity, one must also defy them.


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“Of course, of course, but my point is that the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe,” Master said. “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”

Related Characters: Odenigbo (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

In the evenings, Odenigbo's house becomes a salon for many of the faculty members at the University. Ugwu enjoys listening to the academics debate literature, science, and primarily, politics. In this quote, Master (Odenigbo) argues vehemently against the broad "Nigerian" identity that white British colonists imposed upon a diverse array of tribes that resided for centuries in one particular region of Africa. 

Odenigo identifies as tribalist (meaning he sees himself as "Igbo" rather than "Nigerian"), and works towards overthrowing the various sociopolitical structures that the British put into place. He points out that Nigerians see themselves as black only because the white British colonists told them they were, and that they live in a place called "Nigeria" because white settlers decided that a particular region was to be grouped under one nation. Odenigbo is vehemently against these ideas because they are artificial, foreign creations that diminish the importance and identity of all individual Africans, and also the Igbo tribe, which he and his ancestors have been a part of for as long as they can remember. This identity is not as fully recognized politically because it did not serve the needs of the British colonists (and indeed, most colonial powers tried to exacerbate conflicts between tribes or groups in order to maintain their power over a divided populace). In his quest to overthrow colonialism in the artificial Nigeria, Odenigbo first identifies as a member of his tribe, the Igbo, before seeing himself as black and Nigerian. 

Part 1, Chapter 3 Quotes

“The new Nigerian upper class is a collection of illiterates who read nothing and eat food they dislike at overpriced Lebanese restaurants and have social conversations around one subject: ‘How’s the new car behaving?’”

Related Characters: Kainene Ozobia (speaker)
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

After meeting at one of Susan's parties, Richard becomes infatuated with Kainene. They begin to meet for lunches at one of her father's hotels, which soon lead to somewhat unsuccessful trysts, due to Richard's inexplicable inability to sexually perform. Kainene, however, does not seem upset by his lack of arousal, and they resume their conversations as normal. 

In this quote, Kainene complains about her parents and the social class they occupy. She argues that they are undereducated yet wealthy, resulting in a banality that centers around their "nouveau-riche" purchases like foreign cars and expensive meals. Richard is fascinated with her biting wit and prescient observations, and her strong sense of self despite having grown up in the very social class she is deprecating. Though critical of the nouveau riche (people with "new money," often seen to be tasteless and garish) like her parents, Kainene exhibits some hypocrisy in that she very much benefits from the wealth and education she has received as a result of her family's sociopolitical status. Still, Richard is in awe of her determination to make her own way in the world as a shrewd businesswoman. 

Part 1, Chapter 6 Quotes

It was the look in Okeoma’s eyes that worried him the most: a disdainful distrust that made him think of reading somewhere that the African and the European would always be irreconcilable. It was wrong of Okeoma to assume that he was one of those Englishman who did not give the African the benefit of an equal intelligence.

Related Characters: Richard Churchill, Okeoma
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Richard moves to Nsukka for a university fellowship and soon becomes a part of Odenigbo's regular salons. At one such event, he tells Okeoma about the Igbo-Ukwu roped pots and art that inspired him to move to Nigeria to write. Okeoma accuses Richard of expressing surprise that "these people" could accomplish such artwork. In this quote, Richard is deeply offended that Okeoma would think his interest is condescending or racist in any way. 

By moving to Nigeria due to a genuine interest in Igbo-Ukwu artwork, and particularly after falling in love with an Igbo woman, Richard essentially believes that he is exempt from his native nation's colonial past. Thus, he is shocked when Okeoma accuses him of holding racist ideals that place African people on a lower level of intelligence, as colonial propaganda attempted to make people believe. Richard believes he is exempt from colonialism because he is a "good" white person who does not look down upon Nigerians, yet as Okeoma's criticism points out, it is this kind of thinking that precisely problematizes his interest in the country. Richard is not exempt from the privilege that comes from white skin and a British passport, and as he will come to learn, the story of Nigeria's struggle for independence will never truly be his to tell. 

Part 2, Chapter 13 Quotes

Odenigbo climbed up to the podium waving his Biafran flag: swaths of red, black, and green and, at the center, a luminous half of a yellow sun.
“Biafra is born! We will lead Black Africa! We will live in security! Nobody will ever again attack us! Never again!”

Related Characters: Odenigbo (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Biafran Flag
Page Number: 205
Explanation and Analysis:

The same day that Odenigbo asks Olanna to sign a petition demanding that East Nigeria secede from the rest of the country, Ojukwu announces over the radio that the secession has occurred, with the new nation christened "Biafra." A joyous rally of students and lecturers congregates in Freedom Square, where Odenigbo is urged to speak. In this quote, Odenigbo proudly waves the Biafran flag, depicting the colors red, black, and green, and a rising sun, expressing his joy at independence at last. 

As a "revolutionary," as Kainene is fond of calling Odenigbo, Odenigbo has grand dreams of freeing Africa from the colonial clutches of Europeans. Even though Nigeria is technically independent of Britain, the artificial structures left behind by occupation still very much govern the diverse array of tribes grouped under one Nigeria. As a nation born post-colonialism, Biafra has the chance to actively shed these structures and govern itself presciently against foreign influence. Odenigbo is ecstatic to be a part of a cause beyond the debates in his living room, and exhibits a passion at the podium that he seldom releases in his personal life.

To Odenigbo, Biafra is a chance at rebirth for both him and his Igbo people. Yet, neither he nor the joyous members of the audience know that a terrible civil war (largely inspired and supported by foreign powers) is about to ravage the nation. The half of a yellow sun on the flag becomes an important symbol throughout the novel: a rising sun on the horizon, half of a nation that will soon become whole. Yet the lack of a full sun may also come to represent pessimism, a half that remains a half and never comes to fruition. At the end of the war, it is up to each person to decide for his or herself whether the glass is "half empty" or "half full" in the seemingly futile fight for independence. 

Part 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

The notion of the recent killings being the product of “age-old” hatred is therefore misleading. The tribes of the North and the South have long had contact, at least as far back as the ninth century, as some of the magnificent beads discovered at the historic Igbo-Ukwu site attest. No doubt these groups also fought wars and slave-raided each other, but they did not massacre in this manner. If this is hatred, then it is very young. It has been caused, simply, by the informal divide-and-rule policies of the British colonial exercise.

Related Characters: Richard Churchill (speaker)
Page Number: 209
Explanation and Analysis:

As the war rages on, Richard's Aunt Elizabeth sends him foreign news articles that report on the situation. These reports are often incorrect and full of prejudices against Nigerians and Biafrans. Angered, Richard writes an article to send to a British newspaper, correcting their assumptions that they purport to be facts. In this quote, Richard's article refutes the idea that Africans are inherently violent or warlike, but rather that British colonial policy created artificial divisions that have ultimately led to this inhumane conflict. 

This quote by Richard condenses much of the novel's political argument: though the rest of the world pins the root of the war on the African people's inherent inhumanity and violent tendencies, the true cause of the violence is the British colonist's artificial political structures that placed one tribal group in place to govern a variety of other tribes that happen to reside in close proximity to one another. As Richard (who is unable to resist including his love of Igbo-Ukwu art and artifacts in his article) points out, Northern and Southern tribes had peaceful interactions eons before the British even traveled to the continent. It is only when the British decided that the Northern tribes were more Europeanlooking and therefore worthy of governing the Southern tribes that conflict arose. Though it takes him some time to realize the full extent of the privilege that he receives from this very system, Richard acknowledges that as a white man he benefits from the very system that has caused the war, and seeks to use this position to implicate Britain, and the rest of the world that turns a racist or blind eye to Biafra, in this tragedy.

Part 3, Chapter 19 Quotes

Ugwu moved closer to the door to listen; he was fascinated by Rhodesia, by what was happening in the south of Africa. He could not comprehend people that looked like Mr. Richard taking away the things that belonged to people that looked like him, Ugwu, for no reason at all.

Related Characters: Ugwu (speaker), Richard Churchill
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

Ugwu eavesdrops on Richard and Odenigbo in the living room in Nsukka, where Odenigbo is criticizing the British Empire for the atrocities that they commit in Rhodesia (South Africa). In this quote, Ugwu thinks to himself that it makes no sense that white people feel that they can simply take things away from black people. 

Ugwu's heartbreaking confusion at the racist roots of colonialism, that white people are superior to black people, underscores the nonsensical logic of racism and colonialism itself. Oppression and exploitation have occurred throughout human history, but nothing as systematic and large-scale as the European conquest of the African continent (not to mention Asia and the Americas). To Ugwu, the theft of property and freedom only comes as a punishment if people commit a crime; therefore, he is fascinated by the idea that one can rule over another simply due to differences in the color of their skin. His logic, of course, is absolutely correct: there is no reason that this should ever occur, except for the fact that centuries of racism and colonialism have put structures in place that allow for the systematic exploitation of black Africans by white Europeans. Ugwu's passing confusion underscores why Biafra's cause is so important, even in its failure: that Biafrans sought to create their own nation, free of colonial influence, exerting the innate human independence they deserved and were stripped of by the British. 

Part 4, Chapter 25 Quotes

She taught them about the Biafran flag. They sat on wooden planks and the weak morning sun streamed into the roofless class as she unfurled Odenigbo’s cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.

Related Characters: Olanna Ozobia (speaker), Odenigbo
Related Symbols: The Biafran Flag
Page Number: 352
Explanation and Analysis:

After the school is shut down to be used as a refugee camp, Olanna and Ugwu teach classes in their backyard to children whose parents pay a small fee or provide payment in kind, such as gifts of food. In this quote, Adichie describes how Olanna proudly teaches her pupils to be patriots, and explains to them the symbolism of the Biafran flag. 

The colors of the Biafran flag signify both remembrance and hope, showing that the country will not blindly be created without remembering the bloodshed that occurred in the fight for independence. Biafra would be a state that knew the dangers of colonialism and the greed of foreign influence, and would be (ideally) impervious to repeating such corruption again. The titular "half of a yellow sun" that all soldiers bear on their shoulders represents an optimistic future, yet there is also something ominous about a sun that is never depicted as whole. Olanna, who has been told who she is and how to think by her parents, sister, random people who appraise her beauty, and Odenigbo her whole life, is elated to find something to truly believe in, something she is a part of in the beginning.

Part 4, Chapter 27 Quotes

“Of course I asked because you are white. They will take what you write more seriously because you are white. Look, the truth is that this is not your war. This is not your cause. Your government will evacuate you in a minute if you ask them to. So it is not enough to carry limp branches and shout power, power to show that you support Biafra. If you really want to contribute, this is the way that you can. The world has to know the truth of what is happening, because they simply cannot remain silent while we die.”

Related Characters: Madu Madu (speaker), Richard Churchill
Page Number: 382
Explanation and Analysis:

As Biafra is on the brink of losing one of its major holdings, Port Harcourt (where Kainene and Richard now live together after Richard fled Nsukka), Madu asks Richard to write articles for the Propaganda Directorate. As Richard has always worried that Madu did not like him and was in fact in love with Kainene, he is flattered by this, but also concerned that he is only being asked because he is white. 

Though Richard has subconsciously felt that the Biafran cause is his cause, too, since he has been present since its inception, Madu points out that it never has, and never will be, his struggle. As a white Englishman, he still has privileges in a postcolonial Africa and larger world that neither Biafrans nor Nigerians yet have. If he truly believes in the cause, Madu asserts, then the best thing he can do is use his privilege to bring the world's attention to the atrocities being committed in the war. 

For Richard, who has found a home in Biafra in a way he never felt at home in England (or Nigeria), Madu's words, like Okeoma's previous accusations at his internalized racism, shake him to the core. However, over time, he does come to accept that Biafra will never be his the way it is for those who are of Igbo descent. He harnesses his white privilege according to Madu's suggestions, and writes articles with the goal of bringing Biafra's struggle to the forefront of worldwide media coverage. 

Part 4, Chapter 29 Quotes

The skinny soldiers – with no boots, no uniforms, no half of a yellow sun on their sleeves – kicked and slapped and mocked Ugwu during physical training… the casual cruelty of this new world in which he had no say grew a hard clot of fear inside him.

Related Characters: Ugwu (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Biafran Flag
Page Number: 450
Explanation and Analysis:

Like Olanna feared, Ugwu is forcibly conscripted into the Biafran army. In the army compound, Ugwu notes the "casual cruelty" he encounters during basic training, receiving brutal treatment from soldiers who don't seem to champion (or even acknowledge) any of the principles of Biafra that citizens hear over the radio. 

Ugwu is shocked to see that the soldiers who are supposedly fighting for their freedom are just as crude and uncivilized as the Northern "vandals" who systematically slaughter Biafrans. The lack of the half of the yellow sun on their shoulders, so unlike the smart-fitting uniform that Okeoma wears, is a symbolism of this lack of adherence to patriotism or ideals. As is often the case in war, idealism is sacrificed to violence, and brutal men assume power, taking advantage of strife and fear. The sun is a symbol of a hopeful future, and in its absence, there is seemingly no hope left. Ugwu has been treated well thus far in his life--save a few mean cries of "Ignoramus!" from Odenigbo--and he is surprised at how casually he is treated cruelly by his fellow soldiers. The unorganized, internally crude nature of the army does not bode well for the war effort, and it places Ugwu's kindness and innocence on dangerous grounds. 

Part 4, Chapter 32 Quotes

Ugwu thanked him and shook his head and realized that he would never be able to capture that child on paper, never be able to describe well enough the fear that dulled the eyes of mothers in the refugee camp when the bomber planes charged out of the sky. He would never be able to depict the very bleakness of bombing hungry people. But he tried, and the more he wrote the less he dreamed.

Related Characters: Ugwu (speaker)
Page Number: 498
Explanation and Analysis:

While Ugwu is healing from his battle wounds and trauma, he helps out in the refugee camp, where he encounters more suffering than ever before. Haunted by nightmares, he begins to write of the atrocities he has seen, which lessens his night terrors. 

Like Richard, Ugwu realizes the solace that writing can bring by easing things stuck into the mind onto the page. Ugwu knows that there are no words to truly describe what he has seen and experienced, but he continues to try, and the more he writes the more his pain is lessened. Here, Adichie parallels her own writing, and accounts of the war included in the novel, to show that writing of the Biafran war is perhaps more important to its writers than it is to its readers--memoirs are a way to lessen suffering by putting them down on the page, a way to share the burden of the pain, to make sure that there is always a memory of what happened, even when everyone who was involved has passed away. Ugwu's reasons for writing are in direct contrast to Richard's however: Ugwu writes for himself, whereas Richard's novel is meant for a wider audience. The irony is, however, that the story we get snippets of throughout the novel is actually written by Ugwu, not Richard--as Richard eventually concedes to Ugwu, it was never his story to tell. 

When they listened to Radio Biafra, Ugwu would get up and walk away. The shabby theatrics of the war reports, the voice that forced morsels of invented hope down people’s throats, did not interest him. One afternoon, Harrison came up to the flame tree carrying the radio turned up high to Radio Biafra.
“Please turn that thing off,” Ugwu said. He was watching some little boys playing on the nearby patch of grass. “I want to hear the birds.”
“There are no birds singing,” Harrison said.
“Turn it off.”
“His Excellency is about to give a speech… It will be a great speech.”
“There is no such thing as greatness,” Ugwu said.

Related Characters: Ugwu (speaker), Harrison (speaker), Colonel Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu
Page Number: 500
Explanation and Analysis:

After Ugwu returns from the war, he usually walks away when Harrison insists on listening to the propaganda and platitudes broadcasted over the radio. In this quote, he insists, instead, that Harrison turn it off, saying that there is "no such thing as greatness." This is a brutally, tragically poignant statement, and in the context of Ugwu's experiences, one of the most powerful of the novel.

The war leaves Ugwu shell-shocked, and it is likely that he has PTSD, as evidenced by his nightmares. After seeing the cruelty of the armies on both sides of the war, and performing cruel acts himself (notably the rape of the bar girl), he no longer believes as fervently in the Biafran cause, or in any kind of ideal, as he had before he was placed on its front lines. He has been hardened by the "casual cruelty" and gang rapes he experienced, and is angered by the lies he hears over the radio. Ugwu no longer believes that "His Excellency" is so excellent if he continues to let the atrocities carry on with no end in sight. Ugwu, previously the voice of youth and innocence, has now lost much of his faith in humanity, or in any kind of meaning in life itself.