Most of the novel centers around the Nigerian Civil War, and the excessive cruelty and violence of this conflict affects all of the characters. This war was sparked by the massacres of Igbo people in 1966, when angry mobs killed soldiers and citizens as “retribution” for a government coup. The creation of Biafra was then a time of hope for the battered Igbo, but this was quickly tempered by the declaration of war from Nigeria. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie contrasts scenes of peace and optimism (like the dinner parties at Odenigbo’s house) with sudden scenes of violence and fear. In this way she creates a tone of constant suspense, as the country becomes a place of danger and casual violence.
Anywhere from one to three million people died of starvation and fighting during the Biafran War, and Adichie draws out the personal tragedies in these astronomical numbers. She shows small horrors like a woman carrying her daughter’s severed head in a basket, the girl’s hair still carefully braided, or Ikejide having his head cut off by a piece of shrapnel. There are other tragedies as well, like the poet Okeoma giving up writing in order to fight, or Ugwu contributing to the horrors of war by participating in the rape of a bar girl. War and violence is often overwhelming in both the world and in the novel, and sometimes the only redemption seems to be trying to avoid history’s mistakes by fully confronting them, as we do in Adichie’s merciless writing.
War and Violence ThemeTracker
War and Violence Quotes in Half of a Yellow Sun
She opened the calabash.
“Take a look,” she said again.
Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl’s head with the ashy-gray skin and the braided hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed.
The woman closed the calabash. “Do you know,” she said, “it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair.”
The train had stopped with a rusty screech. Olanna got down and stood in the jostling crowd. A woman fainted… She thought about the plaited hair resting in the calabash. She visualised the mother braiding it, her fingers oiling it with pomade before dividing it into sections with a wooden comb.
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.
“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.”
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.
“The vandals took our town many weeks ago and they announced that all the indigenes should come out and say ‘One Nigera’ and they would give them rice. So people came out of hiding and said ‘One Nigeria’ and the vandals shot them, men, women, and children. Everyone.”
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.
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.
Ugwu was writing as she spoke, and his writing, the earnestness of his interest, suddenly made her story important, made it serve a larger purpose that even she was not sure of, and so she told him all she remembered about the train full of people who had cried and shouted and urinated on themselves.