Half of a Yellow Sun

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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.
War and Violence Theme Icon

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.

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War and Violence 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 War and Violence.
Part 2, Chapter 11 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Olanna Ozobia
Page Number: 188
Explanation and Analysis:

After the massacre at Kano, Mohammed hurries Olanna to a train that can take her back to Nsukka. Unfortunately, she is not spared the sight of her aunt and uncle's mangled bodies, and she realizes that Arize, too, is dead. On the train, she is surrounded by wounded and weeping people. In this quote, a grieving mother shows Olanna and other passengers what is inside the calabash she carries: the ashen, severed head of her daughter. While many of the onlookers have violent reactions of disgust to the child's head, Olanna is transfixed in morbid fascination with the girl and her hair. 

While the book depicts many images of the horrific violence that occurred during the war, this moment of an eerily calm mother carrying and showing the head of her child is one of the most haunting and enduring passages in the novel. Adichie employs this image to tie together the horrors of the war with the humanities of everyday life: even when her child has died and all she has left is a lifeless head, the mother cannot help but think of the effort that she put into braiding her daughter's thick hair. Though colonial and wartime endeavors sought to strip the Nigerian and Biafran people of their humanity through severe acts of violence, humanity and love endure, such as the care a mother takes each day to braid her daughter's hair, the love that does not die even when the daughter does, so much so that a mother is driven to save her daughter's head in remembrance. This image continues to haunt not only Olanna, but other characters who hear of it secondhand, throughout the novel. 

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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 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 31 Quotes

“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.”

Page Number: 481
Explanation and Analysis:

A man from Alice's hometown comes to tell her that her family, and everyone else in her town, has been murdered by the Northern "vandals." In this quote, the man tells her and other onlookers that the townspeople were lured out of hiding by the vandals promising they would give them food if they denounced Biafra by saying "One Nigeria." When the townspeople came out, they were slaughtered by the vandals. 

This horrifying event shows the mercilessness that has come to characterize the war. Even if there is to be "One Nigeria," these war crimes will not be easily forgotten by either side. This quote also highlights how dire the food situation has become in Biafra, to the point that people are willing to submit themselves to enemy soldiers in exchange for the promise of rice. Even worse is the thought that without the promised rice, the townspeople feared death from starvation. A war that began to stop the secession of Biafra from the rest of Nigeria has quickly turned into an Igbo genocide. 

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.

Part 4, Chapter 34 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Olanna Ozobia (speaker), Ugwu
Page Number: 512
Explanation and Analysis:

One day, while gently brushing Baby's hair, which is falling out from malnutrition, Olanna tells Ugwu that she cannot stop thinking of the little girl's head that she saw in the calabash on the way back from Kano. Ugwu asks her to say more, and writes down everything Olanna tells him. 

Like Ugwu's decreased nightmares after he began writing, Olanna begins to feel a sense of relief as she tells Ugwu all she saw that day in Kano and on the train back to Nsukka. The reader begins to suspect that perhaps the writer of "The World Was Silent When We Died" is not Richard, but in fact Ugwu. Ugwu's determination to record the atrocities Olanna has experienced, and the sense of release and understanding she feels, underscores the importance of recording these events for posterity, and of ensuring that events like these never happen again. It also emphasizes the tragedy of the neglect that Biafra felt from the world at large throughout the war--like Olanna's wish to be heard, Biafra wants to be heard and helped as people starve to death behind enemy lines, cut off from all food supplies. Here, Adichie shows the importance of narratives and memoir to give humanity to even the most gruesome of genocides.