Purple Hibiscus

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Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Icon
Religion and Belief Theme Icon
Family Theme Icon
Freedom vs. Tyranny Theme Icon
Silence and Speech Theme Icon
Violence Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Purple Hibiscus, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Theme Icon

Though the plot of Purple Hibiscus unfolds mostly on a personal level, its characters’ lives are also affected by a larger political background. Nigeria has a long history of English colonialism and oppression—it was a colony of the British for over a hundred and fifty years, and its disparate groups only brought together as a single nation because of British control—and it only became its own independent nation in 1960. Papa is described as a “colonial product”: a man who has bought into the colonialist mindset. Though he is Nigerian, Papa believes that white people do everything better, and he wants everything in his life to be Western and modern. He speaks in an affected British accent when talking to white people, and avoids speaking the native language of Igbo whenever possible. His sister Aunty Ifeoma, on the other hand, rejects the idea that whiteness-equals-superiority. She is frustrated by the corruption in Nigeria, but she still believes that the country should embrace its own resources and independence. She asserts that Nigeria is still a young nation learning to govern itself, so it should not be judged alongside much older countries that have already gone through growing pains.

While colonialism sets the background for the novel, Purple Hibiscus also takes place during a turbulent time for the Nigerian government. The plot probably coincides with the real, historical military coup and subsequent regime of Ibrahim Bangida, one of the country’s most corrupt leaders—although in the novel he is only referred to as the Head of State, or “Big Oga.” Few details about the government are given, but politics still affect the daily lives of Adichie’s characters: workers’ strikes cut off power and water, police require bribes at random checkpoints, and Ade Coker, who is based on the real-life journalist Dele Giwa, is assassinated with a letter bomb. We see everything through a young adult’s point of view, but Adichie still manages to make her novel a political one by showing the tragic personal results of the legacy of colonialism, dictatorship, and corruption.

Colonialism and Nigerian Politics ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Colonialism and Nigerian Politics appears in each chapter of Purple Hibiscus. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Quotes in Purple Hibiscus

Below you will find the important quotes in Purple Hibiscus related to the theme of Colonialism and Nigerian Politics.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Papa was staring pointedly at Jaja. “Jaja, have you not shared a drink with us, gbo? Have you no words in your mouth?” he asked, entirely in Igbo. A bad sign. He hardly spoke Igbo, and although Jaja and I spoke it with Mama at home, he did not like us to speak it in public. We had to sound civilized in public, he told us; we had to speak English. Papa’s sister, Aunty Ifeoma, said once that Papa was too much of a colonial product. She had said this about Papa in a mild, forgiving way, as if it were not Papa’s fault…
Mba, there are no words in my mouth,” Jaja replied.
“What?” There was a shadow clouding Papa’s eyes, a shadow that had been in Jaja’s eyes. Fear. It had left Jaja’s eyes and entered Papa’s.
“I have nothing to say,” Jaja said.

Related Characters: Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker), Kambili Achike, Jaja (Chukwuka Achike)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa--who has just made his family members try his company's new batch of cashew juice--notices that his son, Jaja, is conspicuously silent. Jaja seems to finally be standing up to his abusive, tyrannical father by refusing to parrot the usual praise that is expected of him.

We will see that Kambili and Jaja are known for their silence and obedience, but here Jaja starts to turn that silence into a weapon against Papa--by refusing to even speak to Papa, Jaja robs his father of some of his power.

The ideas of speech and silence here are also heavily influenced by Nigeria's colonial history. Papa's sister Ifeoma (whom we have yet to meet) is the only one who really tells it like it is about Papa, and calls him a "colonial product"--he has internalized the colonialist mindset that whiteness and Westernness always equals superiority. Thus Papa always speaks English, and wants his children to as well--he sees English as naturally superior to Igbo. Papa's slip into Igbo in this scene, then, is a sign of his sudden anger and desperation. He feels his son slipping away from him, and he simultaneously loses some of the tyrannical power of the English language over its Nigerian "subjects."


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I lay in bed after Mama left and let my mind rake through the past, through the years when Jaja and Mama and I spoke more with our spirits than with our lips. Until Nsukka. Nsukka started it all; Aunty Ifeoma’s little garden next to the verandah of her flat in Nsukka began to lift the silence. Jaja’s defiance seemed to me now like Aunty Ifeoma’s experimental purple hibiscus: rare, fragrant with the undertones of freedom, a different kind of freedom from the one the crowds waving green leaves chanted at Government Square after the coup. A freedom to be, to do.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Mama (Beatrice Achike), Aunty Ifeoma
Related Symbols: The Purple Hibiscus
Page Number: 15-16
Explanation and Analysis:

As the first chapter draws to a close, we're introduced to the basic structure of the novel, as well as its dominant motif. The novel will be narrated in flashback, so that by the end, we'll fully understand why Papa broke Mama's figurines, and how their family came to be so divided. Furthermore, Adichie introduces us to the purple hibiscus that will come to stand for the characters' sense of freedom and creativity--a freedom that can't be destroyed by repressive parents or governors, try as they might.

The purple hibiscus, Kambili tells us, is free and "experimental"--a sure sign of its symbolic meaning. It's worth noting that although Kambili is seemingly under her father's thumb--living in his house, ex.--in her mind she's now free of his influence.  By the same token, the hibiscus seems to be powerless and domestic, when in reality it's secretly wild and free.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Papa changed his accent when he spoke, sounding British, just as he did when he spoke to Father Benedict. He was gracious, in the eager-to-please way that he always assumed with the religious, especially with the white religious.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Father Benedict
Page Number: 46
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, we see how submissive and toadying Papa is around representatives of the colonial order. Father Benedict is a powerful white priest, who was trained in European schools and embodies the European civilization (the Judeo-Christian values on which the Western world was built). Papa is so respectful of Western culture that he treats Father Benedict with exaggerated respect, speaking to him in a gracious "eager-to-please" way that Kambili can see through immediately (although she doesn't see anything wrong with it yet).

Papa is a mess of contradictions: he's politically brave, personally tyrannical, rigidly religious, and impressively philanthropic, and yet he ultimately accepts the dominant political order of the international stage--in other words, he supports the idea of the supremacy of Western civilization over the African world. At a time when other Nigerians were fighting for supremacy and independence from the West, Papa is satisfied to accept whiteness as superior, even in matters as supposedly universal as religion.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“They are always so quiet,” he said, turning to Papa. “So quiet.”
“They are not like those loud children people are raising these days, with no home training and no fear of God,” Papa said, and I was certain that it was pride that stretched Papa’s lips and tightened his eyes.
“Imagine what the Standard would be if we were all quiet.”
It was a joke. Ade Coker was laughing; so was his wife, Yewanda. But Papa did not laugh. Jaja and I turned and went back upstairs, silently.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike) (speaker), Ade Coker (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Yewande Coker
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa talks with his friend and business partner Ade Coker about child-rearing policies. Ade points out that Papa's children, including Kambili, are always very quiet--to the point where they never make a sound in public. Papa is clearly very proud of his children; he thinks that his violent parenting methods are justified, since by beating his children they'll be calm and well-behaved at all times (not like other children "these days". Ade points out the strange contradiction in Papa's life: he's a political advocate who uses journalism and his voice (the Standard) to criticize the existing political leadership in Nigeria. And yet Papa tolerates no such criticism or debate at home: in short, he's a personal tyrant who challenges political tyrants. Papa's behavior suggests that in his home life, he's more interested in power and control than in doing the right thing: he's willing to use journalism to fight for political freedom, but he refuses to see that beating and silencing his children isn't a good or virtuous thing to do.

Chapter 7 Quotes

Papa wanted Father Benedict to hear our confession. We had not gone in Abba because Papa did not like to make his confession in Igbo, and besides, Papa said that the parish priest in Abba was not spiritual enough. That was the problem with our people, Papa told us, our priorities were wrong; we cared too much about huge church buildings and mighty statues. You would never see white people doing that.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Father Benedict
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Papa takes his family to Father Benedict's house for confession instead of going to the Nigerian priest at their church. Papa notes that Father Benedict is more "spiritual," while the church in Abba, by contrast, is more concerned with worldly goods than heavenly ones. Outrageously, Papa notes that white people simply wouldn't be so materialistic.

Adichie is being bitterly ironic here, since 1) Western people are plenty materialistic, obviously, and 2) the religious colonization of Nigeria--i.e., the cultural movement that converted Papa to Christianity--was itself motivated by the materialistic desire to steal Nigeria's natural resources. Missionaries and priests came to Nigeria advocating frugality and moderation, and supposedly spreading God's message of love, and yet they cooperated with Western businessmen and politicians who used the opportunity to harvest Nigeria's fruit, oil, gold, etc. and oppress and kill the Nigerian people themselves.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“I hear he’s very involved in the editorial decisions. The Standard is the only paper that dares to tell the truth these days.”
“Yes,” Aunty Ifeoma said. “And he has a brilliant editor, Ade Coker, although I wonder how much longer before they lock him up for good. Even Eugene’s money will not buy everything.”
“I was reading somewhere that Amnesty World is giving your brother an award,” Father Amadi said. He was nodding slowly, admiringly, and I felt myself go warm all over, with pride, with a desire to be associated with Papa.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Aunty Ifeoma (speaker), Father Amadi (speaker), Papa (Eugene Achike), Ade Coker
Page Number: 136-137
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili meets Father Amadi, a young, handsome priest. Amadi is impressed to hear that Kambili's father is Eugene Achike, since he knows Eugene to be an important philanthropist and advocate for political freedom: Eugene is regarded as something of a hero among the Nigerian people. Amadi tells Kambili about some of her father's most impressive achievements: as a writer and journalist, he's one of the only figures in the country who dares to criticize the Nigerian leadership, a decision that might eventually lead him into prison (along with his editor, Ade Coker).

The passage is notable because it reminds us of the paradoxes of Papa's behavior. He's an incredibly generous and noble-spirited man, who donates his time and money to fighting for other people. And yet he's also a severe, brutal dictator in his own house: he sincerely believes that children should be beaten and punished harshly when they do anything wrong. While Papa's behavior might be hard for readers to understand, Adichie uses his contradictions to make him a deeply human and fascinating character, both admirable and reprehensible at once.

Chapter 10 Quotes

I laughed. It sounded strange, as if I were listening to the recorded laughter of a stranger being played back. I was not sure I had ever heard myself laugh.
“Why did you become a priest?” I blurted out, then wished I had not asked, that the bubbles in my throat had not let that through. Of course he had gotten the call, the same call that all the Reverend Sisters in school talked about when they asked us to always listen for the call when we prayed. Sometimes I imagined God calling me, his rumbling voice British-accented. He would not say my name right; like Father Benedict, he would place the emphasis on the second syllable rather than the first.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Father Amadi, Father Benedict
Page Number: 179-180
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili begins to reluctantly shed some of her preconceptions about life and religion, while moving on to accept others. She's spending time with Father Amadi, who she seems to like a lot. Amadi gets Kambili to loosen up and stop being so silent, and before long, Kambili is laughing for the first time in the entire novel. Kambili asks Amadi why he became a priest, but then regrets this and tells us, the readers, that she knows the answer: God calls priests to the profession.

Kambili's idea of God's "calling" shows us how Eurocentric her worldview is because of Papa's upbringing. She's been taught to embrace a Christian God who listens to all Catholics, but who doesn't really fit with her own culture and country. Kambili can't even imagine God pronouncing her name correctly, or speaking in any way other than with a white British accent--a clear symbol for the discord between Kambili's religion and her culture.

Chapter 11 Quotes

Ade Coker was at breakfast with his family when a courier delivered a package to him. His daughter, in her primary school uniform, was sitting across the table from him. The baby was nearby, in a high chair. His wife was spooning Cerelac into the baby’s mouth. Ade Coker was blown up when he opened the package—a package everybody would have known was from the Head of State even if his wife Yewande had not said that Ade Coker looked at the envelope and said “It has the State House seal” before he opened it.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Ade Coker, Yewande Coker, The Head of State (“Big Oga”)
Page Number: 206
Explanation and Analysis:

Ade Coker, whose character was inspired by real-life Nigerian journalist Dele Giwa, is assassinated in his own home (just as Giwa was). Ade is a courageous editor and journalist who uses his influence to criticize the Nigerian leadership, like Papa himself. Here, the Nigerian Head of State (never named, but probably based on real-life dictator Ibrahim Babangida) sends Ade a package, marked with his official seal. Ade opens the package, not thinking that the head of state would try to murder him with so little subterfuge. But the package turns out to be a bomb, which ends Ade's life. The scene reminds us that the Head of State has almost unlimited power in his own country: he doesn't have to hide his assassination plots--instead, he can simply send a bomb in the mail, bearing his official seal. This assassination is also a major turning point in the plot, as it is a sign that Papa's political activities have real, deadly consequences, and it is also a symbol of "silencing" on a political level--Ade is literally killed for speaking out against tyranny.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“It is not about me, Chiaku.” Aunty Ifeoma paused. “Who will teach Amaka and Obiora in university?”
“The educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrongs. They leave the weak behind. The tyrants continue to reign because the weak cannot resist. Do you not see that it is a cycle? Who will break that cycle?”

Related Characters: Aunty Ifeoma (speaker), Chiaku (speaker), Amaka, Obiora
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learnt that Aunty Ifeoma is considering moving to America, where she could get a job teaching at university. In Ameirca, Aunty Ifeoma's work would receive more praise--and she also wouldn't be risking her life to continue her academic projects. Furthermore, Ifeoma's children could receive a real education without fear of violence, strikes, or lack of utilities. And yet Aunty Ifeoma's friend Chiaku here resents her for contemplating leaving Nigeria. Chiaku points out that Nigeria has always had a problem with maintaining its own talent: whenever somebody is talented or successful, he or she goes to the West and never comes back. Chiaku characterizes the process as a cycle: the talented grow up in Nigeria, but then leave for American or European schools, and so Nigeria stays mostly the same--having driven out its best and brightest. Chiaku has a point on a global and political level--tyranny is only perpetuated through ignorance and stagnancy--but on a personal level, Ifeoma seems to have no positive option other than leaving the country she loves.

Chapter 15 Quotes

“When the missionaries first came, they didn’t think Igbo names were good enough. They insisted that people take English names to be baptized. Shouldn’t we be moving ahead?”
“It’s different now, Amaka, don’t make this what it’s not,” Father Amadi said calmly…
“But what’s the point, then?” Amaka said… “What the church is saying is that only an English name will make your confirmation valid. ‘Chiamaka’ says God is beautiful. ‘Chima’ says God knows best, ‘Chiebuka’ says God is the greatest. Don’t they all glorify God as much as ‘Paul’ and ‘Peter’ and ‘Simon’?”

Related Characters: Amaka (speaker), Father Amadi
Page Number: 272
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Amaka, the teenaged child of Aunty Ifeoma, is preparing for her confirmation. As Adichie explains it, in Nigeria the Catholic confirmation ritual usually involves the priest giving the young man or woman a "Christian name"--i.e., a Western name. Amaka, a budding political activist and Nigerian nationalist, argues that she shouldn't have to take a Christian name; names of Nigerian origin are just as holy and appropriate for the confirmation ritual. Amaka's argument reinforces the notion that a truly spiritual and political person sometimes must be a pluralist--i.e., must embrace many different cultures and ideologies. Amaka is willing to go through confirmation--a European transplant--and yet she also wants to hang on to her Nigerian identity during the process. 

“It’s your father. They called me from the factory, they found him lying dead on his desk.” Mama sounded like a recording…
Jaja grabbed the phone. Aunty Ifeoma led me to the bed. I sat down and stared at the bag of rice that leaned against the bedroom wall… I had never considered the possibility that Papa would die, that Papa could die. He was different from Ade Coker, from all the other people they had killed. He had seemed immortal.

Related Characters: Kambili Achike (speaker), Mama (Beatrice Achike) (speaker), Jaja (Chukwuka Achike), Papa (Eugene Achike), Aunty Ifeoma, Ade Coker
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Kambili receives word that her father has been found dead at his desk. Kambili is shocked by the news of her father's death: he'd always seemed like an immortal to her--a harsh, tyrannical god, but still a god.

It's not yet clear why Kambili's father has died so suddenly. And yet his death is a crucial turning-point in the novel. Kambili has been moving further and further from her father's worldview throughout the last couple chapters--as if to reflect Kambili's growing independence, Papa dies, so that he can no longer control what Kambili does or thinks. Papa is a complex character, at once contemptible, admirable, and tragic: he's a brutal bully, but he also seems to love his children sincerely, and has undoubtedly done much good in the world outside his own home.

Chapter 17 Quotes

There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time. It is like telling a crawling baby who tries to walk, and then falls back on his buttocks, to stay there. As if the adults walking past him did not all crawl, once.

Related Characters: Aunty Ifeoma (speaker)
Page Number: 301
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Aunty Ifeoma, who has moved to America to teach, writes about the history of Nigeria, and of colonialism. Ifeoma notes that there are "some" (i.e., mostly Western intellectuals) who believe that the Western world needs to control and direct Africa forever, since Africans don't know how to control their own people. Ifeoma finds such an argument illogical--African countries need to learn how to run themselves, rather than depending on Western military and economic control forever.

Ifeoma's statements bring the novel to a cautiously optimistic ending, and broaden the perspective of the story from the personal to the international. We've seen how the characters fight for control of their own minds and lives, sometimes resorting to violence to do so. Ifeoma seems to argue that the struggle for freedom is always worthwhile, because the end goal is freedom from tyrannical people--Papa, for example--or freedom from tyrannical countries--like Britain and the U.S. Essentially she's saying that it's unfair to judge Nigeria against much older, more prosperous nations like America or Western Europe, as Nigeria is still very young as a country, and still going through "growing pains." Ifeoma has gone against her friend's advice and moved to America--contributing to the cycle of Nigeria's best and brightest leaving the country--but here she is also fulfilling the tradition of the emigre who gains the best perspective and insight regarding her homeland only when she is away from it.