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.
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics ThemeTracker
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Quotes in Half of a Yellow Sun
“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.”
“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.”
“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?’”
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.