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
Colonialism and Nigerian Politics Quotes in Purple Hibiscus
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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’?”
“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.
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.