Wednesday, 1 March 2017

'Half a Yellow Sun' and the Biafran Famine

by Lizzie Howe



In the summer of 1968 the first reports of a horrific famine that would go on to kill between one and three million people in the young and barely recognised nation of Biafra began to filter through to Western media. The seeds of discontent had begun years earlier, soon after the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria under British control became Nigeria, an independent nation with a strongly divided population. The north, inhabited mostly by Hausa-Fulani muslims, and the pre-dominantly Christian Igbo and Yarubo populated south. After a short period of fragile peace under a new and unstable government, the Hausa Supreme Commander Yakubu Gowon came to power and immediately began to target the Igbos who were living in the north of the country and working in the army. In response, Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu (of Igbo descent) formed the Independent Republic of Biafra for the Igbo people on the 30th of May 1967. Despite the tumultuous events capitalising on old resentments and causing tension throughout Nigeria during the 1960s, the novel Half of a Yellow Sun, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, focusses on the personal impact of the humanitarian crisis of the famine in the latter part of the 1960s by following the lives of individuals.

Half of a Yellow Sun centres around three integral characters as they serve to represent the different facets of the civil war while also ensuring that the personal suffering of the Biafran people is continuously expressed. Ugwu is the first of the three and his transformation from an innocent boy to a haunted man is Adichie personifying the national loss of innocence experienced due to the famine. Olanna Ozobia personifies the resilience of human nature in the face of these atrocities as she is reduced from being a sophisticated and rebellious young woman who flees home to live with her lover, the intelligent university professor Odenigbo, into a strong matriarch whose only concern is for her family and their survival. Finally, Richard Churchill is a chilling reminder of the omnipresent and yet distant Western media, who fed on the starvation of millions of people whilst failing to take any real action to prevent it.

Ugwu is the most complex character. As the narrative shifts through different times and places in the early chapters the reader becomes endeared to the lovable, good-natured and somewhat comical character that he represents. He is innocent to a fault, failing to understand the motivations behind other characters’ actions as his narrative is an unreliable one that views the world in the half-understood manner of a child. This lovable boy grows into a man who is genuinely kind and selfless, and yet in the latter part of the book commits an atrocity that is unforgivable. After being forcibly conscripted, Ugwu the Biafran soldier behaves in the same way as the Nigerian soldiers. This transition from innocence to something darker and more evil is unsettling. The Biafran cause, which the plot fully encourages the reader to support, suddenly becomes more ambiguous as the reader must reconcile the guileless child of the first chapter with the guilt-ridden young man who returns from a war that has ripped his innocence from him in the same way that he has ripped innocence from others through his actions. Ugwu’s life as a soldier is not written from a technical point of view, places and tactics are vague or omitted and so the entire focus is on the men who were fighting, rather than the war that they were fighting in. This angle depicts the Nigerian civil war as a war that began as nationalist rhetoric and spiralled into a devastating conflict of which the ultimate victory was in the form of survival, even if it meant the sacrifice of humanity.


Olanna provides a perspective on the famine as a mother and wife who is forced to take on the mantle of provider for her child while her husband continues to fight in a war in which there can be no victory. She is the true symbol of human resilience throughout the novel, despite her husband’s seemingly brave and noble participation. She is an educated woman, living with a sophisticated partner on a university campus when the conflict breaks out. Once forced from this life of luxury, she, like so many other Igbo women who were forced from their homes, decides that she will not give up in the face of overwhelming defeat and accepts the responsibility of protecting herself and her daughter at all costs from the true killers: starvation and malnutrition. This change from a light-hearted young woman to a strong and determined survivor is as simple as her quiet triumph in an everyday task despite the terror around her: “she had made soap.”. From this point on she becomes single-minded and resolute in the midst of the constant threat of death as she notes that “Caution had become, to her, feeble and faithless.”.

Finally, Richard Churchill is the constantly sunburned and seemingly bumbling English academic who claims that he himself is “Biafran” while reporting on the war and potentially exploiting the true sufferers to advance his own career in the form of a book that he always longs to write. He himself feels that his intention of staying in Biafra through the famine is an honourable one, that is done out of love and patriotism for his new homeland. However, he sees the Biafran famine through the eyes of an outsider from a privileged nation halfway across the world. Through his character in Half of a Yellow Sun we see the story of Western media and their increasing fascination with the famine, while constantly failing to aid the people behind the award-winning shots who were dying day-by-day in horrific and unsanitary conditions. As he is reminded by the Igbo soldier, and rival for his lover Kainene, Madu: “This is not your war. This is not your cause.”. These two sentences powerfully establish the role of the Western media in the war as too many journalists and photographers were making their own names back in America and England while the subjects of their articles and photographs were being subjected to inhuman treatment by powerful Nigerian forces that were backed by the Western nations themselves.


Half of a Yellow Sun is a novel about a specific atrocity and yet many of the themes within it resonate through the decades and across continents as they reflect so many other instances where innocence is lost, human resilience is tested to its ultimate limit, and Western media fails to encourage any real change despite seeming heavily invested. 


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