2005. Biafra. Famine. Distended bellies. Massacres. Rock concert to raise awareness. Overwhelming military force used to conquer a short-lived breakwaway republic. Somewhere in Africa. A faraway place. A natural consequence of post-colonial self-government.
Which of these impressions did you have of Biafra? If any. Find Biafra on a map. Which country did it break from and why? Who won and who lost? How many people died? Which European country was the past colonial master and how did it respond?
If you’re like me, even if you lived through the Biafran saga – when was that again? – your knowledge is/was incomplete. Yes there was a tragedy which involved those issues and images from the first paragraph above. But the genesis of the conflict? The outcome?
The beautifully narrated Half of a Yellow Sun filled in the many gaps in my knowledge of this sad chapter in African post-colonialism. Adichie follows up her impressive debut novel Purple Hibiscus with a richly nuanced story of the Biafran separatist effort told from the perspective of five main characters: the teenage houseboy, the academic revolutionary, the twin sisters from a powerful and corrupt trading family, and the ex-pat gone native after colonial rule. Each perspective illuminates a group that suffered and survived, but not without tragedy and loss.
With intimate understanding of her tribal and national culture, of her family history, and of the impact international diplomacy had on local events, Adiche creates a compelling and powerful narrative. The main characters come of age as does the newly independent country at a time and within an environment when self-interest among nations created a disastrous situation for the innocents on the ground.
These individuals caught in the vice of history first met when struggling to make their ways in the heady world of independence. Gradually, the forces that shaped their personalities made demands that pit the individuals against their native groups and in the struggle for survival no one was blameless for the suffering of friend, family, neighbor, and countryman.