Audio book read June 2007, first published July 2012
This is a story of a family caught up in the terrible events of the Biafran War. In the 1960’s we had pictures of terrible starvation in Biafra – the images of skeletal, pot-bellied children stay with me even today. The tragedy was that Nigeria had the potential to be a rich country, and yet the population was starving to death because of the intransigence of a few generals. One wonders if such a situation would be tolerated today.
The book was an eye-opener onto an African world, from an African perspective at a time of appalling suffering. Biafra was a nation state that reached out for independence yet starved into submission and this story follows this process through the lives of Odenigbo, a university professor, Olanna and Ugwu, Odenigbo’s house boy. Olanna is sometimes described as Odenigbo’s mistress, but today we would describe her as Odenigbo’s partner.
There is meat enough in the relationship between Odenigbo and Olanna without a civil war. This begins with a story of middle class Africans, educated in English and treading the line between traditional African and global/British middle-class culture. Olanna and her twin sister Kainene are modern African women from a wealthy family. There is the personal level in this story bringing to life the events that we witnessed through news programmes. What do you do when your partner impregnates another woman (although if Ugwu’s account is to be believed, Odenigbo is tricked into this)? How do you cope when your relatives are massacred in an inter-ethnic uprising? And what impact does it make on you when you have to live in a refugee camp?
Half of a Yellow Sun does what all great literature should do – open the doors into a different world and then reveal a shared humanity. It is worth reading