The Nigerian Civil War and the Redefined image of Women in Half of a Yellow Sun

The Nigerian Civil War and the Redefined image of Women in Half of a Yellow Sun

In this novel, Adichie, chronicles the history of the Nigerian civil war and tries to give her own version of what transpired during the war .For according to Achebe in Anthills of the Savannah ―to some of us the Owner of the World has apportioned the gift to tell their fellows that the time to get up has finally come….And then there are those others whose part is to wait and when the struggle is ended, to take over and recount its story. (Anthills: 113). And it is in the recounting that history is preserved and passed on from one generation to the other, for according to him ―it is only the story [that] can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave war and the Fighters. It is the story, not the others, that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it,  we are blind.‖(Anthills, 114).

Adichie thus, explores the horror of war by correlating the story of a woman caressing a calabash containing her daughter‘s head with similar instances in other wars. In the novel the woman with the calabash nudged her, then motioned to some other people close by;


‗Bianu, come,‘ she said. ‗Come and take a look.‘ She opened the calabash. Take a look,‘ she said again. Olanna looked into the bowl. She saw the little girl‘s head with the ashy-grey skin and plaited hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. She stared at it for a while before she looked away. Somebody screamed. The woman closed the calabash. ‗Do you know,‘she said, ‗it took me so long to plait this hair? She had such thick hair,‘ (Adichie; 2009:149)


Adichie shows the universal brutality of all wars through drawing parallels of repulsion from other wars. She mentioned: ―the German women who fled Hamburg with the charred bodies of their children stuffed in suitcases, the Rwandan women, who pocketed tiny parts of their mauled babies.‖ Her comment that parallels shouldn‘t be drawn only heightens these


comparisons. Richard‘s witnessing of the mindless ‗butchery‘ of Nnaemeka and other Igbo people at Kano airport further amplifies the bestiality of man insituations of wars .

Nnaemeka turned to go back to his desk. Richard picked up his briefcase. The side entrance burst open and three men ran in holding  up long rifles. They were wearing green army uniforms, and Richard wondered why soldiers would make such a spectacle of themselves, dashing in like that, until he saw how red and wildly glassy their eyes were. The first soldier waved his gun around, Ina nyamiri!‘ Where are the Igbo people? Who is Igbo here? Where are the infidels? … ‗You are Igbo,‘ the second soldier said to Nnaemeka…The soldier walked over to him, ‗Say Allahu Akbar!‘He would not say Allahu Akbar because his accent would give him away. Richard willed him to say the words, anyway, to try; he willed something, anything, to happen in the stifling silence and as if in answer to his thoughts, the rifle went off and Nnaemeka‘s chest blew open, a splattering red mass, and Richard dropped the note in his hand…The soldiers ran out to the tarmac and into the aeroplane and pulled out Igbo people who had already boarded and lined them up and shot them and left them lying there, their bright clothes splashes of colour on the dusty black stretch‖.(152-153)


Adichie‘s personality sketches bring her characters to life. All the main characters, Odenigbo, Ugwu, Olanna, Kainene, and Richard, develop as the story progresses. Ugwu, in particular, develops from the clumsy little village boy, unsure of himself and who sleeps with pieces

of  chicken  in  his  pocket,  to  a  resourceful  ―teacher‖  and  ―child  soldier‖  able  to  distinguish himself in battle situations. Adichie using various characters demonstrates the bestiality of war where friends and foe are indistinguishable in the crossfire. For instance in the friendship that existed between Abdulmalik, a Hausa, and the Mbaezi family who are Igbos is evidenced by the fact that:

… when Uncle Mbaezi came home. He called out Olanna to come and greet his friend Abdulmalik. Olanna had met the Hausa man once before, he sold leather slippers close to Uncle Mbaezi‘s stall in the market….‗Well done,‘ Abdulmalik said. He opened his bag and brought out a pair slippers and held them out to her, his narrow face creased in a smile…. She took the slippers with both hands. ‗Thank you, Abdulmalik. Thank you.‘ Abdulmalik pointed at the ripe gourdlike pods on the kuka tree and said, ‗You come my house. My wife cook very sweet kuka soup ‗Oh, I will come, next time, Olanna said…. he sat with Uncle Mbaezi on the


veranda,‘ with a bucket of sugar cane in front of them. They gnawed off the hard, green peels and chewed the juicy, white pulp, speaking Hausa and laughing. (40)


The brutality and bestiality shown by Abdulmalik in massacring the Mbaezi family despite the relationship that exists between him and the family could only be rationalized within the context of ―war‖: ―Uncle Mbaezi lay face down in an ungainly twist, legs splayed. Something creamy- white oozed through the large gash on the back of his head. Aunty Ifeka lay on the veranda. The cuts on her body were smaller, dotting her arms like parted red lips…. We finished the whole family. It was Allah‘s will! …. The man was familiar. It was Abdulmalik‖. (147-8). While this rendition of what happened to Uncle Mbaezi may bear a close semblance to what Igbos went through in the north during the Biafran war, it is also possible that Hausas trapped in the East went through the same experience but with none to tell their own side of the story. But it is also note worthy that Olanna was able to escape the Kano massacre by virtue of the kindness of her friend Mohammed who coincidentally is Hausa and risk his life to get her to safety.

Despite the success of Half of a Yellow Sun there are some shortcomings in the novel. For instance, the concentration on the domestic lives of the characters undermined their credibility as members of an intellectual elite and rendered them two (or perhaps even one) dimensional. Chimanada Ngozi Adichie carefully tells the reader that Odenigbo is a mathematician and in love with his subject. He covets his personal library, which he loses in the war and then has replaced by a benefactor. But throughout the novel there is no particular incident where Odenigbo is seen discussing his work passionately .Rather he avoids all mention of personal academic interests in social settings. Of Odenigbo’s academic character nothing is said. Why he is therefore endowed with knowledge and interest that is never explored? Perhaps he only exists as a character to interact with the twin sisters. Eventually there is also the continued exaltation of Ojukwu. His Excellency is portrayed as a hero and


absolved of all wrong doing, instead his followers seem unable to mention a criticism of an historical character that eventually fled to Ivory Coast to save his skin and live his life in relative comfort after leaving millions of his own people dead. A good writer would never have left his role unquestioned. There is also an extensive use of Igbo words when they seemed to offer no extra flavour, meaning or understanding. There is no problem with the use of local terms to enhance a feeling of place and sound, but their overuse tends to complicate the flow of narration. But despite all these shortcomings, Half of a Yellow Sun is a well written story that captures the brutality of a civil life and its devastating effects on the lives of the people.

In this novel, the dialectics of feminism is played out through Adichie‘s choice of a protagonist; a female. She chooses to place Olanna at the forefront of action where every other incident in the novel is built around her. Adichie makes no pretence about her feminist stance and inclinations and her works strongly promote women rights and empowerment. One of the feminist approaches has been for women writers to project women characters in strong roles as against what it is believed many male writers have either been unwilling to do, or have been incapable of doing (Ogwude, 2011). In Ogwude‘s opinion, the novel, Half of a Yellow Sun celebrates ―bold and successful full-bodied women with no restraints‖. Characters like Kainene, Olanna, their mum, the visiting black American lecturer, Edna Whaler, Aunty Ifeka, and Miss Adebayo – and their worldview show strong, and independent females able  to hold their own anywhere.

In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie portrays females in powerful roles. For instance, Olanna‘s mother, a traditional African woman, disapproves of her two daughters independent spirits. One of them, Olanna is depicted as strong willed and very independent. An example is when she chose two week‘s suspension rather than apologise to her Heath-grove form mistress for insisting that the lessons on Pax Britannica were contradictory. Another example


is when she joined the Students‘ Movement for Independence in Ibadan. This is also seen when she refused to marry Igwe Okagbue‘s son, and later, Chief Okaro‘s son. (Sun, 36).Her twin sister, Kainene is devoid of sentiments and is even more wilful. It was she who ―used to say their mother‘s breasts did not dry up at all, that their mother had given them to a nursing aunt only to save her own breasts from drooping‖ (Sun, 40).Expectedly, like her twin sister, Kainene, she makes her choices and stands by them. In Olanna‘s time of crises, help comes from unexpected quarters. Her presumed uneducated Aunt Ifeka, helps her to stand on her feet and fight instead of running to Kano as an escape route:

― No […] You will go back to Nsukka. […] I am not asking you to go back to his house.  I said you will go back to Nsukka. Do you not   have your own flat and your own job? […] You must never behave as if your life belongs to a man. Do you hear me? Your life belongs to you and you alone. (230).

According to Ogwude, the striking aspects of the exposition and resolution of the crises between Odenigbo, Olanna and Amala, on the one hand, and Olanna, Richard, Kainene, and Madu on the other hand, are many. With Olanna and Odenigbo, as with Kainene and Richard, Adichie presents couples whose values and lives testify to the dynamic African spirit. Significantly, issues like motherhood, as well as childlessness are made quite inconsequential. In this novel, problematic issues of bride-price and the pursuit for  acceptance by the larger family as blueprint for a successful marriage are all jettisoned. Olanna, the obvious victim of Odenigbo‘s unfaithfulness rightly detects the actual victim in Amala, ―who did not  have a voice‖ and  who  ―was so helpless‖ (Sun,  256, 258)  (Ogwude, 2011).

Olanna for instance, initially opts to live with Odenigbo, rather than accept to get married to him. As she puts it, she wanted to guard the bond of their happiness, and feared that “marriage would flatten it to a prosaic partnership‖. Though such ideas were generally uncommon in that era that saw most females (from age sixteen) being given out in marriages, one could relate Olanna’s views to her western education and influences which are alien concepts in most African societies. Kainene also does not seek marriage. For some unknown reason, she prefers to be in relationships with white men, probably because of the patriarchal characteristics of African men. Back in Nigeria after school in the U.K., Kainene maintains an affair with Richard, a British reporter/writer who has come to carry out some research. Both girls turn deaf ears to their mother’s endless pleas for them to get married and settle down properly. Perhaps Adichie deliberately aims to debunk the idea that a female necessarily needs to be in a marriage in order to ‘settle down’ after school. Olanna is happy enough living with Odenigbo and working in the university, while Kainene confidently and successfully carries on her father’s businesses. Even when Olanna did not become pregnant, the author manipulates events in such a way that a baby is placed in Olanna’s arms. She is called ‘Baby’ by everyone and perhaps Adichie seeks to show that a woman could enjoy ‘motherhood’ by adopting a child who may not be biologically hers. In Olanna’s case, the situation is more salient, as ‗Baby’ was delivered for Odenigbo by Amala, a village girl foisted on him by his mother. She was hoping that the birth of a baby will cause a breakup between Odenigbo and the educated ‘witch’ (her perception of Olanna), but Mama was disappointed. The couple survived the uproar of the period; despite the emotional pains caused by Mama‘s pre- emptive action and even a redemptive act of revenge (Olanna sleeps with Richard, her sister’s lover). This also goes to illustrate that in a relationship within or outside marriage, both partners are equally committed to being faithful and unfaithfulness is not the sole prerogative of the male.

A similar societal obsession with the desire to have children is what makes Arize‟ s mother-in-law disgrace her by demanding to know how many abortions she has had before marriage. Nnakwanze also is worried when Arize does not become pregnant the first, second and third year of their marriage. Arize’s ‗misfortune’ is a source of oppression from her mother-in-law. It is what Amala suffers in the hands of Odenigbo’s mother, in that Odenigbo’s mother wants to use her to get a grandson. Such a situation puts women under a lot of pressure, curtails their freedom and makes them slaves of societal demand(s) and desire(s) leaving them without a choice of their own. The characters of the old women (mother-in-law) in the text shows that patriarchy has conditioned women to accept demands put across by the patriarchal order. In accepting the patriarchal demands and forcing fellow women to follow suit they have become perpetrators of their own suffering. Through the characters of Ifeoma, Olanna and Kainene, Adichie shows that motherhood can be revised in order to stop women oppression and suffering. In the use of Kainene and Olanna Adichie revises the perception that women should have on issues of motherhood. Whatever is captured in Half of a Yellow Sun in terms of women and motherhood is progressive unlike what is depicted in Purple Hibiscus. Kainene and Olanna do not value motherhood so much and Kainene remains in her relationship without a child for the entire life of the novel.  Olanna adopts Amala’s child. Kainene and Richard are happy and prosperous despite their childless state. This is the world that Adichie proposes whereby women are less burdened by their biological duties of mothering.

Adichie posits that women should not be passive but should be active team players. These words from Olanna’s aunty in Kano re-affirm the writer’s convictions that a woman ought to take her destiny in her own hands:

When your uncle first married me, I worried because I thought those women outside would come and displace me from my home. I know now that nothing he does will make my life change. My life will change only if I want it to change. “You must not behave as if your life belongs to a man… ( P.226).

Olanna realised therefore that ‘she could be a woman taking charge of her own life’ (227-228). She goes back to Odenigbo, but decides to marry him only when it suited her, at some point during the war. Consequently, Adichie in these two novels illustrate that despite


all odds women can still reengineer their own lives and not allow themselves to be victims of customs or norms detrimental to their individual growth.

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