Once again my book clubs have introduced me to books I may not have found otherwise – two more to add to my growing collection of African novels.
Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, something I knew next to nothing about. Before reading this novel, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the only mental image I had of “Biafra” was of starving children. If you’re like me and know next to nothing about Biafra, here’s some background from Wikipedia: “Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The inhabitants were mostly the Igbo people who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The creation of the new state that was pushing for recognition was among the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.” I had no clue about the war, and certainly not from the perspective of those who were on the minority Biafran side, so this book was educational in addition to being a good story.
When I think about where I was and what I was doing from 1967-1970, I suppose it’s at least a little understandable that I didn’t know much about Biafra. I was in college and graduate school at the time; I didn’t have TV and I didn’t listen to NPR in those days (actually, NPR was incorporated in February 1970, after the Biafran War was already over), so my knowledge of world events beyond the Vietnam War was fairly limited. That feels like a poor excuse, however, for my ignorance!
In Half of a Yellow Sun, the story of Biafra is told from the point of view of five characters (all Igbo except one): Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy; Odenigbo, a university professor and revolutionary; Olanna, the professor’s mistress; Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene; and Richard, an Englishman infatuated with Kainene. As you might imagine, the war was horrific, and yes, to explain why my only mental image of Biafra is of starving children, there was widespread hunger and deprivation because of the war.
Perhaps the most haunting sentence in the book is this one, which is also the title of a book about the war written by one of the characters: “The world was silent while we died.” During the war, the citizens of the breakaway country of Biafra struggled to gain recognition from other countries, and it didn’t seem like the rest of the world cared very much that thousands of people were suffering and dying in this little tiny country with few resources but lots of pride. I couldn’t help thinking of other times when it has seemed like “the world was silent”: Rwanda, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Syria…and the list could probably go on. What is our responsibility in situations like this? What can and should we do? I honestly don’t know.
The second African novel I read recently is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was much more familiar with the setting and issues in this book because it takes place in colonial Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is after I left Rhodesia in 1961 and after Ian Smith declared unilateral independence from Great Britain in 1965, but before the height of the war that resulted in majority black rule and the change of name to Zimbabwe in 1980. Nervous Conditions has been described as one of the best African novels, and is the first by a black Zimbabwean to be published in English outside the country.
The story is told from the point of view of Tambu, a young girl who leaves her rural village to go to the mission school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. The book explores coming of age, gender and identity issues. The title refers to the sense of displacement and feelings of ambivalence that come with being a native in a colonial system – everyone in the novel has a “nervous condition.”
There was a lot for me to identify with in this book. It takes places at a time that was not all that far removed from when I lived in Rhodesia. In many ways, the story felt like my story being told from the opposite point of view. As a missionary kid, however, I saw the world I lived in from the point of view of missionaries who believed they were doing a good and right thing – not only by bringing the good news of the gospel to the native people but also by improving their lives with education and medical care. These were good things, but it never occurred to me to think about how the missionaries and other white settlers also disrupted life and created a whole new set of of challenges for the native people. The novel shows the work of missionaries and colonialism from the other side, and how education and white people changed things irrevocably. I appreciated this perspective which is different than the one I grew up with.
The effects of education, westernization and money are explored, along with the loss of traditional values. There is also a loss of language and culture, and distrust of the new culture that seems to be taking over. Family dynamics change when some are able to receive an education and others don’t, when some have wealth and opportunity and others don’t, when those with wealth and advantage are expected to share with and take care of those who don’t. The “nervous condition” of Tambu is clear as she desperately wants an education and forsakes her village and family to get it, even as she critiques her more worldly-wise cousin for her inability to speak the native language anymore and her rebellious attitude toward her parents, especially her father. The cousin’s own “nervous condition” has tragic results when she suffers from an eating disorder that eventually requires professional help to save her life. Interestingly, there are no significant white characters with unique personalities in the book, even though so much of life is controlled by whites. This is Tambu’s story, or as she puts it in the opening paragraph, a story of escape, entrapment and rebellion, told in a fairly introspective style.
There’s so much more to both books that I haven’t mentioned, so you’ll just have to read them if you want to know more!