Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nigeria - book review of Half of a Yellow Sun

Book: Half of a Yellow Sun

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Published: Farafina, Lagos 2006

Reviewer: Robert E. Gribbin

I spent the last three months in Nigeria. It was indeed a fascinating place. Under new President Yar'Adua it was full of energy and the expectation that problems can be solved and that the nation can look forward to a brighter, more prosperous future. Nigeria today has moved far beyond the passions of the 1967-70 Biafran civil war, yet some of the issues of disenfranchisement and tribalism remain as troublesome impediments to true national unity. Chimamanda Adichie's novel, that all of Nigeria is reading, is a haunting reminder of the enmity of the war, the arrogance, the violence and the hardship that was visited upon the Igbo people.

The title of the novel evokes the half of a yellow sun that was the central emblem on the Biafran flag. The sun also figured on the uniforms of Biafran soldiers. The half sun initially is symbolically seen as a rising sun representing the hopes and expectations of the new state. However, as the story progresses and Biafra descends into a besieged hell of poverty, starvation and collapse, the sun is clearly setting. Dreams are over and lives are irreparably changed.

The story focuses on a rich Igbo family, especially twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene, whose personalities are quite different. Tracking them and their various relationships to family, lovers and friends provides background for the war and a soap operatic setting for the plot that finally gathers together and moves forward seriously to delve into what happens when the normal stresses of living are overwhelmed by senseless violence. Much of the novel is viewed through the perspective of Igwu, a young naive houseboy called to service in the home of Professor Odengigbo, a fervent believer in the Biafran cause, who becomes Olanna's husband. Although Igwu does not understand his social superiors, he carefully observes them and gets to love them (and they him). Several delightful passages in the novel reflect Igwu's village naivete when he puzzles about middle class life style.

Hanging over the domesticity of Odengibo and Olanna's university household in Igbo territory were the tribal politics of Nigeria in the sixties. Following the assassination of Prime Minister Balewa (a northerner) in 1966 by Igbo officers, a series of pogroms and massacres were visited upon Igbo migrants in northern Nigeria. Thousands died and tens of thousands retreated to the Igbo heartland. Another coup d'etat brought northern officers to power. Rejecting that change, Igbo nationalists declared Biafra independent. The Federal Government responded by beginning a "police action" that morphed into civil war.

Although it only presents the Igbo perspective, this book is not about the politics of the war. Rather, it is about people - rich, middle class and peasant alike - all of whom become victims of forces beyond their control. Part of the tragedy of the Biafran civil war was the absolute conviction by the Igbo people, as represented by characters in the novel, that their destiny was to be free and independent. Consequently, they stoically accepted the enormous hardship visited upon them as Biafra was battered and starved into submission. This is that story: the pride, the courage, the resourcefulness and the initiative as folks coped with the collapse of their lives, with death, disease, starvation, betrayal and ultimately, defeat.

The central characters of the novel fill out nicely as the story progresses. They become real as they struggle with circumstances and against the doom that the reader knows lies ahead. Dramatically told, Chimamanda Adichie has written a compelling narrative of human resilience in the face of tragedy.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Sudan's Lost Boys - a book review

What Is the What – the Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng

Dave Eggers, McSweeney’s, San Francisco, 2006

Whew! In novel form this book tells all you ever needed to know about the Lost Boys of Sudan. The story begins with the civil war violence in 1983 that shattered the peaceful villages where Sudanese of various backgrounds lived together more or less harmoniously. Fleeing destruction of their world by Arab marauders, first hundreds, then thousands, even ten thousands of black African youngsters – mostly boys, but a few girls and later whole families - began to trek from their villages into the unknown in search of safety and peace. Months and hundreds of miles later, these refugees found little succor in squalid camps in Ethiopia. Later they were forced to move hundreds more miles back through the Sudan into northern Kenya. There they settled into a teeming camp that became home for ten years. Finally, several thousand of these wanderers were granted refuge in America.

Their walk was of epic proportions. The traumatized children were afflicted by disease, weariness, malnutrition, hunger, lack of leadership and rogue SPLA soldiers. They were pursued by raiders, shunned by most villagers, attacked by government warplanes and some were eaten by lions. Yet they mustered their courage, buried their dead along the way, supported one another and buoyed by hope, they marched onward across the swamps and deserts of Sudan. Pinyudo camp in Ethiopia was not the paradise they envisaged, but offered a year’s respite. Yet that too unraveled in an orgy of violence. Again the boys trudged onward. Beset by troubles and responsibilities that most children never encounter, they grew up on the walk and in the camps.

They settled into a more predictable limbo in Kakuma camp in northern Kenya where they went to school and became young adults. Ultimately as word of their travails spread, several thousand Lost Boys and Girls were admitted into the United States to begin new lives in America. It was a dream, but the reality of the dream was fraught with new obstacles of how to cope with America and how to come to terms with themselves and their pasts.

The novelization of Achak’s story with him as an engaging narrator permits the Lost Boys saga to be told in detail and with great emotion. The author uses flashbacks from present day Atlanta to recall events. Achak’s insight into himself and his relationships with others is genuinely touching. Not only are readers educated on the terrors of Sudan and the trek, but also on the reality that unsophisticated young African men confront in contemporary American society.

Geographical fault finder that I am, I noted two errors: Kitale, Kenya was referred to as Ketale in several passages and Kenyatta Airport was regularly misspelled as Kinyatta.

In summary, the saga of the Lost Boys is overwhelming. This book delivers a full dose of intensity - at times it was too much. I had to take a few breaks. Even so, What is the What is a worthy read. Finally, even though it was mentioned from time to time during the narrative, I never really understood what the what might be – perhaps some sort of universal truth - so the title of the book escaped me entirely.