Half of a Yellow Sun

Tribes vs Tribe in Nigeria

Tom Nickel
7 min readOct 9, 2023

For many people who have grown up in the U.S., ‘The Sixties” refers to a cultural revolution that erupted as a Summer of Love in 1967 and mostly wound down by 1970, at least outwardly.

For many people who have grown up in Nigeria, ‘The Sixties” refers to a political and tribal revolution that erupted as massacres of Igbo people, secession, the birth of Biafra in 1967 and a civil war that mostly wound down by 1970, and is still felt today.

In the U.S., the “Early Sixties” were confident and upbeat times for many, but not all, citizens. Camelot. The excitement and energy of The Beatles. By the “Late Sixties,” the energy was no longer containable. Assassinations and violence joined peace and love at center stage.

Chimamanda N’gozi Adichie’s, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” takes places in 1960s Nigeria. Part One is titled “The Early Sixties,” and we meet many confident Igbos frequently and openly discussing different forms of governance. Part Two is titled, “The Late Sixties” and it features massacre, war and mass starvation.

The early sixties in the U.S. offered new ways of thinking and behaving that some adopted and others did not. For the adopters, it felt like being part of something bigger, a very loose form of tribal identity. For the non-adopters, the vision looked delusional and felt divisive.

The early sixties in Nigeria began with freedom from British colonial rule, officially proclaimed on October 1, 1960. There were suddenly new opportunities, new possibilities. Welcomed by some, feared by others.

Richard Churchill is a character in “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a British ex-pat in Nigeria writing about Biafra. He starts writing two books and gives them both up when he realizes it’s not his story to tell. It isn’t mine either — my story is what Chimamanda N’gozi Adichie’s novel made me think about and how it made me feel.

  1. It made me think more about the nature of tribal identity

One of the main characters, Odenigbo, argues for the tribe as the ideal unit for Africans:

“the only authentic identity for the African is the tribe…I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”

This frequently-quoted statement from the novel leaves out the important layer his friends adds next in the conversation — that it is also because of the British that he was so strongly aware of being Igbo.

British policy led to a heightening of differences between tribes and ethnic groups in all colonized areas. It was a foundational principle of control. Colonization and later de-colonization had the effect of strengthening Igbo identy for the overall population of Igbo speakers.

I already understood this aspect of colonial policy. Everywhere the British ruled, tribal or some form of sectarian violence would occur continuously during and after British rule. The British wanted it that way.

Divisive colonial policy ended up forming a major part of some people’s personal identity. Tribalism gives, but tribalism also takes away — strong personal identification with a group can help people miss cues from the larger world around them and to buy into views that are not grounded in reality.

It is clear in “Half of a Yellow Sun” that Igbo’s were not sufficiently aware of the way people in other tribes regarded them and their relative success in the early post-colonial years.

It was the reaction of people in other tribes — Hausa, Yoruba and more — to Igbo accomplishment in the early years of independence that created the seeds of conflict. Getting off to a good start as a group can create resentment. It doesn’t matter if it is justified or not.

Most Igbo people in the novel are presented as completely oblivious as to how Igbos were being perceived. I don’t think that makes what happend their fault and I don’t think the author does either. I think Chimamanda N’gozi Adichie writes very perceptively about how tribal identity operates.

Before, during and after secession, it never occured to anyone in Biafra they they could lose. Even though the civilian characters are in continuous retreat from Nigerian soldiers, they seem to never question their ultimate victory.

Reading the book, it felt like the strength of their identity prevented them from seeing themselves as other tribes saw them. Watching the film made from the novel conveyed this sense even more. All we saw was relentless destruction and eventually starvation — while the characters kept believing they would win.

This kind of fatal blindness might be an inevitable aspect of tribal identity. The new vague and informal ‘tribe’ I identified with in the late sixties, while Biafra was being annihilated, had its own culture and famously couldn’t care less what anyone thought of them, especially if they were over thirty.

I regret this and I think the fatal blindness continued in the new group identies that emerged as the post-World War II generation grew up all over the world. Self-certainty and obliviousness to others increasingly meant strength..

2. It made me wonder about what draws people together

At the individual level, “Half of a Yellow Sun” is a complicated story of conflicting needs, strange relationships and love.

There are three narrators — the ex-pat, the daughter of a wealthy Chief, and a village boy who comes to work for an educated Igbo family.

We see what is going on through their eyes and we are privy to their thoughts. But we still don’t understand why they act as they do because the characters themselves don’t either.

The wealthy daughter is also smart and beautiful. She could have an easy life but instead she throws herself into the middle of a horrible war with mass starvation because she loves a guy.

The ex-pat is in a relationship+ with the wealthy daughter’s equally wealthy and ultra resourceful twin sister. She is brilliant and decisive. He seems shy and unformed. Their relationship is a headscratcher that seems to work well.

Ugwu the village boy is the one I will remember because I have met very few, if any, village boys in all my reading. He grows up in the sixties with no other frame of reference than his day to day existence. The family he works for is worldly — they are his world. They encourage him to learn reading and writing. He does.

Eventually he is forcibly conscripted, as all able males would be. He is sent to the front with no training and almost no gear. It’s awful in every possible way and he does things he had never imagined he would do. It was also the first time in his life he was on his own. In addition to everything else, he felt exhilarated sometimes.

3. It made me set my sixties against Nigeria’s sixties

It was the most exciting time of my life.I finished high school in 1966, when the late sixties began and John Lennon said his band was bigger than Jesus. That got The Beatles banned in South Africa. Many Igbos adopted Christianity and may not have been thrilled with John Lennon either.

John was my favorite Beatle. I never saw them live but I was present for live performances by some of the giants — B.B. King to Frank Zappa, Grateful Dead to The Who. And the epitome of that time, the anger, the sexuality and the musical genius of Jimi Hendrix, I caught live at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia, PA.

In Nigeria, all the different cultures were part of a thriving rock music scene before the civil war. Then suddenly, the the music scene largely shut down.

I wondered how it came back to life and what role it played as the country returned to peace and began healing. I found a long interview with Eothen Alapatt and Uchenna Ikonne, compilers and authors of, Wake Up You! The Rise and Fall of Nigerian Rock, a book and recorded history of Nigerian Rock right after the civil war.

Alapatt states that, “after the war ended, no one could really go home again, spiritually and many times physically. And, at the same time, Nigerian’s had a chance to throw themselves into the Flower Power movement — their own version — that had taken place all over the world.

He mentions The Beatles, “I’m not sure how much of the Beatles’ actual sound informs what you hear in Nigerian rock, but the group was still highly inspirational to the extent that they demonstrated rock’s power to transform society.

The musical changes were profound.

The Nigerian scene went from “jangly guitars and bright harmonies” of the old days to the “funk, fuzz and fury, the sound of anger and liberation culled from US superstars like James brown and Jimi Hendrix.”

Image by David Denton

Tom Nickel writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about, such as Abdulrazak Gurnah and Africa.

Tom and Abdulrazak were both born on December 20, 1948. They both went to went to London to study in 1968. Abdulrazak went on to become a Professor and a Nobel Prize winner.

Tom holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos