Half of a Yellow Sun | Study Guide

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun | Context


Half of a Yellow Sun is a work of postcolonial literature, which explores identity, hope, tradition, and change prior to and during the war that followed Biafra's secession from Nigeria, which was newly independent from Britain.

Traditional Igbo Culture

Most of the Nigerian characters in Half of a Yellow Sun are members of the Igbo ethnic group, a diverse group of peoples united by language and cultural practices whose traditional homeland, known as Igboland, is in southeast Nigeria. Adichie portrays the struggle of modern Igbo to practice and protect their cultural traditions in the face of Western influence.

Igboland has been inhabited for over a thousand years by various groups that are collectively known as "Igbo." Cast bronze roped pots have been unearthed in Igboland, dating from 800–900 AD. These Igbo-Ukwu pots most likely served ceremonial functions and remain some of the most intricate bronze sculptures ever produced. In the novel the Englishman Richard Churchhill has heard of these pots and his interest in them is what initially draws him to Nigeria. Igbo-speaking people, who lived in patrilineal or male-line clans organized into villages of several thousand people, practiced a sophisticated form of democracy. Political power in Igbo villages was dispersed among various groups of villagers, including women. Igbo societies classified members by age, and each age group had certain powers and responsibilities.

Traditional Igbo religion recognizes a single creator, God (Chineke or Chukwu), approachable through numerous spirits inhabiting natural objects, and views death as a transition to the spirit world. Villages held frequent masquerades and festivals. Beside their spiritual significance, masquerades helped maintain social and ethical norms. Masqueraders would publicly confront villagers who had violated norms, holding them accountable for their behavior and providing an impetus to correct it. The kola nut, with its energizing and appetite-suppressant effects, is sacred to the Igbo, who traditionally welcome visitors with the kola-nut ceremony. Marriage united clan groups as well as the bride and groom. Traditional weddings were extended, ritualized events, with wine, kola nuts, and a bride price given to the father of the bride in advance of the wedding day ceremonies.

British Colonialism in Nigeria

Colonialism is the dominance of one people by another. Colonialism involves significant, permanent resettlement by the colonizing country in the colonized territory. Colonialism also involves the colonizer's direct economic, military, and political control of the colonized people. The nation of Nigeria is a colonial creation of the British Empire. The British established themselves in the region around the Niger River delta in order to make profit by trade; for administrative purposes, they created the entity called "Nigeria," forcing a multitude of diverse indigenous tribes with distinct, ancient, and sophisticated cultures to live within the economic, political, and cultural strictures of a single modern state. Half of a Yellow Sun explores the effects of colonialism and its aftermath on the people who came to be called Nigerians.

Prior to 19th-century colonialism, European powers conducted trade in coastal Igboland. The slave trade ended in 1807, but trade in agricultural commodities thrived.

The Berlin Accord of 1889 divided Africa between various European powers. Britain was granted territory around the Niger River, which it managed as two separate protectorates. In 1914 the two protectorates were merged, and Nigeria was born.

In colonial Nigeria local governments were run by indigenous leaders, accountable to British officials, a system of "indirect rule." It worked better among the Muslim Hausa people in the north, with their tradition of hierarchical governance, than it did among the Igbo, who traditionally split power among various groups. During this period, Western education, English, Christianity, and technology spread throughout Nigeria, moreso in the south. Britain's policies fostered enmity between groups over the unequal allocation of power.

Nigerians fought for the British in World War I and demanded political reforms after the war in exchange for their service. Britain began making measured concessions to these demands. Pan-Africanism, a movement whose goal is political unity among all Africans and people of African descent, was on the rise worldwide. In the 1920s and 30s, Nigerians formed political parties, established movements, and won elections.

In 1954 Britain granted significant autonomy to the three regional governments in the north, west, and east. Major oil resources were discovered in 1956, primarily in the eastern region, and British Petroleum joined with Dutch Shell and became the largest producer. Independence from Britain was granted in 1960 with a constitution that established a federal government, which concentrated political power in the more populous northern region, while keeping the Queen of England as the ceremonial head of state and a British court as the highest judicial authority. The 1963 constitution abolished these final direct political ties to Britain.

Nigerian Independence and the Biafran War

The novel covers the decade of the 1960s, beginning just after Nigerian independence and concluding at the end of the Biafran war in 1970. The personal lives of the novel's characters are largely dictated by the historical events that shook the nation during this decade. These historical events are continually referenced throughout the novel, providing it with its structure as well as most of its major plot and thematic points.

Ethnic Tension and Power Disputes

From the start, independent Nigeria was plagued with ethnic tension and power disputes. A system of proportional representation meant federal power was concentrated in the populous northern region with its Muslim Hausa majority. The largely Igbo eastern region and the primarily Yoruba western region suspected northern politicians of manipulating politics to bolster northern interests at the expense of other regions.

In 1962 a split in leadership in the western region lead to violent agitation there. Prime Minister Balewa (a Northern Muslim) declared a regional state of emergency and imprisoned party leaders. Demands by ethnic minorities in the western region for a separate state were supported by the federal government, and in 1963 the Midwestern Region was established. The desire of ethnic minorities for separate states was not unique to the western region. It was a matter of contentious political discourse throughout Nigeria.

The 1964 elections were partially boycotted due to political violence and other unconstitutional irregularities. After some negotiations, Balewa formed a new government, which excluded members of the eastern-led political faction. Highly contested results in the western regional elections of October 1965 caused a violent breakdown of social order in the region. Authorities were unable to subdue the violence, and, as the federal government refused to intervene, the crisis continued for months.

Coup Against Balewa

On January 15, 1966, a group of army officers staged a coup, killing Balewa and dozens of other senior political and military leaders. The coup leaders were Igbo, while the victims were not. This created a suspicion that the coup was a power grab by the Igbo rather than an attempt to depose a corrupt federal government.

Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi took control, stocking his new military government with fellow Igbos. He did not try the leaders of the January 15 coup, and his actions uprooted entrenched Northern privilege and power and inflamed anti-Igbo sentiment. Days later Northerners began conducting pogroms against the Igbos. Tens of thousands of Igbos were killed; the military did not intervene.


In July Northern officers staged a counter-coup, killing every Igbo soldier they could find, as well as senior Igbo officers and Aguiyi-Ironsi. A military council chose Lt. Colonel Gowon, an ethnic minority Northerner, as the new head of state. The governor of the Eastern Region, Igbo Lieut. Colonel Ojukwu, did not recognize Gowon's authority, and as the pogroms against Igbos continued and Ojukwu threatened secession, tensions mounted.

Naval Blockade

In January 1967, seeking to preserve unity, leaders met in Aburi, Ghana. Agreements were reached, but when Ojukwu began seizing federal resources in the eastern part of the country, the federal government responded with a blockade. On May 30, 1967, Ojukwu announced Biafra's secession.

On July 6 Nigerian troops advanced into Biafra, enacting a total naval blockade. As the major exporter of Nigerian oil, Britain offered military support to Nigeria, hoping to end the conflict quickly. The Soviet Union also armed the Nigerian army, while France provided limited support to Biafra. Nsukka, Bonny, and parts of the Niger River fell to Nigerian forces during July, loosening Biafra's control of its oil fields.

Asaba Massacre and Abagana Ambush

Biafran troops advanced toward Lagos. On August 11 Gowon declared war against Biafra. Biafrans held back Nigerians at the River Niger by blowing up the Niger Bridge on October 5. On October 7 Nigerian troops murdered 800 Igbo civilians in Asaba under the pretext they were collaborating with the Biafrans. The Asaba Massacre strengthened the Biafran cause, as Biafrans now believed Nigeria's goal was Igbo genocide.

In October, Enugu, Biafra's capital, and Calabar, headquarters of the Biafran navy, fell. Early in 1968 the Nigerian government adopted new currency, a move that hobbled Biafra by making its money worthless. The Biafrans had a victory with the Abagana Ambush on March 31, when Biafran troops destroyed a convoy of Nigerian armored cars. Port Harcourt, one of Biafra's major links to the outside world, was captured in March of 1968.

Humanitarian Crisis and Surrender

Biafra was now almost completely blockaded by air, land, and sea, and a humanitarian crisis was underway. Only a few small airstrips remained functional. During the summer of 1968, news of the suffering in Biafra reached western audiences. Shocked by images of starving Biafran children, international church and nongovernmental groups organized efforts to bring food aid into Biafra. Donations were flown by mercenary pilots under cover of night. As these planes sometimes carried weapons, Nigerian forces frequently attacked them. The airlift was both the single largest global response to a humanitarian crisis and a reason why the conflict continued so long.

Only Tanzania, Ivory Coast, Zambia, Gabon, and Haiti recognized Biafra, although a few other countries offered clandestine military support in hopes of achieving their own economic and political ends. The United States held to a principle of nonintervention in the affairs of foreign states and neither recognized Biafra nor assisted with relief.

Throughout 1969 Nigerian forces continued their advance through devastated Biafra. Biafran forces could not hold them back. On January 15, 1970, Biafra surrendered.

Postcolonial Theory and Literature

Postcolonialism examines the effects of colonization on colonized people. The state of being postcolonial begins with colonization and continues after the colonizer has renounced formal control, as the decolonized society wrestles with the effects of the colonizer's cultural, political, and economic hegemony, or domination, and struggles to establish itself as an independent, prosperous nation.

Postcolonial literature is produced by writers from former colonies. It uses narrative forms to convey the varieties of postcolonial experience, which it recognizes as unique and important. As a work of postcolonial literature, Half of a Yellow Sun explores features of postcolonial experience, such as resistance, hybridity, otherness, and the struggle for autonomy.

The characters resist the influence of the colonizer in various ways, notably through their use of the Igbo language and their use of indigenous cultural forms. The secession of Biafra is an expression of resistance to the government—put in place by the colonizer—that favored certain regions and ethnic groups over others.

Postcolonial identity is characterized by hybridity—new ways of being arising from the interplay between traditional values and those imposed by the colonizer. Odenigbo's fierce tribalist socialism is an example of this. Otherness is a quality imposed by both the colonizer and the colonized upon the other group, who view each other as fundamentally different, or "other," and therefore suspect. Ideas of otherness, encouraged by the colonial experience, also exacerbate tensions among native Nigerians. The anti-Igbo pogroms discussed in the novel are a tragic outcome. Otherness alienates and justifies aggression and subordination.

The struggle for autonomy is a defining feature of postcolonial experience. While ostensibly liberated from the colonizer, the new nation struggles to become independent. It must contend not only with the irrevocable cultural, economic, and political marks of colonization but with the continuing neocolonial influence of the former colonizer. Neocolonial influence refers to the hegemony maintained over formerly colonized states, by means of political, economic, and military influence rather than by direct force.

The war of Biafran secession is an expression of the Igbos' struggle for autonomy over their traditional homeland, an autonomy that is denied by the British-imposed system of government but was enjoyed by Nigeria's ethnic groups prior to colonization. Biafra fails to find autonomy as a nation, but the novel details the ways individual Biafrans claim their own personal autonomy through the experience of colonization and the war that is its outcome. A prime example of this is the character of Ugwu, the village youth who, through his access to the education and ideas of the colonizer, as well as his military experience, emerges as an autonomous, mature figure, writing the story of Biafra—in English.

Postcolonial theory and literature do not merely seek to describe postcolonial conditions and experiences but to explain them, to expose and reject the assumptions of the colonizer's worldview, and by doing so, to reclaim power and foster justice. With Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie makes a powerful statement about international responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in Biafra, as well as the ways postcolonial people struggle and can reclaim their power.

The Writing of Half of a Yellow Sun

Many postcolonial Nigerian writers have used literature to examine the Biafran war. Born seven years after the war's end, Adichie grew up in a Nigeria still seeking to establish itself as a strong, independent nation, among people and institutions freshly scarred by war. In writing the novel, Adichie, like Ugwu, interviewed family and friends about the war. She tells the stories, also, of those who did not survive—the losses of the war, which include both her grandfathers, are personal for Adichie.

Adichie wrote to honor their loss, as well as the loss of the Biafran ideal that so strongly gripped the lives of her people. For her research, Adichie not only talked to people who had survived the war, she also studied photographs and read books, a list of which she provides at the end of the novel. The war and Biafra are not forgotten to history; for Nigerians today, these topics still occupy political discourse, and a new movement among the Igbo for an independent Biafra, the Movement for the Actualization of the Sovereign State of Biafra (MASSOB), has risen to prominence in recent years. In Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie responds to this living legacy of war and the struggle for autonomy by giving it a human face.

The novel was critically acclaimed and received several awards upon its release in 2006. It was awarded the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the PEN 'Beyond Margins' Award, and the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, all in 2007. In 2008 Adichie received a MacArthur Foundation 'genius' grant.

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