Half of a Yellow Sun | Study Guide

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun | Motifs



The radio appears throughout the novel, building the idea political events in Nigeria have a profound and constant impact on the characters' daily lives. Before the war the radio often plays High Life music. It is Olanna's favorite type of music and popular among elite Nigerians, drawing upon a blend of African, European, and American elements. It is a musical hybrid representing the overall hybridity of experience in postcolonial Nigeria, and its cheerful nature discounts the problems inherent to such an experience. When war breaks out the radio serves as a primary means for informing characters about its developments as well as maintaining their support for the Biafran cause. Ugwu's refusal to listen to Ojukwu's speech on the radio at the end of the novel signifies his refusal to allow the hopelessness of national politics to infringe upon his daily life any longer. His desire to listen to the music of the birds (Chapter 32) rather than anything on the radio signifies his realization the untold stories of individual Biafrans are now important to him as a writer. His focus has come full circle, from the sounds of his village to the sounds of the radio back to the sounds of the birds.


Singing represents a person's belonging to a certain culture. It is an expression of identity or of belonging to a certain group, a major theme of the text.

On his second day as houseboy, Odenigbo demands Ugwu sing for him (Chapter 1). Ugwu's song is "an old song he had learned on his father's farm," and it demonstrates his identity as belonging exclusively to the village and its traditions. In Chapter 3 Richard, upon breaking up with his British expatriate lover to be with Kainene, who is Nigerian, has "the overwhelming urge to sing, except that he was not a singing man." Richard's inability to sing conveys his struggle to locate a comfortable identity anywhere, as he is not part of the expatriates' in-group, nor is he fully accepted by the locals. Odenigbo's mother, a superstitious village woman who chafes against westernization, represented by her distrust of wealthy, foreign-educated Olanna, sings to herself, a proud affirmation of the power of her traditional culture, as she uses the "bad medicine" of the village dibia, or healer, against Olanna (Chapter 4).

In Chapter 13 when Biafra secedes, the rally at Freedom Square in Nsukka is marked by "shouting and singing," and the song, in English, is a joyous proclamation of Biafra's steadfastness and resolve. The singing gives Olanna an exhilarating feeling of unity with her fellow singers, "a delicious exuberance" rooted in the feeling "that everybody there had become one." They sing their new identity into being: "They were Biafrans. She was Biafran." Throughout the war the Biafran national anthem as well as other pro-Biafran songs, in English and in Igbo, are sung by various characters who seek to affirm their identity as Biafrans bound together by a common hope, struggle, and eventual victory.

In Chapter 26 the starving refugee women in Umuahia sing a song of gratitude to the relief while they wait in line for food. The words are in both Igbo and English. The singing not only boosts morale; it is a synthesis of English and Igbo, and its direct address of the foreign relief organization is the women's acknowledgment that Igbo survival is now dependent on foreign aid. Olanna returns home singing, but only if she returns with food. Empty-handed, she is silent.


Several characters have visions throughout the novel. These visions are a distinctly indigenous, as opposed to Western, mode of perception and understanding, and they represent the idea that traditional and indigenous ways of knowing are an important aspect of postcolonial identity. When Ugwu first arrives in Nsukka, fresh from the village, he mistakes Olanna's presence before him as a vision, reflecting, "the people he thought the most about often appeared to him in visions" (Chapter 1).

In Chapter 13 Olanna, whose character reflects a hybridity between her Western-style education and her traditional Igbo roots, has visions of "burning owls ... grinning and beckoning to her with charred feathers" as a result of the trauma of seeing her kin slain in their village. Owls are a symbol of death in many indigenous cultures, and they appear to Olanna when she is at her weakest, regardless of her disbelief in things like visions and spirits.

Olanna's eccentric friend Mrs. Muokelu is prone to visions about the outcome of the war. These visions specifically integrate elements of traditional culture and Igbo history into Biafra's modern-day struggle: in Chapter 24, her vision is of "traditional warriors from Abiriba" using bows and arrows to defeat the Nigerians, and in Chapter 31 she has a vision of a dibia, or traditional healer, giving Ojukwu "some powerful medicine that would recapture all the fallen towns." Olanna, who is vaguely Christian, doesn't take Mrs. Muokelu's visions seriously—but Mrs. Muokelu does.

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