Half of a Yellow Sun | Study Guide

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun | Part 1, Chapter 1 : The Early Sixties | Summary

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Summary

Ugwu is a 13-year-old Igbo boy from the village of Opi. In the early 1960s Ugwu begins working as a houseboy for Odenigbo, a mathematics professor with radical politics who is also an Igbo, living on Odim Street in the Nigerian university town of Nsukka. Odenigbo, who Ugwu thinks of as Master, is distracted in his study when Ugwu arrives, and the initial reception is unceremonious. Ugwu explores the house, and, finding the refrigerator full of food, eats furtively, storing chicken in his pockets for later. He imagines sharing the food with people in his village.

When Odenigbo wakes Ugwu from his nap, the bedroom smells of chicken. Udenigbo reprimands Ugwu, telling him to eat his meals in the kitchen. He talks to Ugbu about politics: the recent death of the Congo's first prime minister, Lumumba. Odenigbo also says it is the Americans and the Belgians who killed Lumumba, not the Katanga, and the attack is not related to the desire for an independent state. Ugwu is distracted by the sound of Odenigbo's language, a "musical blend of English words in his Igbo sentences."

Ugwu tells Odenigbo he stopped school when his father's crops failed, and Odenigbo, angered by this, says Ugwu will attend the primary school for children of university staff. Odenigbo tells Ugwu in school he must learn the difference between the correct answer and the truth about "our land." He orders Ugwu to sing. Ugwu expresses his desire to cook, which is woman's work in his village. Odenigbo tells Ugwu to call him by his name, not "Sah." Ugwu resolves to learn to read and write.

He is determined to keep his job by impressing Odenigbo, but Ugwu's ignorance sometimes leads to mistakes. When Odinegbo becomes angry with him for ruining his socks by ironing them, Ugwu, fearful of losing his job, plans to cook argibe for Odenigbo, an herb his grandmother uses because it softens a man's heart. Examining the yard, he finds it is carefully weeded by Jomo, the gardener, who tells Ugwo he is a great hunter. Ugwu finds and cooks argibe for Odenigbo, who compliments the dish.

Over time Ugwu realizes he has more freedom and privilege than ordinary houseboys. He enjoys trying to read the English books Odenigbo gives him and listening to the political discussions of Odenigbo's progressive friends from the university. During one of these discussions, Odenigbo expresses his rejection of pan-Africanism, saying it "is fundamentally a European notion" and Africans "are not all alike except to white eyes." Miss Adebayo says all Africans "have white oppression in common." Odenigbo responds "the only authentic identity for the African is for the tribe," and Professor Ezeka counters, "tribe as it is today is as colonial a product as nation and race."

Four months later Odenigbo's girlfriend Olanna comes from London to visit for the weekend. Before she arrives Ugwu is annoyed by this disruption, but he is immediately enchanted by her way of speaking English, which is like what he hears on the radio. Olanna will be moving in soon, and Ugwu is both saddened and excited by the changes he anticipates her causing in his life. He finds himself sexually attracted to her.

Analysis

Ugwu makes sense of the strange new things he encounters at Odenigbo's house by comparing them to what he knows: village life and the natural world. Water gushes from the faucet like a spring; the refrigerator is "a cold barn ... that kept food from going bad." The luxury and abundance that characterize Odenigbo's new life are unknown in the village, where food is scarce, people are uneducated, and Igbo, rather than English, is spoken. Odenigbo is an Igbo man who left his village and became educated and politically radicalized. He feels African identity is rooted in the tribe, yet he has adopted the language and the luxuries of the colonial powers he resents. Odenigbo is a paradoxical character whose personal contradictions reflect some of the book's persistent themes: how can African identity be constructed in the postcolonial era, who are the real Biafrans, and how much should outside influence be rejected in African nationalism and the struggle for Biafra.

The relationship between Ugwu and Odenigbo, who are both Igbo born into traditional village life, is one of unequal power. Despite being not only his countryman but a member of his same ethnic group, Ugwu is subservient to Odenigbo in the role of houseboy. The subservience of Ugwu's vocation is a reflection of his status as a subaltern and therefore subservient member of Nigerian society. After leaving his traditional village, Odenigbo ceases to be subaltern as he gains access to Western-style education and privilege. This access grants him power, not only to be an informed participant in the intellectual and political discourse of the Westernized Nigerian elite but to also employ a fellow Igbo in domestic servitude. Odenigbo's use of Ugwu as a servant reflects hypocricy as it mimicks the British colonizer's practice of domination in Nigeria which Odenigbo is so critical of.

Having left behind village life for life at Odenigbo's, Ugwu will undergo a profound personal transformation. The job is a good one: not only will Ugwu "eat meat every day," as his aunty enthuses, but he will learn English and receive a formal education. He will become politicized by his exposure to Odenigbo and his friends. At first this new world is alien, and he feels submissive and eager to please as well as resistant to change. He will soon come to embrace his new life and the rapid changes political events will soon create in the lives of all the characters.

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