Half of a Yellow Sun | Study Guide

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Half of a Yellow Sun | Symbols

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Girl's Head in Calabash

In Chapter 11 Olanna flees Kano by train after having discovered the slain bodies of her kin in the village. The woman next to her invites the fellow passengers to look inside her calabash, a traditional container made from a gourd. Inside is a little girl's head with braided hair and rolled-back eyes and open mouth. The woman comments nonchalantly that it took her a long time to braid her daughter's thick hair. This is perhaps the novel's most poignant, potent symbol of the horrors of war. It also symbolizes the end of normalcy and health for Biafrans. The loss of thick healthy hair is an early sign of kwashiorkor, a disease of malnutrition, which will soon ravage the children of Biafra.

Later, as a refugee in Umuahia, Olanna combs Baby's hair, which is falling out and has faded to a sickly rust color. She is reminded of the thickness of the hair on the girl's head she saw in the calabash (Chapter 34). Ugwu, who is writing a book about Biafrans during the war, asks about the experience. Olanna's telling of the story and Ugwu's recording of it "made her story important, made it serve a larger purpose." The writing and telling of stories is an important way for those who experience war and struggle to heal. It is also significant who tells these stories, and that it is ultimately Ugwu, not Richard, who writes them. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie promotes the idea that stories about the postcolonial experience must be told by those who have been most affected by it, the formerly colonized.

Half of a Yellow Sun

The half of a yellow sun is the official symbol of Biafra, and it first appears in the text when Odenigbo waves the Biafran flag at the rally in Nsukka immediately following Biafra's secession (Chapter 13). The ambiguity of the symbol, since the sun is neither clearly rising nor setting, portrays Biafra's tenuous existence, but not to its adherents, who fervently believe the sun is rising for Biafra. Biafrans cling tenaciously to the idea that Biafra can establish itself as a prosperous, independent nation, even as the war drags on and a Biafran victory appears increasingly unlikely.

The symbol appears on the uniforms of the Biafran soldiers; it appears to Ugwu, who longs to be one of them, as "gleaming" (Chapter 18). It appears on the clothing and bodies of ordinary Biafrans. Odenigbo develops a habit of frequenting the Rising Sun Bar in Umuahia (Chapter 18). In her bombed-out classroom in Umuahia, Olanna teaches her students the meaning of the symbol: "the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future." The symbol is poignant, because the war ends with a Biafran surrender and the reunification of Nigeria. The hopes of Biafrans— that their sun is rising, rather than setting—prove false.

Wooden Rifles

Wooden rifles, held by Biafrans who lack real weapons, symbolize the eagerness of Biafrans to engage in a struggle they are unprepared for and unequipped to win. In Chapter 16, at the very beginning of the war, Richard is turned back at a roadblock by a man, not in uniform, who holds "a long piece of wood carefully carved to look like a rifle." In Abba Olanna watches the men return from their win-the-war meetings "holding mock guns carved from wood" (Chapter 17). These mock rifles Biafrans arm themselves with are no more powerful than children's toys: Ugwu watches little boys playing "with sticks shaped like guns" (Chapter 18) and with "mock guns made from bamboo" (Chapter 26).

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