The World Was Silent When We Died

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I was with Mukundi and deMaitha on Tom Mboya Street when I saw it. I have no idea how, given the jostling of pregnant women, dodging giant handbags and shaking off the street kids tugging at my hand. It was a miracle I saw the book. There on the vendor’s stand, lying majestically on top of a pile of self-help books was a copy of Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun. This was early last year. Normally, at these bend-over bookshops, books go for Ksh. 50, but the okuyu woman insisted that she would not accept anything less than Ksh. 300. I did not even bargain.

I meant to read it immediately, in fact I was two chapters in, before Mukundi stole it. When he was done, another lady friend took it because I was reading Americanah at the time. When I finally got it back, just as I took up from where I left, campus siasa came along, and in the thick of things, some ignoramus had half the brain to write to Daily Nation that I was trading campus political seats for chudex from desperate first year lassies.

After campus, Karua (my mother) found it in my room, went through the first chapter and said she could not read it further because it had too many bad manners. So I put it back in my library and did not pick it up again. Until last week Sunday. And when I started, when Adichie threw me back to 1967, I did not want to come back to 2014 until I got to Chapter 36.

Then like Margaret Foster, I wasted the last chapter. Chapter 37. Read it in too much of a hurry because I wanted to know what happened to Kainene. She was my second favorite character in that book after Ugwu.

I liked Ugwu. He is not the man’s man, but he is the ultimate wingman. The kind that will have your back come hell or high water. He will tell you not to cheat on your woman because it is not worth it. And even when you do not listen to Ugwu, even if you go ahead and chudex that other bimbo that your mother brought for you from the village, he will stand by you and try to placate your woman. He will say something along the lines of, ‘It was his mother who bewitched him.’ At that time, you will be there standing with teary eyes, quoting what women in labour usually say “I will never do it again. I swear.”

But I loved Kainene because she was a goon; tough like the spine of a dinosaur. She is not afraid to cut corners to get to the top. She is aware that she is not that pretty, and takes it her stride. When she gets a man like Richard, she makes him the weaker one. She initiates sex, and later, when Richard drifts off to sleep after his one minute performance in the sack, she lights up a cigarette, perhaps a Dunhill.

When her sister Olanna, in retaliation to her cheating husband, steals her fucks her Richard, she finds out. She holds on to hurt. If anyone wrongs her and expect her forgiveness, s/he might as well start waiting for Godot. But she does not push her enemies away. No. She keeps them around. She let Richard stay, and told him that leaving or breaking up would be too easy. Then when her sister called to beg for forgiveness, she asked (and this is one on my favorite lines in the book):

“You are the good one, and the favorite one, and the beauty and the Africanist revolutionary who doesn’t like white men, and you simply did not need to fuck him. So why did you?”

Even me, if I was Olanna, I have no idea how I’d answer this question. How I would explain to my twin sister that I fucked her husband just to get back at mine. I would let her words echo in my head and trail down into my soul and set it on fire. I would not forget her words, her questions; “You’re the good one. The good one shouldn’t fuck her sister’s lover.”

Secretly, beneath all that male machismo,many men fear women like Kainene. But I liked her. I fell in love with her.

That is why I rushed through the last chapter of Half of a Yellow Sun, to find out what happened to Kainene at the end. The Biafra war was cruel to Kainene. At the end, she gets lost. Nobody knows what happens to her. And for that, a fiery resentment for Adichie scalded my chest.

When, after two hours of phone therapy with my friend Abi, I finally accepted the fact that it is not my story to tell, I realized that Half of a Yellow Sun was not meant to be a perfect story. Clearly, I had not been paying attention. There was no happy ending in this book. It was not the conventional perfect love story. It was a beautiful story.

Beauty, in whatever form, always comes with a little imperfection. Scars are what make things beautiful. Flaws are what make people beautiful. A lady may be hot, sexy and attractive, but until you see her flaws and accept them, until you see her cracks and fill them with love, only then will you feel the beauty of that woman. It does not matter if she has flawless skin, or folds on her midsection that only her mother would call love handles. Beauty is not only skin deep.

The same with art, and in this case, stories. Half of a Yellow Sun is a beautiful story. The ending is not perfect for the characters, they do not walk off into the sunset holding hands, enjoying a happily ever after. In the context of its setting, time and place, it is naïve to ignore the Biafra-Nigeria war and expect that Kainene and Richard would have a fairy tale ending. It was hard for me to accept this, but I made peace with that bitter fact. I accepted and moved on.

The Biafra war is something that I only learnt about in campus in the Public International Law class. That there was once a group of insurgents who drew a map of Nigeria and called it Biafra. I had no idea about the depth of the war. How on one particular day, people who had lived together; seducing each other’s daughters, borrowing garri, sharing jollof rice and drinking together, stopped viewing each other as human beings and began killing each other because the other neighbor was Igbo or Fulani or Yoruba or Hausa. People who just some full moons before had been their friends and family. When, even amongst each other’s tribal camps, anyone who acted differently, thought differently, or was suspected to be different, was labeled a saboteur and flogged- sometimes within an inch of heaven.

Imaculee Ilibagiza’s Left to Tell rushed to mind.

There are sections in this book that left a lump clogging my throat. Consider the Igbo people. How they gave their last for cause. A cause they were determined to starve and die for. Only for their own soldiers to betray them the way they did. Denied them relief food, conscripted their children into the army by force and as if that was not enough, raped their women just for kicks.

These Igbo people, they threw pearls before swine.

At the end of the book, Adichie, when asked why she decided to take on writing about the war, said, ‘…because I want to engage with my history in order to make sense with my present, because I lost both of my grandfathers in the war, because of the tears in my father’s eyes when he speaks about his father…because I never want to forget.’

As a continent, as a people and as a human race, we find it easy to forget. We forget what slavery did in the American plantations, and the racial profiling that goes on to date. We forget how children in Benghazi were inoculated with HIV in a bid to eliminate a tribe that deified a tyrant. We forget the gas chambers that Jews were put in during the holocaust, and what Israel decided to do to Palestinians because apparently they are the chosen race and so it is no biggie. We forget Biafra, apartheid the Rwandan genocide and then the Kenyan PEV- how the whole world stood from a distance, silently watching as we died.

Different people came to mind as I drifted through the pages of Half of a Yellow Sun. I wondered how they felt about certain aspects of the book. I wondered how Biko would react to Adichie’s feminist voice in telling Odenigbo’s love life with Olanna. If it is true that men can chudex a mpango wa kando and yet feel nothing. Cheat on and still love your wife? But then I remembered that Biko is not hot for African literary fiction.

I wondered how Aleya read the sex scenes and admired how Adichie writes about sex. I wondered if Mukundi felt his trousers bulge at what Karua called the ‘bad manners’. I wondered if Nyana Kakoma was reminded of the Ugandan succession wars, and if at the end, she felt like kicking Museveni in the groin. Did Abigail and Clifton Gachagua find Okeoma’s poetry funny? Did Amol Awuor cringe like I did when Adichie decides that it was not Richard’s, but Ugwu’s, place to tell the story of Biafra- simply because he (Richard) was a Briton? Never mind that the hammer blows of war wrecked him too? I wondered if Mehul Gohil loved the use of exposition like I did, and was somehow reminded of Dambudzo Marechera’s The House of Hunger – Marechera describes rain and suddenly you feel wet.

It was on Tuesday, 2nd July when I finished reading the book. It was also Rtd. President Daniel Moi’s birthday. I was in traffic headed to The Junction. No. 111 matatus headed to Ngong, in their usual impatience, had decided to tie traffic into a knot at the roundabout just before Brew Bistro. I sat there wondering if Moi also read this book, and if he also chose to forget. If he, when blowing his 90th candle, thought of Bishop Muge, Julie Ward and Robert Ouko. If they also deserved such simple joys as celebrating old age, and having newspapers celebrate their birthdays with loud headlines.

For happier thoughts, I texted Abi; Nkem, I have finally finished the book.

She knew what I meant, and then warned me about the movie. She said something foreboding about it. That it will make me angry. Do not be tempted, she said. Several friends on my Facebook timeline thought as much. Do not judge a book by its movie, they chided.

But then you see, I am not the last born of Jacob. I am the last born of Karua. So I do not flee from temptation. I confront it. That same evening, I watched the Half of a Yellow Sun film. Fifteen minutes later, I was already jaded; fiddling with my phone for updates on the latest Beijing version of Subway Surfers.

It was not a good attempt, the movie. I don’t know who to blame, so let me pick on the director. Kainene was supposed to be unattractive. Anika Noni Rose is not unattractive. Maybe her weave (wig?) is ugly, but she is alright. Then they cut out several sections and characters from the book- people like Jomo and Harrison. I did not even see the war- just an illusion of it. I wanted to see Ugwu fighting in the battle front. And the bunkers were nowhere to be seen in the movie.

So let’s just be kind and instead of saying the movie was a flop, say that it was rushed.

But then I have a problem with people who say ‘the book was better than the movie’ as if they could have directed it better, or as if it were a competition. One form of art does not compete with the other. Books are not in competition with films. They complement each other’s efforts in this arduous attempt to tell the stories of our lives. And quite frankly, it is not easy to bring out the ‘emotional truth’ that Adichie packed into this book. We are only humans, we can only try.

Abi asked me at the end of it all: “So, Half of a Yellow Sun or Americanah?”

This question, I did not know how to respond to it. Adichie writes with colour. She paints the colours of our lives. So I cannot chose one. It is like Mukundi asking me if I prefer boobs or ass in women. I mean, why do I have to pick? Both are lovely.

“Tough choice. But if I had a gun to my head, then I would choose Half of a Yellow Sun, hands down”

“LOL. Why?”

“Because Americanah is a perfect love story.”

I enjoyed this book. I loved hating on the tragedy at the end. No other ending would be as suitable. It is what The Guardian described as ‘a heartfelt plea for memory’.

However, if I am to accept Adichie’s word as faith about the danger of a single story, then I need me a Yoruba/Hausa to tell me his version of events. To answer this question for me; “Where were you in 1967?”


About Author


  1. Not born. But my parents told me the story. They had to have a ‘forced break’ from school. That is why they do not like war. They saw its damaging effects.

    Visit to be coached by a woman on being a business tycoon and the journey to get there. If the snail got to the ark, you will become all God has called you to be. Be persistent!

  2. This is a great review,took me back to when i first read the book. i read Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun and then Americanah in that order, maybe that is why that remained my order of preference.

    I also got to watch the movie and it is true that something was lost, it always is when people compare the movie and the book, well except for Nicholas Sparks perhaps.

    I agree, it was a beautiful story.

  3. "I am not the last born of Jacob…I don't flee from temptation" lol
    Well written review,just do not agree with the movie part for not comparing forms of art, the movie was simply underwhelming even if you hadn't read the book first #booksshouldnotbemadeintomovies

  4. I just want to know what/who tSN/ is? The Significant Nkem? And I fell in love with the word nkem. When I read Half of a Yellow Sun I think in 2011, I thought. My God! This Chimamanda woman. I want to be her! Then when I read Americanah, I thought, You know what Achebe said about Chimamanda? Well, now she has spun herself into full being! Americanah takes the cup for me. And thanks Magunga for your writing.

  5. I read half of a yellow sun early last year, n Americanah late last year. If I were to choose my favorite between the two however, no one would have to put a gun to my head before I profess my undying love for Americanah. That book just ' happened' to me in ways that only one other book has. The fault in,our stars by John Green). Half of a yellow sun is very nice, but Kainene getting lost?!!!! Her of all people!!! Nooo. I couldn't take it.
    I love your review though Magunga. Your writing is beautiful.

  6. i have been meaning to read this book, now that you have oh so passionately talked about it(including some spoilers).i will get it and hopefully be touched and amazed..
    p.s No movie is ever as good as the book.NONE!

  7. In so many ways this book reminded of Kenya (tribalism, racism, colonization, social classes) It couldn’t have been too different if written from a kenyan perspective…I think. “I need me a Yoruba to tell me his version of events. To answer this question for me; “Where were you in 1967?”” Good point.

  8. Unrivaled in my library. I have never seen such ingenuity when it comes to Half of a Yellow Sun. And yes, credit is due to the flaws of the almost perfect story. However, I do think Adichie cheated us with Americana but that is a story for another day.

  9. Hillary NM on

    I have been wanting to read this review for a while, and I finally did. Well, I started reading from the middle, where you start with “At the end of the book …” the transition from the book to our experiences is beyond awesome, swift, apt. But I will remember the paragraph on Moi’s birthday. Does he receive couriers? You could send him a package, Half of it with the Yellow Sun and the other half filled with the Bible.

  10. Mercy Amoh on

    I am impressed. Someone I hold closest to my heart told me that Adichie will impress. I have been staring at this book each time I walk into his room. Guess its time I read it. Beautiful piece there. I hope it swipes my emotional attachment from “The Fault in our Stars”

  11. Impressed. I think the problem is not our failure to learn from past experiences but rather our arrogance and negative attitudes to fundamental realities. Surely even animals learn. In fact animals have proven to have the ability to learn even from mistakes made by others.

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