[Authors note: This was first written in 2016, but extensively redrafted in 2020.]
I was probably 10 years old the first time I heard about the Biafra war. I can still smell that musty classroom in Ilorin filled with restless children listening [almost quietly] as Mrs Onyejekwe skilfully traced the history of Nigeria from precolonial through to postcolonial. And then she mentioned Biafra… and my heart almost stopped. I had heard of civil wars before, but never knew that Nigeria had had one. Wars were things that happened in other faraway places. Wars did not happen here. The mention of war shocked me.
Later when I asked my mother about the war, she told me how she had to attend secondary school in Sokoto because her first choice in Okposi had been closed because of the war. For my mother, the war was present. We had never spoken about it, but it was present for her. As time went by, I learnt that the war lasted from 1967 till 1970, sparked by indiscriminate killing of Igbos in the North. I read Last Plane from Ulli by Charles Kearey about the adventures of a mercenary British pilot flying for the Nigerian government whose loyalties lay more with his mercenary British pilot friend flying for Biafra than with his employers. I was one of the few people who was privileged to study History in secondary school and I learnt about the refugee camps in Biafra and the images of suffering that brought much sympathy from the outside world.
Reading Half of a Yellow Sun [HOAYS] by C N Adichie, made Biafra completely real to me in a way that nothing else had done. I had read Purple Hibiscus before then and already believed that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was a literary genius, but nothing prepared me for the poignancy of HOAYS. It remains one of my favourite books. I also think it is one of the most important Nigerian books. I believe every Nigerian should read it. I was pleased to hear about the film – Nigerians can watch film sha! It has taken a while for me to watch the film adaptation. I think a good job was done… all things considered.
I will always love books over films. That is a personal choice. The written word is my medium, my love language… always touches my soul. But personal choice. So I will always like the book of a film over the film of the book. Some changes were made in adaptation which makes the watch a bit… unsettling for lovers of the book. I think the major and most jarring change is the narrative which is very linear. It is a great departure from the book. In the book, we see a lot through the eyes of Ugwu [John Boyega]. In the film Olanna and Odenigbo have a centrality to the narrative that does not mirror the book, especially in the case of Odenigbo. The relationship between the sisters is also not as front and centre in the film as it is in the book. However, I do not mind this too much. The story is about everyday life in 60s Nigeria with war looming. It is not white saviour narrative like Tears in the Sun – of which I think every physical evidence should be destroyed. HOAYS is a sad film about how Nigeria was gifted a breakfast of blood and tears which greed and hate precluded us from refusing. And thus, we have been left with a dinner of despair. And it is the core of that story that this sorta of review is concerned with.
But first a few words on the film itself. I do like the casting; I cannot tell a lie. It had a good mix of Nollywood and Hollywood actors that blended so seamlessly that you could hardly see joins. Nollywood and Hollywood Hakeem Kae-Kazim bridges the gap. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Gloria Anozie-Young, Wale Ojo, Onyeka Onwenu, Anika Noni Rose, Genevieve Nnaji, Tina Mba, OC Ukeje, Zack Orji, and John Boyega. The only bit of casting I may quibble with is Thandie Newton. She gave a good performance, but for me she was not Olanna. Again, personal choice. I like Thandie Newton, both as an actor and in interviews I have seen her in. Also, I would have liked to have seen more Nollywood women in more visible roles.
Furthermore, I think the soundtrack could have been more evocative of that time in Nigeria. There are 2 scenes where there is some music – the opening independence scene and then the wedding scene. There is refrain which sounds like the American Pentecostal song, I Then Shall Live. [Have a listen and let me know what you think.] But a more wide-ranging musical soundtrack would have located us in the time period better. I would have liked to see music such as Mami Water by Victor Uwaifo or Okwukwe Na Nchekwube by Celestine Ukwu, St Augustine and his Rovers Dance Band with Onwu Ama Dike, or anything by Oliver de Coque or even Sweet Mother by Prince Nico Mbarga. My favourite piece of music from that time and which I think the most evocative of the era, is Nike Nike by E.C. Arinze and The Empire Rhythm Orchestra. Joy is a sound. Listen.
‘Nike Nike’ is the sound of a freedom that never came
It is the sound of stillborn liberation
It is the sound of hope still imagined
A liberty that may still be reborn
A more logistic point is the setting: the northern scenes were very limited, you only had Auntie’s street and the airport. I know there may have been reasons why filming in the North was not feasible, but an approximation of the Northern landscape similar to view of the Niger at Enugu would have been nice to see. However, I think using the maps were very visually helpful to explain distance and context. Travelling to Kano, was not just going down the road. I remember a friend of mine once took a 48 hour road trip from Ile Ife to Maiduguri. [Nigeria is mahussive!] Ultimately though, I think it is a film about war and real people. It illustrates how in civil wars, there are no battle lines drawn on far away fields. The battle lines are drawn through people’s lives, through their big and small moments. There are no winners and losers, just those who die and those who do not, but all still casualties.
So, what are we to take away from a viewing of HOAYS? History needs to be an integral part of our education system in Nigeria. I have said this before. How can you chart a way forward for a nation that knows nothing of where her people have been, the dreams they have dreamed, the hopes, the victories, the tragedies, and triumphs of the past? We do not who we are because we do not know where we have been or who we have been. So, we do not know who we may become.
I think it is vital that we revisit the moment of supposed independence. We need to rethink the questions that should have been asked at independence. We went forth boldly and foolishly without taking stock of where exactly we wanted to go or where we should go and how we would get there. We did not ask questions about the entanglements in the colonial ‘gift’ that had been handed to us, and elite complicity in accepting the gift. Questions about the political structure, about the patriarchal system, about the class system, about colourism, about the fallacy of tribal belongings… there are questions we should have asked at independence. But we did not. Now we are left scrambling about for answers to the wrong questions. Iwaju o se lo, eyin o se pada si. We are stuck in time. Cycling on the same spot like a demented tread-miller. Not asking questions about who calls the shots, and when we will be able to take our shots.
It has been suggested that at the end of the civil war, it would have been good to have a truth and reconciliation commission, where all the atrocities of the war and those that led to the war would be laid bare. But instead, at the end of the war, the door was closed on the war as if that never happened. And so Nigerians who were not directly affected know very little about the brutality of the war. Yet, it is estimated that there were about 100,000 overall military casualties, while between 500,000 and 3 million Biafran civilians died of starvation – mostly children. Think of the trauma of those who survived! Biafra is considered the first extreme humanitarian crisis of the modern era, but we have ‘moved on’ from what happened only 50 years ago. Indeed! We have built barricades on an ulcerous wound, holding our noses against the stench of it. We have walled off dynamite, hoping that if we sing loudly enough, we will not hear it ticking. But there is still time for truth and reconciliation. However, as a mentioned in a different post, there must be truth BEFORE reconciliation. After the civil war in Nigeria, there was neither truth nor reconciliation about Biafra. In fact, there is no truth about much at all.
My final point is about Kainene. What stayed with me most about both the book and the film was Kainene’s fate. I think Adichie struck the right tone here about the realities of the civil war. I think it is fitting and right that the last frame does not say ‘Kainene was never found’, but ‘Kainene is still missing’. There is a lack of finality in that, a phantom feeling of nearly there loss, that echoes reality. Kainene is still missing. For so many families across Nigeria, this is a past and present reality. Kainene is still missing.