I was 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 as Mrs Onyejekwe skilfully traced the history of Nigeria from precolonial and postcolonial. And then she mentioned Biafra…I had heard of civil wars before, but never knew that Nigeria had had one. When I asked my mum about the war she told me how she went to secondary school in Sokoto because her first choice Okposi was closed because of the war. As time went by I learnt that the war lasted from 1967 till 1970, sparked by indiscriminate killing of Ibos 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 lie with his mercenary British pilot friend flying for Biafra. 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.
However, until I read Half of a Yellow Sun, Biafra was not completely real to me. I had read Purple Hibiscus and already believed that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was a 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. Knowing how much Nigerians love to read (not!) 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.
It is an adaptation so some changes were made. I think the major and most jarring change is the narrative which is very linear. It is a departure from the book. However, I do not mind it. It is 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.
I like the casting, I can’t 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 Young, Onyeka Onwenu, Anika Noni Rose, Genevieve Nnaji, 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.
I think the soundtrack could have been more evocative of that time in Nigeria. I also think the northern scenes were very limited, you only had Auntie’s street and the airport. There was also a lot of anachronistic stew. Ultimately though, I think it is a film about war and real people. There are no winners and losers, just those who die and those who don’t, but all still casualties.