Ugwu's job includes all kitchen duties including cooking many local dishes. His service discloses a great deal about him. "He had spent many evenings watching his mother cook. He had started the fire for her, or fanned the embers when it started to die out. He had peeled and pounded yams and cassava, blown out the husks in rice, picked out the weevils from beans, peeled onions, and ground peppers." (pp. 14-15). He created foods like "a perfect meal, a savory jollof rice or his special stew with arigbe," (p. 29) or a pot of pepper soup in which "The oily broth swirled, the hot spices wafted up and tickled his nose, and the pieces of meat and tripe floated from side to side." (p. 114).
There's much more going on, but the details of food preparation and the cuisine of this family give the reader a grasp of the circumstances in which all the characters are living. There's even a contrasting houseboy in another family, who foolishly insists on preparing what he believes to be European or English food, such as beet salad or chocolate cake -- which he never gets right.
For the first half of the book, which takes place during the early 1960s, the reader shares the life of Ugwu, his master, his master's girl friend and then wife, their circle of friends and colleagues, their families and social status, and the entire atmosphere of their lives, their politics, and their thoughts. Although they belong to an ethnic group called the Igbo, they have many associates who belong to the other ethnic groups of Nigeria: they discuss the meaning of these associations and clearly expect that their differences will not be damaging.
The foods that Ugwu cooks are one of many details that anchor the book in the prosperous and in a way complacent life of these intellectuals. Nigerian ethnic unity is clearly worse than an illusion: riots begin to break out, and these murderous riots target Igbo people living throughout the country. Their world collapses, and the family flees to the Igbo territory which secedes from Nigeria as the new country of Biafra.
Anyone who was reading the news between 1967 and 1970 surely can't forget the story of the Biafran war. Newspapers showed the images of near-skeletal, dying children, whom the international community could not or would not rescue from their tormentors. I just looked at some of these unforgettable images online, and again found it unbearable to contemplate the horrible suffering of the starving children. I thought I would include one of these photos but can't bring myself to do it.
Three million people died, most of them children, mainly suffering from the disease kwashiorkor. This severe protein malnutrition among almost the entire population resulted because Nigeria instituted a near-complete blockade of all food and supplies to Biafra. Three million people starving is not something you can imagine, but Adichie makes it real through her presentation of the experiences of Ugwu and his employers, who become more and more his family. The declining circumstances of their lives are shown as they move first to a much poorer house than their University residence, then to a single room with filthy bath and kitchen shared with many people, and as they are affected by refugee camps much worse than their own circumstances. More and more people die or disappear without a trace.
At the end, the desperation of the people becomes vivid through Ugwu's witness of people who begin to eat lizards. "A hawker walked into the compound with an enamel tray covered in newspapers, holding up a browned lizard on a stick." He tells the child of the family: "If you eat one, all the ants the lizard ate will crawl around inside your stomach and bite you." (p. 442).
Eventually, he has to give in, and eventually he records his experience in his journals:
"[Ugwu] wrote about the children of the refugee camp, how diligently they chased after lizards, how four boys had chased a quick lizard up a mango tree and one of them climbed up after it and the lizard leaped off the tree and into the outstretched hand of one of the other three surrounding the tree. 'The lizards have become smarter. They run faster now and hide under blocks of cement,' the boy who had climbed told Ugwu. They roasted and shared the lizard, shooing other children away. Later, the boy offered Ugwu a tiny bit of his stringy share." (p. 498).Since its publication in 2006, the novel Half of a Yellow Sun has been reviewed or rated by thousands of readers -- over 1,100 at amazon.com, over 7,000 reviews and 85,000 ratings at Goodreads, all the major book review sites, and so on. It's also a movie. Finally, I managed to read it, though I've always been afraid to. I doubt that I can possibly say anything that hasn't been repeated many times, but I've tried here nevertheless.
I expected that Half of a Yellow Sun would be an amazing and courageous book. Still, I can't imagine how the author had the strength to describe the experiences of the victims of the Biafran genocide. The author achieved amazing clarity in her portrayal of the desperation of individual characters in the context of the destruction of an entire people. As always, I found the use of food as an indicator of society and social relationships to be extremely fascinating, more in this book than in most.