Ijeoma was living with her parents in their yellow painted home surrounded by rose and hibiscus bushes, immersed in the aroma of orange, guava, cashew and mango trees, in the village of Ojoto, where vendors lined the street and life had a slow, amiable pace when war broke out between Biafra and Nigeria.
She was just eleven years old when this catastrophe struck, provoking a sequence of other catastrophes in their lives, resulting in her being sent away for her own safety for a year, to a neighbouring village to stay with a childless couple.
‘We moved about in that unhurried way of the butterflies, as if the breeze was sweet, as if the sun on our skin was a caress. As if slow paces allowed for the savoring of both. This was the way things were before the war: our lives, tamely moving forward.’
The 1967 war barged into their lives and all over everything, the quiescent ambiance of Ojoto replaced by the noise and brutality of the war machine, armoured cars, bomber planes, men with guns and machetes, war chants disturbing the evening air.
Before the war, her father told candlelit stories, folktales about talking animals and old kingdoms, spoke of kings and queens, magic drums, scheming tortoises and hares.
In the second year of war, her Mama sent her off, when bold talk of Biafra beating Nigeria had dwindled, supplanted by:
‘collective fretting over what would become of us when Nigeria prevailed: Would we be stripped of our homes, and of our lands? Would we be forced into menial servitude? Would we be reduced to living on rationed food? …Would we recover?’
As a consequence of war, Ijeoma is sent to stay with the grammar school teacher and his wife, in the neighbouring village of Nnewi.
It is here, she crosses paths with Amina, a Hausa girl who follows her home from the shop one day.
‘I found a large rock near where an udala tree stood and sat down there. I waited on the rock, hoping the shadow would continue along, but it did not. Instead, it sat across from me, on another rock, eyes brght, like a pair of light bulbs. She was no longer a shadow.’
Ijeoma is Igbo, but she is far from home and the grammar school teacher and his wife though initially disapproving, become used to her new homeless friend, who helps out and doesn’t cause trouble. They decide she hardly even looks like those they consider the enemy.
“Actually she is more Fulani-looking than Hausa-looking. Which means she could pass for Igbo.”
The grammar school teacher considered his wife’s words. “It’s true,” he said. “Some Igbos and Fulanis do have a certain similarity in their features. Their complexion for one thing.”
“And she appears to be a hard worker.”
Part 2 of the novel displays the changed relationship with her mother after the events of Nnewi. The first week she is back her mother does not speak to her, a week passes without a word between mother and daughter. Her mother then resumes speaking, as if the silence had not been. She informs her daughter that now she is settled in, they will make a schedule, to begin the important work of cleansing her soul. No more folktales or stories of Kings and Queens, her mother’s preferred teachings come straight from the Bible and will be poured into her like medicine.
Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is an abomination.
Chinelo Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees is a journey of self discovery, a coming-of-age tale of a girl experiencing a sexual awakening in defiance of her mother’s and society’s expectations, one she half heartedly attempts to suppress, only to experience an even worse suffering. Ancient folklore, biblical interpretations, all is summoned and used by parents to guide the daughter towards the righteous path.
It is a courageous story to tell in modern-day Nigeria, a country that has criminalised same-sex relationships. It also adds significantly to the growing literary works that use the Biafran conflict as their historical context and brings our attention to an interesting and outspoken literary talent.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie broke the mould in terms of writing about the Biafran conflict with Half of A Yellow Sun and then more recently it was addressed in the autobiographical work of Chinua Achebe There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra, the book he published not long before his death, finally speaking out about what has long been considered a taboo subject in Nigeria’s past, one that the generations who lived it had seemed to wish to remain silent on.
Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.