Nigeria: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Udala TreesIjeoma comes of age as her nation does; born before independence, she is eleven when civil war breaks out in the young republic of Nigeria. Sent away to safety, she meets another displaced child and they, star-crossed, fall in love. They are from different ethnic communities. They are also both girls. When their love is discovered, Ijeoma learns that she will have to hide this part of herself. But there is a cost to living inside a lie.

As Edwidge Danticat has made personal the legacy of Haiti’s political coming of age, Okparanta’s Under the Udala Trees uses one woman’s lifetime to examine the ways in which Nigerians continue to struggle toward selfhood. Even as their nation contends with and recovers from the effects of war and division, Nigerian lives are also wrecked and lost from taboo and prejudice. This story offers a glimmer of hope — a future where a woman might just be able to shape her life around truth and love.

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta is like nothing I have ever read before especially in African Literature. This was my book club read for June and I was really eager to read it especially after seeing the blurb. Not many African Literature authors cover themes of homophobia. Sadly, most of this part of the world is still homophobic and I think this is what makes writers hesitant about writing books that feature LGBTQ characters especially in the role of protagonists.

The story begins with the ongoing Biafra war. The war has devastating effects on all the characters. Lives are lost, homes are destroyed and people are starving. The writer vividly describes Nigeria during war and it was clear to see the devastation faced by the characters. The bodies on the street, air raids that forced people to hide in bunkers and the loss of humanity portrayed the grimness that is war. Everyone was looking out for themselves and this meant that kindness had no place in the society.

At the heart of this turmoil are Ijeoma and her family. Like many other families, they are forced to make decisions that cause a rift and separate them for a while. It is at this point that Ijeoma ended up living with a family friend in a nearby town. At this home, she met Alice and her world changed.

One thing that stood out for me is the role that religion played in the story. There was a belief that you can cast out homosexuality from an individual. This reminded me of the many instances that I have heard about the same thing. The call for prayers to fix everything that society does not accept. And so Ijeoma was showered with scripture and prayers to ‘deliver’ her. These scenes were sad to read about. I felt sorry for Ijeoma who had to go through the delivery sessions, spending hours on her knees in prayer being forced to change who she was. At the same time, I felt sorry for those who were trying to deliver her. I understood where they were coming from especially her mama. I can’t imagine the kind of fears that she had about her daughter’s wellbeing. Nigeria was homophobic especially in the 70s which is the time period where the story is set. In those times, homosexuality was punishable by prison sentence or stoning to death. I felt like her mama really thought she was doing the right thing. She was lost and scared for her child. And so the prayers went on and on as mama kept waiting for delivery and as Ijeoma knew that it wasn’t coming.

What I liked about Ijeoma was her strength and stubbornness. When scriptures were used to condemn her, she used the same scriptures to challenge the believers. There are questions that she raised that had me thinking about different things that the Bible says. For instance, she asks about Genesis. God created Adam and Eve and the two had two sons, Cain and Abel. Later, we are told that Cain married. So who did he marry? If Adam and Eve were the only ones in the beginning and they only had two sons, where did Cain’s wife come from? There was also the issue of Soddom and Gommorah and the Levites whereby in various situations, women were offered up to men for rape. Mama in this book used this to illustrate that men could not be offered since that would be abomination if a man lies with another man. Ijeoma questioned the sacrifice of women in this manner.  As a Christian, I admit that some of Ijeoma’s arguments made a lot of sense.

The themes in this book are quite heavy. The war and its effects broke my heart. I can’t imagine what it is like to grow up in such an environment. I have seen the Biafra war being covered by many Nigerian authors but each one brings out something new and shocking.  Homophobia is another key theme in this book. I know this is an issue that experienced in most parts of Africa but the physical assault was shocking to me. I have read and heard stories of hate crime from around the world and I still remember the news reports of the assault on Kevin Avionce in the US. To say that these scenes were disturbing is an understatement. The length that people went to express their hatred and prejudice was upsetting and hard to understand. I think that these images will haunt me more than anything else in the book. Another issue that was tackled in the book is ethnicity and in particular, ethnic hatred. It was sad to see how the Igbo and Hausa mistrusted each other. Ethnic hatred was disguised as it usually is even in Kenya. For instance, people are advised to marry their own kind under the guise that they will fit in properly with others like them.

udala tees 2

This is a coming of age story of a young girl at a time of war. To better understand the story, keep in mind that Nigeria is religious and conservative. In addition, the book is set in the 1970s where homosexuality was outlawed and punishable by imprisonment or death (by stoning). There is a lot of conflict between characters. There is also a lot of self-conflict as Ijeoma tries to find herself in a society that rejects her. Her struggles were heartbreaking. The book is very well-written and I think that Chinelo was successful in achieving her goal of giving the marginalized LGBTQ community in Nigeria a voice.  This is a book that I would recommend to anyone interested in this genre.

16 thoughts on “Nigeria: Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

  1. I’ve got this on Kindle – I really must get around to reading it. Thank you for this review! (Also, if you’re interested in homophobia in Nigeria, there’s a new book When We Speak of Nothing that talks about this too!)

  2. This does sound like heavy subject matter but sometimes those are the reads that stay with us the most. I don’t think I knew you were in a book club…me to and I love it! Great review Diana

    1. I have been in a book-club since 2014. Glad to hear that you are in one too :-). Book Club always challenges me to read books that are outside my comfort zone and really analyze them. This book review was on Saturday and members are still discussing it on chat 🙂

      1. I agree about book clubs, Diana. I’ve been in mine since 2011 and we’ve read some awesome books and some really really bad ones! It’s always fun to discuss different books with a group of friends though…and we drink lots of wine as well:)

  3. There is a very short novel by British author Jeanette Winterson called Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It is a semi-autobiographical novel about a girl growing up in a strict Christian home. She was adopted, so when she realizes she is a lesbian, she feels like she was a disappointing choice for her adoptive parents, but also that she cannot change herself. The chapters are broken up by books of the Bible.

    1. My book-club had a discussion about the role of religion in homophobia. Most people felt that its misplaced and should not even have been there. They were uncomfortable with the Christianity mentioned in this book. However, I think that sometimes people just go back to their faith since its a place of comfort and its where answers are supposed to be found although this doesn’t always happen. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit sounds like quite an emotional read but its one that I would like to read if I get a chance. Thanks for mentioning it.

  4. Good review! I liked that it focused on homosexuality in an African setting. Im from Africa too and a lot of what was written was quite familiar. This is one of my favourite fictional novels from 2017!

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