Adebola Rayo

Purple Hibiscus: Power, Abuse And Awakenings


A review of Purple Hibiscus by the 2007 Orange Prize (now the Bailey's Women's Prize) winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Purple Hibiscus was first published in 2003 by Algonquin Books and most recently by Narrative Landscape Press. Winner of the 2005 Commonwealth Writers Prize, Purple Hibiscus is available in 28 languages.

Cover images via Narrative Landscape Press and Chimamanda.


Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus is a brilliant tracing of family and national faults, the things that build us into who we are, and the ways we can happen to life and vice versa.

I first read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s first novel, Purple Hibiscus, when it was published 14 years ago, and I recall being in awe of her storytelling. As I reread it this year, that same feeling resurfaced. Purple Hibiscus tells a story about a seemingly normal Nigerian family unraveling as a military regime comes to power in Nigeria. The story captures the struggles of a politically troubled Nigeria as well as the disintegrating Achike family, both in a fight to bud and bloom in the face of abuse.


Power Must Change Hands


There are people, she once wrote, who think that we cannot rule ourselves because the few times we tried, we failed, as if all the others who rule themselves today got it right the first time."

– p.301a

Purple Hibiscus is set against the backdrop of a recent coup, and as the lives of the Achikes unravel at home, so does the country. Their aunt, Ifeoma, wrote the above to Kambili after moving to America because of unrest at her job in the University of Nigeria following the coup. Her words, presumably said about Americans, echo the sentiment of military leaders of the time. Pre-1999, military interventions in Nigeria were always under the guise of taking over to instill discipline, end corruption, and ensure order, correcting all the perceived mistakes of the democratic leadership.

The first time the coup is mentioned, it is as the priest holds up Kambili’s father, Eugene Achike, as a shining example of how to act right in the face of one. To hear the priest tell it, Kambili's Papa is a shining example of a person who "reflects the Triumphant Entry". He uses his newspaper to speak out for freedom, makes the biggest donations to the church, and he watches to see who does not take communion so they can be restored to the fold. Eugene, venerated by the priest during Sunday Mass, upheld by the village folk and generally praised by all who know him, seems like the perfect man.


Mask Off

In office, successive military governments failed to deliver all they promised and, in the course of holding on to power by means of force, eroded justice in the country. The coup and military government in Purple Hibiscus are no different. The rule of force leaves no room for dissent, and where any citizens or institutions tried to speak truth, they were met with punishment designed to ensure they fell in line quietly. In spite of Kambili’s father Eugene’s ‘goodness’, it is easy to draw parallels between the Achike home and the country, between him and the military leaders.

Eugene’s children and wife are proud of what a good man he is. Kambili holds herself together to prevent her pride from showing because her father emphasises the importance of modesty. Everything is because ‘Papa said.’ Their practiced responses and reactions, all in the way and measure Papa said. His word is law. They are proud, yet terrified of what a punishing man he is. To them. At home. Where no one sees. Where he pours hot water on his teenage daughter's feet, as tears stream down his face, supposedly out of love because " saw the sin clearly and you walked right into it." Kambili’s mother, Beatrice, is a meek woman who does everything to try to please her husband. When she fails, she is battered to the point of hospitalisation.

In spite of the prison-like conditions of her life, Beatrice is incredibly grateful to have Eugene. She tells her daughter about how he has stayed with her, despite the fact that she’s only given him two children, grateful he has not left her despite the comments by relatives. When her husband’s sister tries to persuade her to leave because of his abuse, Beatrice waves the advice aside, chalking it up to Ifeoma’s “university ideas”. The children are raised in a near-militaristic way that leaves them without a name for the abuse their father perpetuates or a voice even when outside the home. Out in the world—in school or even among their cousins—Kambili walks around tongue tied, longing to speak but finding herself unable to. Abuse, emotional and/or physical, takes a toll on the victims, one that sometimes leads to long-term effects, including physical illness.


Fight Or Flee

Everyone has a breaking point—the question is if it leads them to fight or flee. In Purple Hibiscus, citizens protest the military rule at first, but as the days turn on their sides and bring more awareness of the times in which they lived, they shrink back. It starts with driving with leaves on one’s car to signify peace, to people doing nothing as soldiers whip wantonly in the marketplace, then institutional issues like installing sole administrators in universities. The press mirrors this position, learning silence.

Aunty Ifeoma, who tries, in her own little environment in the University, to take a stand, finds that it is hard to fight the power. Like many others who left Nigeria in those years, she packs her bags and her children and leaves for America. A few people try on the national scale. Eugene provides the platform, and his Editor, Ade Coker, continues to speak and take a stand against the military, yet, even they are quieted in the end.

Everyone has a breaking point—the question is if it leads them to fight or flee. For Beatrice, it is when her husband beats another foetus out of her, so hard she insists as she recounts, “it has never happened like this before.” For Kambili and her brother Jaja, it is their first time away from their parents. Seeing how their cousins live with their aunt shakes something loose in them. The order Eugene instilled for almost two decades falls apart after all this, leaving one dead, another jailed, and the remaining two of the four Achikes going against all the morality Eugene had tried to enforce in order to keep what’s left of their family.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus is a brilliant tracing of family and national faults, the things that build us into who we are, and the ways we can happen to life and vice versa. "Immensely powerful" as The Times describes, it is one of those timeless books that deserve revisiting.



a Page 301 referenced from 4th Estate Books Edition of Purple Hibiscus.


What Comes After War?

A review of Ishmael Beah's Radiance Of Tomorrow.


Image:  Demilade .

Image: Demilade.

In 2009, around the time that I had just read Sierra Leonean author Ishmael Beah’s first book - a memoir titled A Long Way Gone - I watched a film, Ezra, by Nigerian filmmaker Newton Aduakaa. Both were about child soldiers and provided my first real understanding of what war does to everyday people. Until Radiance of Tomorrow, I had not read any full-length text that delved into life after the war. In spite of being fiction and not a memoir, the novel felt like an extension of A Long Way Gone — a natural follow-up to Beah’s personal experiences that were chronicled therein.

The Sierra Leone Civil War lasted from 1991-2002; leaving tens of thousands of people, both civilian and military, dead. Like wars often do, it left infrastructure, institutions, and systems in complete collapse - although many, including the educational systemb, had already collapsed before the war due to widespread corruption and poor leadership. Though the war lasted just over a decade, the troubles faced by those who experienced them often extended long after the gunshots have died down, and into the process of attempting to rebuild their lives.

Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow opens with an old woman, Ma Kadie, returning to her village, Imperi, years after she fled from war. As she links up with Pa Moiwa and Pa Kainesi - two other old returnees - in subsequent chapters, the beauty of their memories of Imperi has the reader filled with hope, and anticipating the restoration of the village. Hope for the characters returning weary bodies to the last memory of stability and familiarity, after years of war. Hope for the restoration of this fictional place that has been thoroughly devastated by war — a war that was in no way fictional.


Personal And Collective Trauma

She had returned home because she could not find complete happiness anywhere else.

As the characters head back home after the Sierra Leone Civil war, each comes bearing scars - physical and/or emotional - and Imperi is filled with people marked through and through by personal and collective trauma. They return with a desire to rebuild what they can of their lives and go to work doing what they can — farming, reopening the school and selling firewood. There is urgency to rebuilding and recapturing their sense of home and community. Yet, held against their memories of old Imperi, their efforts seem paltry, and one’s heart breaks for the devastation that has left their homes burnt or riddled with bullet holes.

Sila, one of the villagers, has returned with two of his children. All three of them have been amputated at different parts of their arms, and some steps behind, the child soldier responsible for this, Ernest, has followed them to Imperi. Marked by the guilt of his act, he tries what he can to make their lives easier from behind the scenes. Other child soldiers have also returned, and they band together; living under a self-appointed leader, Colonel, who also keeps watch over Imperi.

While they attempt to restore their old ways of communality, all of them, young and old, have to learn ways of navigating their new realities. A young boy holding a machete for cutting firewood inspires terror; an old man tries to find a new way of greeting a younger man who has lost his right hand; people try to avoid awakening others’ memories of loss. Whether in little ways like that or big ones like trying to eke a living again in a poverty-filled land, their daily lives continue to be marked by loss and pain.


Aftermaths Of War

In a Ted Talk, Margaret Bourdeaux cites a landmark study on post-war public health systems, and concludes: “The most dangerous time to be a person living in a conflict-affected state is after the cessation of hostilities.” While her talk focuses on health systems, the devastation of Imperi and the things that lead to post-war deaths in the novel, include yet extend far beyond health care.

After the war comes the vultures. However, in Imperi’s case, the vultures are not birds. They are miners who have secured a long-term lease from the government and proceed to tear up the land, pollute the water, and employ hapless residents in unsafe conditionsc that kill many. Of course, along with this comes the impunity of their workers who are not from Imperi, and soon, rape, manslaughter, and other ills move into Imperi.

Sierra Leone has a rich deposit of mineral resources — from Rutile (the first being mined in Imperi) to Bauxite and Diamonds. The very things that should be a source of wealth to the people who own the land end up thwarting their efforts at rebuilding and chasing them off land that is rightfully theirs. While the capitalist gutting of Imperi is clearly immoral, the residents of Imperi are forced into grey areas of morality to survive. For instance, the school principal inflates the number of teachers and collects their salaries, yet pays for new uniforms for poor students when the government insists on it.

Two teachers, Benjamin and Bockarie, blackmail the principal into doing good and eventually leave their mostly unpaid teaching positions to work in the mines. As some characters die, leave Imperi or are moved off their lands, I realise that I wanted Radiance of Tomorrow to be easy, neat and restorative. What I got instead was real and raw — the fragmented process of rebuilding lives, and the fact of evil still existing.


Extending The Richness Of African Languages Into English

The African writer…should aim at fashioning out an English which is at once universal and able to carry his peculiar experience.
Chinua Achebe in 'Morning Yet On Creation Day' (1975)

The language of Radiance of Tomorrow is very lyrical. While the words are in English, it is clear that they were conceived in another language first. English, in its normal use, does not have the effect that Beah’s descriptions have. The breeze, the land, trees, and lake are all alive in this book. Nature is animated in the same ways that the characters are. In the author’s note section, Beah says he drew on the oral traditions of his mother tongue, Mende.

Writing has become a way to bring to life some of the things I could not give people or provide physically. I want readers to get a tangible, tactile feeling when they see these words, so I try to use words in a way to fit the landscape. This is why the writing in Radiance of Tomorrow borrows from Mende and other languages.
Ishmael Beah

In spite of the rich imagery conjured by Beah’s use of language, one cannot escape the subject of Radiance of Tomorrow: Trauma. Perhaps the language amplifies it, as it draws the reader into the intimate thoughts and lives of the characters, their land, and their culture. However, if one needs the comfort of knowing that they are going to be fine in spite of the horrors they continue to experience, one would not get it from Radiance of Tomorrow. In that way, the tomorrows of the characters are as uncertain as real life often is, but the journey Ishmael Beah takes one on is a priceless one.


Have you read either of Ishmael Beah's books? What did you learn from it?

Purchase a copy of Radiance Of Tomorrow online or directly from us here


a An emotive Ted Talk by Newton Aduaka in which he shares a clip from his film, Ezra, that tells of a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

b As of 1980, the rate of illiteracy in Sierra Leone for people aged 15 years and over was set at 80.5 percent by UNESCO.

c Though fictional in the conext in which Beah wrote the novel, the plights experienced by the characters are fairly reflectant of those involved in the (informal) industry of Diamond mining, in Sierra Leone, till date. Read this paper by Johnson on the history of Diamonds and resource-led conflict in Sierra Leone, and on working conditions here.

d Curious about the reintegration of child soldiers - otherwise known as ex-combatants - involved in the Sierra Leonean Civil War? Here are three reports by the UN, OECD and Humphreys and Weinstein.


Experiencing Aboulela’s The Museum

Irecently got nostalgic when author, Ayòbámi Adébáyò, put up a post on ‘Breaking The Silence’ - an anthology of short stories by female Nigerian authorsa. The post immediately took me back to teenhood and discovering Nigerian books - particularly those who with a female perspective on life, and stories of women in Nigerian societies. So, you can imagine how delighted I was when Opening Spacesb, a similar collection of short stories, came my way soon after. Even more exciting was that the stories in this anthology are filled with distinct female perspectives on cultural and contemporary issues across different African countries.

Of the fifteen short stories in Opening Spaces, Leila Aboulela’s ‘The Museum’ stuck with me. Her story is about Shadia — a Sudanese bride-to-be who is studying for her Master’s Degree in Scotland, and is engaged to Fareed back home. In the first few pages, she is floundering at school: full of anxiety about the new culture she is experiencing, and hanging out with only other ‘Third World’ students like herself. The rest of the story sees Shadia taking tentative steps out of her comfort zone, and wrestling the cultural and social implications. Aboulela fuses a number of fascinating experiences in this story.

As I read, I kept asking myself: do love and life always require us to contort? All her life in Khartoum, Sudan, Shadia has followed the path mapped for her by her mother, and, subsequently, her husband-to-be. “To make herself pleasing to people was a skill Shadia was trained in. It was not difficult to please people. Agree with them, never dominate the conversation, be economical with the truth.” The result is a mostly timid young lady who resorts to occasional deviousness to get her way; one who hides from others who are unlike her, and is surprised by her own boldness when it shows up.


To Be A Woman

How she became this person, the reader is not told expressly, but it is not an unfamiliar trope. In the first story of the anthology - The Girl Who Can - Ama Ata Aidoo offers a glimpse into how women are taught, from a young age, to be docile: to keep quiet, even when the conversation is about them or issues that will affect them. In that story, an inquisitive child finds it hard to communicate with her grandmother and mother because she is repeatedly told “never, never, but NEVER to repeat that.” To avoid conversations that might displease her grandmother and mother or make them laugh at her, she teaches herself silence.

For Shadia, it is obvious that mother is a dominant personality in her life. Her rationale forms the basis for some of her daughter’s most important actions including her pursuit of a degree and who/why she marries. Her mother, desperate to correct her own errors, wants her daughters to have degrees to earn their in-laws respect. Her argument being: “They have money but you will have a degree. Don’t end up like me. I left my education to marry your father, and now…” Thus, even a good thing like Shadia’s education seems less about Shadia, and more about her mother’s reconciliation with decades past.

Shadia’s life in Khartoum revolves around making others happy, and their ideas of what should make her happy. She describes the man she is engaged to as “a package that came with the 7Up franchise, the paper factory, the big house he was building, his sisters and widowed mother. Shadia was going to marry them all. She was going to be happy and make her mother happy.” 25-year-old Shadia does not learn that one can be a different way — can speak for self or think for self, until during her Master’s when she meets Bryan who listens to her opinions and acts on her wishes.


Cultures And Anxieties

Scotland is a culture shock for Shadia. Having come to school with a single story of how the Western world and its people are, — they hate Islam, they speak perfect ‘BBC-like’ English — she is surprised to find that Bryan was not only culturally open, but had studied Islam is school, and was keen about Mecca. After her encounter with Bryan, a British student, she begins to crawl out of her cocoon into a new space and a new freedom.

What follows is an exploration of what can happen when a woman is outside the conditions that allow certain traditional arrangements or ‘restrictions’ to thrive. These discoveries - like her anxieties about failing school - are, however, things she can neither discuss with Fareed nor tell her mother. The former considers it benevolent on his part that he has allowed her to study abroad. Her mother, on the other hand, would have a fit about Shadia potentially jeopardising her engagement to a carefully ‘selected’ spouse by hanging out with Bryan.

This picture of commonality in the selection of an African girl’s spouse is present in a number of stories in Opening Spaces. Also clear is the sense that it is considered important for her to ensure she is well rounded — the requirements for which differ across cultures — so she can find a good man. Marie, a character in Lindsey Collen’s ‘The Enigmac, is frustrated by this, and writes: “My father is waiting for someone to make a request for my hand in marriage. This is one thing I can’t stand. When I hear the two words bon garçon, I feel the anger…”

Outside the influence of her mother and her society, Shadia seems to unfurl; discovering more about her true self and speaking up about her thoughts. Unlike back home where she did not hangout with Fareed without a chaperone, she goes to coffee with Bryan, and visits a museum with him. The young woman who sat in class at the beginning, thinking about having straight hair in paradise, is different from the one who strives to prove the superiority of her country and people. She compares Scotland’s River Dee unfavourably to the Nile, and is proud that she speaks better English than Bryan does, and that her father, a doctor, has a ‘better’ profession than his.


The Dark Continent

She had come to this museum expecting sunlight and photographs of the Nile… But the messages were not for her, not for anyone like her.

In trying to amplify herself to Bryan, she stretches some truths; boasting that she would have been a princess in Sudan if not for colonialism. The Museum - with its exhibits that reinforced a colonial, primitive narrative of Africa - reminds her of the historical and cultural walls that exist between her and Bryan. At the museum about Africa, Shadia is fierce in her defense of Africa against the lazy exhibits she sees, insisting that: “They are telling lies in this museum... It’s all wrong. It’s not jungles and antelopes, it’s people. We have things like computers and cars.”

Her eyes skimmed over the disconnected objects out of place and time. Iron and copper, little statues. Nothing was of her, nothing belonged to her life at home, what she missed. Here was Europe’s vision, the cliches about Africa; cold and old.

Experiencing the Museum through Shadia’s eyes, the reader gets the sense that the choice of exhibits on display and of the narrative pushed in such spaces in the West, are a semi-new form of oppression. That is, one that aims to keep Africa in the dark, at least in the minds of people whose first and only encounter of the continent may be through such exhibits. Shadia is, nonetheless, reminded of how much her country and culture mean to her. The descriptions of Sudan are vivid, and her longing for her people is palpable. It is clear to the reader how much she, and perhaps Aboulela, love her home.


Internal War

Though she rages against the stereotypes and single-lens on Africa, she finds it impossible to shake all of her own internal conditioning about duty and love. Even her evolving sense of self is not enough to stop her from considering hanging out with Bryan and thinking about him, as mistakes follow mistakes. Shadia is torn between Fareed - who will not lose weight despite her nagging yet is a good spousal choice for her culturally - and Bryan - who pulls off his earrings immediately she says she does not like them during their second conversation.

He didn’t know it was a steep path she had no strength for. He didn’t understand. Many things, years and landscapes, gulfs. If she had been strong she would have explained, and not tired of explaining.

The end of the story leads to the question I had asked when I first started reading: Do love and life always require us to contort? As Shadia unfurls, Bryan - who is longing to get away from the monotony of his life in Scotland and please a woman he barely knows - tells her he can change; he can learn about her culture and religion, to be with her. His willingness to learn is, however, unmatched by her willingness/inability to fully unlearn. Neither Shadia’s growing sense of self nor the taste of previously unknown freedom is enough to give her the strength to pursue a new longing.

Have you read Opening Spaces? What stor(y)(ies) stuck with you?

Not read it? You can rent a copy of Opening Spaces from us in Nigeria here


a Breaking The Silence is a collection of short stories by female Nigerian writers. It was published by Women Writers of Nigeria (WRITA) in 1996, and edited by Toyin Adewale-Nduka and Omowunmi Segun.

b Opening Spaces, published in 1999, was edited by Yvonne Vera, under the African Writers Series. It is an anthopology of short stories by fifteen female African writers from eleven African countries. The fifteen stories and contributors are:

1. The Girl Who Can (Ama Ata Aidoo, Ghana)

2. Deciduous Gazettes (Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, Zimbabwe)

3. The Enigma (Lindsey Collen, Mauritius)

4. The Red Velvet Dress (Farida Karodia, South Africa)

5. Uncle Bunty (Norma Kitson, South Africa)

6. The Betrayal (Veronique Tadjo, Cote d'Ivoire)

7. The Museum (Leila Aboulela, Sudan)

8. The Power of a Plate of Rice (Ifeoma Okoye, Nigeria)

9. Stress (Lília Momplé, Mozambique)

10. A State of Outrage (Sindiwe Magona, South Africa)

11. Crocodile Tails (Chiedza Musengezi, Zimbabwe)

12. Night Thoughts (Monde Sifuniso, Zambia)

13. The Barrel of a Pen (Gugu Ndlovu, Zimbabwe)

14. A Perfect Wife (Anna Dao, Mali)

15. The Home-Coming (Milly Jafta, Namibia)

c A review of Enigma here.