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.


Nigeria's Military Dictatorship Through Habila and Achebe

This review titled 'Military Dictatorship In Nigerian Novels: A Study Of Helon Habila’s Waiting For An Angel and Chinua Achebe’s 'Anthills Of The Savannah' was originally written by Ikechukwu Asika. The full paper was published in the African Research Review, Vol. 5 (3), 2011: pp. 275-289.


Injustice, oppression and corruption — these are the three words that bind the bodies of work comparatively studied by Asika. Both novels, though written just over a decade apart, highlight the socioeconomic realities of people under Nigeria’s military eras. Achebe uses a fictitious country, Kanga, to paint a picture of a repressive iron-hand ‘khaki’ leadership in Anthills of the Savannah. In Waiting For An Angel, Habila similarly illustrates years of “hardship, killing, violence, brutality and imprisonment” during Abacha’s regime. Asika, through his paper, looks at both books as "social documents" from which people can learn about such a time as the military rule.


Anthills Of The Savannah

"His Excellency gets whatever he wants and suppresses the people under his tyrannical leadership...His Excellency, the military leader, wanted to be a life president..” “His government is like a den, [and] no one leaves his den unhurt...He hates anything that portrays the truth.” “[...][When] Chris wants to resign as the Commissioner for Information, he wouldn’t be allowed to do so; [instead, he would] jailed for refusing to carry out his evil instructions. Chris laments thus:

So I will stay put and do you know something else; it may not be easy to leave even if I wanted, do you remember what he said, during that terrifying debate over his life presidency? I told you, didn’t I? For one brief moment he shed his pretended calmness and threatened me; if anyone thinks he can leave the cabinet on this issue he will be making a sad mistake. Anyone walking out of that door will not go home but head straight into detention.

Anthills Of The Savannah, p. 119

"His Excellency is hell bent on silencing anyone who says the truth about his government...Ikem Osodi, the Editor of the “National Gazette,” [takes] it upon himself to write about nothing but the truth; to expose and satirize the corruption and dictatorial nature of the military rulers. This [is seen as] ...a great threat to the government of His Excellency, and Ikem must be stopped by all means. Thus, Ikem be[comes] a victim of the truth he writes about.

"Achebe also highlights on the plight of the people who are against the dictatorial government. They are neglected and abandoned.” “Those that [stand] in defense [sic] of the truth are denied basic social amenities and economic dividends. The people of Abazon [are] abandoned to poverty and hardship, under the wreckage of erosion. They have no boreholes [nor] other amenities because they refused to support the military ruler… As a result of [the] marginalization and neglect, the people of Abazon have no [choice but] bow under the powers of oppression and dictatorship thus [saying]:

… so we came to Bassa to say our own yes and perhaps the work on our boreholes will start again and we will not all perish from the anger of the sun. We did not know before but we know now that yes does not cause trouble.

Anthills Of The Savannah, p. 127

"The kidnapping of His Excellency is [however] a medium through which Achebe demands a total eradication of military incursion in Kangan - an imaginary country that can be likened to any African state. [Through]...the characters of Elewa, Bertrice, Adamma, Emmanuel and Abdul, ...we see the despair, weariness and agony but [also] a sense of pride and cheerfulness for having survived the military era to witness a new nation – a dictator free nation. [We witness] ...a lesson they learnt, and it is a message to entire humanity.


Waiting For An Angel

"Habila delve[s] into the psychological disposition of many individuals, to expose the traumatic effects of military government [of General Abacha] on them.” “It was obvious that the military rulers never had democracy at heart, and so, they kept postponing the date...Students, to show their resentments [sic], organized a peaceful demonstration. Few were killed; many wounded. The military men invaded their hostels to loot and rape the girls.

"Fundamental human right[s were] ...blown into the wind. "People and things [fell] apart.""...The hopes and aspirations of the characters [were continuously] shattered due to the unending tension mounted by the army boys.”“Bola [gets] home to learn of the accident involving his mother, father and two sisters." He takes to the street to shout, and is "...arrested by the agents of the Khaki boys...beaten to coma and later dumped in a psychiatrist hospital. That [would be] the end of Bola.

...They hold us cowed with guns so that they will steal our money. This is capitalism at its most militant and aggressive. They don’t have to produce any superior goods to establish monopoly. They do it by holding guns to our heads. Let me tell you why they hanged Saro Wiwa…where is Abiola? In prison! They will continue subjugating us, killing all dissenters, one by one, sending them into exile, till there is no competition left to oppose them.

Waiting For An Angel, p. 158

"Lomba, the main character in the novel, [is] detained in the prison simply because he is a journalist who writes about the truth. The government [had] erected more prisons..[in which] innocent citizens were littered as political detainees without trial - a technique to put them away from challenging the government forever. Thus the prison superintendent tells Lomba in his archaic English:"

Do you complain? Look twenty years I have worked in prisons all over this country. Nigeria …sometimes it is better this way. How can you win a case against government? Wait, Hope’ …Now he lowered his voice, like a conspirator. ‘Maybe there, there’ll be another coup, eh? Maybe the leader will collapse and die. He is mortal, after all. Maybe a civilian government will come. Then, there will be amnesty for all political prisoners.

Waiting For An Angel, p. 14, 15

General Abacha later dies and the angel of hope, one of liberty, rescues " many citizens under the bondage of military dictatorship.” Habila remarks in closing: “In politics of Nigeria, nothing that would be said of Abacha’s and other[’s] military regime in the politics of Nigeria will be an overstatement. It is a nightmare we pray never to experience again.”


The permission to feature this paper was obtained by The Book Banque directly from the author Ikechukwu Asika. The excerpts shown on this page may have been line edited for the purposes of consistency and quality management.

All views and thoughts expressed on the military dictatorship in Nigeria in the featured article are that of the author, Ikechukwu Asika, and in no way reflect the opinion nor position of The Book Banque. Assumptions, interpretations or analyses made in the paper are neither reflective of the authors - Achebe and Habila - of the works cited, nor entirely of their position.


Tram 83

A poem by Chika Jones.

So, I was reading Fiston Mujila’s Tram 83,

And a line caught my eye on page thirty-three,

That’s a lie I wanted that line to rhyme,

It was actually on page fourteen,

Yet unlike my fake rhyme that chimes like a wedding bell in a cemetery,

That line was truer than the joy a loner finds in solitary,

You are probably wondering what the line was,

So, I will tell you before I drop rhymes that are far worse,

The line was this: “They were two life forms adrift in a city that had become a state by the force of Kalashnikovs”,

That line was so sharp it caught my eye like a shiny new razor,

So, I bled onto that fourteenth page,

Like I am bleeding onto this stage,

For Nigeria is about 300 tribes held together by the force of guns,

By the blood of women and little children,

If you have noticed I have stopped rhyming,

Because nothing rhymes with October 7, except 1967,

Asaba Massacre,

Seven hundred women and children led like cattle into Ogbe Osawa,

Till this day many do not know where their loved ones were buried,

And this reminds me of a line from Prison Break, when Theodore T-bag Bagwell,

Held a knife to the throat of a mother while her two children looked on,

And this is what he said,

“We are going to be a family, even if it kills us”

So, let me introduce more numbers,

The government held a knife to the throat of a tribe,

For one year, six months, one week and two days,

And this is what they said, “We are going to be a country, even if it kills us”

And it did, we are still bleeding, look where you sit,

There is blood under your feet,

Yet, what happens to a country held together by the force of guns?

I am not sure, but it rhymes with burns,

For states, should only become countries to the sound of millions raised in unity,

Not to the sound of bullets lodging themselves in the frail frames of a nine year old,

So, I just came to tell you about a book I read,

About how I bled,

And about how even if it does not rhyme,

If you look where you seat,

You will see that there is blood under your feet.


About Chika

Chika Jones is a poet who believes in the ability of stories to change the world. He has performed poetry on many platforms, and was most recently involved in a play titled 'Finding Home'.


Source: Chika Jones. Used with the permission of the author.

Image: Francois-Henri Galland.