Sitting ‘Under the Udala Tree’ with Chinelo Okparanta

A personal journey of sexuality in war-torn Nigeria.

It’s the peak of the Biafran War in 1968 and eleven-year-old Ijeoma’s family is one of the many that are crippled by it. She loses her father in one of the raids and thereafter her mother sends her away to live with a couple who were good friends of her father’s.

In exchange for them taking her in she works as their house-girl. While there she meets Amina, a Muslim orphan who belongs to the Hausa tribe. Ijeoma is Igbo and the two tribes are enemies, and she’s supposed to hate her but instead a friendship forms between the two.

Their friendship soon grows into passion and romance. When they get caught her mother returns for her. Her mother is determined to cleanse her and does so through aggressive Bible lessons. Ijeoma starts questioning the Bible and God’s ways, mostly to herself. She and Amina find themselves at the same school and rekindle their romance but things end up unpleasant for her.

She later forms a friendship with a teacher at a nearby school whom she falls in love with and who introduces her to a place where they can be themselves with people who are like them. This is when she learns about homophobia and the cruelty of the people who cannot accept their way of life and idea of love.

To her mother’s relief and excitement, a childhood friend appears and asks for her hand in marriage. She accepts but later has to admit that she cannot love the man. Her marriage to him becomes more than she can bear and she has to make a choice to find her freedom.

Under the Udala Trees zooms in on homosexuality and how society responds to it, as well as religion and how the Bible and its teachings can be interpreted and used by different people in a way that suits them. Okparanta skilfully knits the two themes together and shows how the laws in the Bible are taken to not accept same-sex relationships and labels them an ‘abomination’, deserving of punishment and shame.

The way her mother uses the Bible lessons and prayer as a way to rid her of that sin shows how people can take that which they do not understand or fear because it’s so different and out of the comfort of familiarity and tradition, and use religion to back up their cruel reactions to it. Okparanta also touches on war and its psychological effects, on individuality and happiness as a woman who’s different in a society that plans her life by subjecting her to the idea that a husband and marriage are the ultimate goal and achievement.

Ijeoma’s character carries a voice that exposes the hidden layers of prejudice without the dullness of self-pity. The characters are believable and each one of them a good instrument that the narrator uses to highlight the different representations of love, sorrow, fear, prejudice and self-discovery.

The way in which they still have their rendezvous where they can freely be themselves and be happy shows both bravery to take risks with their lives just to be happy, and the injustice of society and its tendency to destroy what it refuses to understand. This bravery also reflects the author’s bravery to write this kind of work in a country such as Nigeria where homophobia is still very much alive.

The author writes in great detail of the surroundings and settings of the story. She takes time to give us a mental picture of the houses before and after the war, and she does it in such a way that the spatial description mirrors the state that the character’s lives are in. However, there are times when the description of events and space are too given and results in her telling instead of showing, leaving the reader without much room for imagination. What is impressive though, is the way in which the scenes are linked to each other to create a smooth flow of the story, taking the reader by the hand and guiding them through the pages without losing them.

Okparanta finds a good balance when it comes to the rhythm of the story; in some parts the years go by fast without taking up too much text time while in some parts she takes time to stretch out the events. She does it so neatly and so tactfully that the reader feels neither cheated nor taxed.

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Autodidact & Bibliophile

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