Posted on August 16, 2015
Half of a Yellow Sun follows the lives of five ordinary people through a decade of Nigerian history. After receiving independent federation rule in 1960 the country was thrown into civil war in the late sixties when Biafra, a state in Eastern Nigeria, was granted secession.
The characters are introduced during a time of peace and plenty. Twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, educated and wealthy, live very different lives. Olanna is introduced as kind and thoughtful as she reassures an elderly lady at the airport that the plane carrying her son will stop on the runway. Olanna gives up her luxurious lifestyle in Lagos to live with her lecturer lover, Odenigbo. Kainene, strong, wilful and less beautiful than her twin, helps their father to run the family business and becomes involved with an Englishman, Richard, who has a fascination for Igbo art.
Odenigbo, a university lecturer in Nsukka, entertains friends where food and alcohol flow and lively intellectual debates ensue. His strong political views cause Kainene to refer to him as Olanna’s ‘revolutionary lover’. Ugwu is Odenigbo’s thirteen year old houseboy who loves to cook for Master and his guests while absorbing fragments of their lively discussions.
Biafra’s secession in 1967 brings a Nigerian blockade and eventually war; the mostly Muslim dominated north against the Igbo population in the south. The world, with the exception of Tanzania, refuses to recognise the State of Biafra.
The novel moves successfully between the early sixties and the late sixties to provide a contrast between the indulgent lifestyle of peace time and the famine and hardships that inevitably come with war. The early imagery of Ugwu’s pepper soup and spicy jollof rice reinforce the horrors of eating roasted bush rats to stave off starvation.
As the war progresses, Odenigbo, Olanna and daughter Baby have to leave their home in Nsukku. Their descent into poverty forces them to live in a single room of squalor, join food queues for any scraps they are able to receive and the need to hide in air raid shelters, which they share with an assortment of small creatures. Relationships that were easy when life was good are put under enormous strain when food is scarce and the people they love are brutally murdered. Kainene has a different experience of the war as she sets up and organises refugee camps for all of those forced from their homes. Her life with Richard is stable and he tries hard to integrate and become accepted by the Igbo people. Ugwu faces challenges as he explores the natural inquisitive passions of a teenage boy.
Half of a Yellow Sun is named after the emblem for Biafra, worn on the sleeves of soldiers fighting the war. This three year war has been consigned to distant memory for most of the world and the word Biafra synonymous with starving, large bellied children in Africa.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has done an excellent job of bringing the war back to the attention of the world whilst telling a beautifully written story. The account of history, which members of her family experienced, is related through these five wonderful characters in a moving and empathetic manner. She has captured the human condition well: during times of suffering some find a deep inner strength whereas others flounder and surrender, unable to cope. The changes in each of the characters also reinforce that although we often have little control over external circumstances we do have a choice in our personal response to them. An inspirational read
Posted on July 20, 2015
One definition of mindfulness: “The quality or state of being conscious or aware of something”.
I find that with each passing birthday since graduating to the wrong side of fifty I can’t forget anything or lose an item without thinking that I’m getting old and losing my memory (and my family readily agree). It’s true that I have a particularly irritating issue with my mobile phone. Due to an absence of pockets in my clothing I’m constantly moving the phone to different locations and then not remembering where I last left it.
I know friends that have a similar problem with their reading glasses – and yes, I am aware that reading glasses are the need of the ageing! But when I look back at my younger days, I used to ‘lose’ things then. All the time. I was never accused of getting old. My adult children frequently dash around the house while getting ready for a night out because they can’t remember where a particular pair of shoes are, or they can’t find their Oyster card.
I have gone along with the annoying quips of ‘Alzheimer’s’ and ‘old age’, even to the extent of believing it myself, until I recently read a book by P.D. Ouspensky called Conscience – the search for the truth. At the very beginning of the book Ouspensky links consciousness with ‘self-remembering’. This means being aware of yourself, and the things that you do, which is analogous to that of mindfulness and present moment awareness. These topics are very trendy at the moment but from what I can understand it’s very similar to the basic concept of what my mum used to call ‘paying attention’.
Where am I going with all this you wonder?
I believe there is a strong correlation between a lack of mindfulness and what we perceive as forgetfulness. Blaming old age for poor memory is hasty and offensive. I believe it’s not that we lose things, we are simply unaware of where we put them.
Returning to P.D. Ouspensky. We can only become more conscious of our actions if we are aware of ourselves while performing these actions. Ouspensky relates an experience of his own where he made a conscious effort to be aware of himself for a period of time. He was aware of walking along a few streets and arriving at the tobacconist for his cigarettes and then, two hours later, he suddenly ‘woke up’ and remembered himself again. He knew that during that time when he was unaware of himself he had accomplished so many things: called at his flat, telephoned the printers and written two letters. He knew he had completed those tasks but he wasn’t aware of himself whilst doing them.
I decided to try this little experiment. I would be conscious of myself and aware of my journey from home to Tesco. A ten minute car ride. How difficult could it be? To answer that question I suggest you try it for yourself – it is very difficult. The first few minutes I remembered with absolute clarity. A silver Mercedes let me go first on the roundabout (thank you Mercedes driver) and the lights were red when I approached the traffic lights and a young woman and child crossed the road. The child wore a red jumper…then five minutes later I arrived at Tesco only to realise I had been planning what I would have for dinner for the next few evenings. I can’t even remember the point at which I stopped being aware of myself driving.
The interesting point is that the small details about the car that stopped for me and the colour of the child’s jumper were not deliberately remembered but because I was aware of them so clearly I recalled them easily.
So this brings me back to the misplaced phone. It is obvious that my mind is unaware of where I leave it rather than forgetting where I’ve put it. Is this any better I ask myself? I’m either getting old and senile with my memory cells dying at an alarming rate or I spend my days in a semi-somnambulistic state unaware of what I’m doing!
I will make every effort to keep a track of where I place my phone and will update you of my success on the next blog. (I’m absolutely confident, now I know the theory, that I can put it into action).
Posted on July 3, 2015
“Dumbledore says people find it far easier to forgive others for being wrong than being right” – J K Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
I mentioned in my first blog ‘Obstacle to enlightenment’ that the biggest obstacle to personal growth is the ego. It is the ego that seeks approval, the ego that drives us to achieve great things and the ego that gives us our individuality. All okay so far. However, the ego’s desire to appear clever or important often produces unpleasant characteristics which make us rude, difficult and offensive.
Take for example the need to be right. Arguments snowball at the dinner table or other social gatherings when a contentious subject arises. Voices get louder and faces get redder in an effort to convey opinions. I’m sure Google has prevented many a fist fight, as any issue which has a definitive answer can now be instantly Googled. There! I was right, I knew it! (or wrong and your phone appears to have suddenly run out of battery)
I try now, particularly when I know I am 100% right about something, to stay out of the argument. Does it really matter, after all, who is right? Well, yes it does actually , especially if the person accusing you of being wrong is an obnoxious, loud mouthed know-all.
I arrived at a social event some months ago and bumped into a man I hadn’t seen for perhaps twenty years. The moment I saw him those twenty years condensed into seconds. He was unforgettable but for all the wrong reasons. He was the archetypal obnoxious, loud mouthed know-all and I’d had a run-in with him before.
He’d insisted that Montevideo was the capital of Paraguay when I knew with absolute certainty it was the capital of Uruguay. Back then I knew nothing of the psychology of ‘the need to be right’ otherwise I would have said ‘whatever’ and spoken to someone else. Instead I went to battle. In the absence of Google I searched the host’s house for an atlas. Sadly there wasn’t one (who doesn’t own an atlas for goodness sake!). I conducted a poll of the other guests but the results were inconclusive. I even phoned a friend – yes! my idea – but the friend also thought it might be in Paraguay. I was furious that I couldn’t prove him wrong.
I wondered whether he had mellowed over the years but decided to avoid him just in case. I was doing well until he cornered me enquiring as to whether we had met before.
‘I don’t think so,’ I lied.
‘Yes we have! Of course. I remember now. It was at Paul and Mary’s.’
Who on earth were Paul and Mary?
‘No,’ I replied, ‘I don’t know Paul and Mary.’
‘Yes you do. They’re friends of Jim and Sue.’
‘I know Jim and Sue but I really don’t know Paul and Mary.’
‘It was definitely there that I met you, I’m always right, dear!.’
There is no evidence…
I took a few deep breaths and wondered if it was possible to Google Paul and Mary and a list of their acquaintances.
‘Whatever,’ I said and went to pour myself a large glass of wine.
So why do we have this burning desire to be right; to go to great lengths to prove our knowledge? Because it makes us feel superior to the other person and when that person is an offensive bore, winning the argument is very sweet. With reference to the quote above, it is easy to be gracious to those who are wrong because that makes us right and our ego is very happy.
Posted on June 18, 2015
“Life is my school, and I’m here to learn” Shakti Gawain. Every experience has something to teach us.
Today I woke in a good mood twenty minutes before my alarm was due to ring. I got out of bed and carried out a meditation exercise which left me feeling at peace with the world. Today was going to be a good day.
On my way to a meeting I was driving along a country road at what I considered to be an acceptable speed. From out of nowhere a large Mercedes GL350 zoomed up and remained no more than a meter behind me. It was probably slightly further back but you get my drift.
I looked in my rear view mirror to see a woman at the wheel screaming into her mobile phone. As much as I felt sorry for the poor soul on the other end my irritation was growing at her careless disregard for my safety. She beeped her horn, which I ignored. My lack of response to her intimidation apparently left her no option but to overtake. As the car screeched past, her hand lingered far too long on the horn while she hurled abuse through her open window. Irritatingly she then pulled immediately in front of me in an effort to avoid a car on the opposite side of the road. Although there was no possibility of her hearing, primal instinct took over and I yelled back.
COUNT TO 10……… I DON’T THINK SO!
So where was my calm composure now? It had vanished as quickly as the elephant in the Siegfried and Roy magic trick. My shoulders were so tense they were up by my ears and my knuckles had turned white gripping the steering wheel. How dare she yell such abuse? She was driving appallingly and she was on the phone. If anyone couldn’t drive it was her. I felt irritable and short tempered for about an hour after. Why? Because I felt personally slighted. That woman had accused me of being a bad driver.
Now, my personal growth books tell me that when people behave badly it should not be taken personally because it is often an expression of their inner turmoil; their own inner conflict and suffering. If she had pulled up behind someone else – unless the person in front was driving so fast she was unable to catch them in her Mercedes GL350 – she would have treated them exactly the same.
I know all this. But it didn’t help. So I have to ask myself: Should I continue reading the plethora of inner growth manuals that adorn my bookshelves in the hope that someday I will benefit from the wisdom they have to offer or should I give them to the local charity shop and know that at least I’ve helped raise a fiver for a good cause.
Posted on June 4, 2015
‘They’ve all got someone else to hate now, haven’t they?’ she (Lily) spoke to Frances softly – The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters.
Up to this point in The Paying Guests (page 490) my feelings towards Lily were somewhat ambivalent but when I read this line I felt I understood her actions a little better. If you haven’t read the book – and I won’t give anything away – Lily doesn’t behave honourably and I desperately wanted her to ‘do the right thing’. Then it struck me how difficult it is to do what is right. It is instinctive to protect the image of ourselves that we wish to project to the outside world. Lily was in deep trouble and had a lot to lose but was consumed with the desire to be liked.
In order to preserve this self-image we often lie to avoid looking stupid or ignorant and frequently blame others to save face. Even trivial things, such as when the doctor asks how many units of alcohol is consumed each week, there is a brazen ‘Ohh..I don’t know…about..mmm….4 units on average.’ Yeah right! Why lie? We don’t want the doctor to think we are alcoholics. Why does it matter what the doctor thinks? It just does.
I was in a similar situation just last week. My husband always blames me for losing his paper work. That he is so messy and leaves things all around the house, which I am then obliged to tidy away, is not relevant. Says he. Usually I can retrieve it from some pile or other on his desk but sometimes, well quite often, I can’t.
This particular folder which he was looking for I had no recollection of. I hadn’t seen it. Hadn’t touched it. Hadn’t cleared it away. Otherwise, I say with absolute confidence, I would remember. So the search begins. An hour later after trawling through mountains of jumbled sheets and other detritus on his desk the folder is nowhere in sight. My husband by this time is visibly irritated and I am offended that he believes me to be the culprit when he is so disorganised.
Then I go upstairs to the room I use as an office and spot a bundle of my folders that I had taken up a few days before. My heart starts to thud. Surely not! But somehow I know that the disappearing folder will be there. And of course it is. I now have to decide what to do. I can conjure up a plan to sneak it amongst some other folders on his desk and make a big display of a more thorough search and Hey Presto it was there all along. NOT MY FAULT; YOUR FAULT! Or do I risk looking stupid, enduring the mutters and the shaking of the head and go for the truth? My instinct, if I am truly honest, is to lie but I decide to tell the truth and, in my husband’s defence, he gives me a ‘look’ but refrains from any comment.
Lies and cover-ups abound when inquiries into serious incidents occur, often to avoid a custodial sentence but frequently just to ‘save face’. I think, despite cries of ‘disgraceful’ it is instinctive to protect oneself as far as possible. After some reflection I have decided that the only reason I have not behaved like Lily is because I have never been in such a precarious position as she. I suspect, judging by the missing folder episode I would be very tempted. It takes a very brave person to open themselves voluntarily to ridicule, insult and hatred and I am usually a coward!
Posted on May 21, 2015
I read recently that there are 36 spiritual laws governing the rules of life on Earth, one of these being the Law of Attraction.
The premise of this law is that whatever you focus on you attract into your life. Negative thoughts attract negative situations and likewise positive thoughts bring positive circumstances into your life. It’s all to do with the vibrations with which we resonate. Sounds great doesn’t it? This means if we all think constructive thoughts we will all be very happy…maybe.
Conceding there was some sort of logic to this and because it sounded simple to put into practise I wondered whether the Law of Attraction could be used to improve the pitiful state of my financial affairs and supply me with a replacement for my clapped out Citroen C3. Could it help me win the lottery for example? I decided to put it to the test.
I selected six random numbers – well, almost random. I put pieces of paper with numbers 1 – 49 in a box, shuffled them in the usual manner, and pulled out the following:
6 7 9 18 32 41
I thought it unlikely that three numbers under ten would come up so I put number seven back and chose again. I got 26 and felt that was a much better balance.
I printed the numbers using font 36 – nice and big – and stuck them to my desk. I found a picture of a luxury car and put it next to the numbers. Would it work? Would I clear my debts and be the proud owner of a decent car? I was dubious.
When practising positive thinking I understand that it is necessary to believe you have already received what you desire rather than hope for it. So, with this in mind, I spent the next three days frequently looking at the pictures on my desk chanting with excitement that I had won the lottery. I felt a bit of a fool, especially when overheard by my son who immediately asked for money to go travelling.
When I had some time to reflect on my win I wondered what I would do with it. If it was less than £50,000 I would pay off my overdraft and the maxed out credit cards. If any was left, which was unlikely, I would get a nice car. However as soon as I started to think in larger sums, especially when I got into the millions, I wondered how much I would gift to relatives and friends. Then it got tricky. I’m sure you’ve done the same and come to the conclusion that you would have lots of money but no friends because they would all think you mean. I was so overwhelmed trying to decide what to do with the money if I won it (sorry, when I won it) that I was terrified by the prospect of actually winning. I ripped the numbers and picture from my desk and resigned myself to the fact that an overdraft and full credit cards were not the end of the world or worth losing my friends for.
22nd May 2015