TITLE: UNDER THE UDALA TREES
AUTHOR: CHINELO OKPARANTA
REVIEWER: VERAH OMWOCHA
Nigeria. At the height of the Biafra war is a young Igbo Christian family – father, mother and a young girl, Ijeoma. The father submits to the cold hand of death by refusing to seek refuge during a raid. Ijeoma finds herself under the care of a childless couple (The grammar teacher and his wife) as her mother tries to ‘figure out things’ or perhaps deal with her own post war trauma and her new status as a widow. Okparanta sets the stage for the novel by presenting the situation that is the war “the ruckus of armored cars and shelling machines, bomber planes and their loud engines sending shock waves through our ears” (This greatly reminded me of Chimamanda’s ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’.
At her new home, Ijeoma encounters Amina, a Hausa girl robbed of her family by the war. The grammar teacher takes her in too and it is with her that Ijeoma first experiences a lesbian encounter at about 13 years of age. The two girls are held by an irrevocable attachment; both physical and spiritual. Coming from two warring communities, Igbo and Hausa, is as bad as their lesbianism. When their illicit affair is discovered, they are separated by societal demands and a myriad Bible verses from Ijeoma’s mother.
Amina gets married and moves up North, much to the heartbreak of Ijeoma. When Ijeoma meets Ndidi, a young lady, they both spark a deep connection and a relationship is born. Of course it is well veiled from the watchful eyes of the judgemental society and Ijeoma’s pious mother.
The community, being a religious and conservative one has no place for such ‘abominations’. The punishment for such acts amounts to nothing less than death by stoning or burning. To live up to the expectations, Ijeoma decides to get into a marriage which only breaks her heart more; from it she bears a baby girl.
The text chronicles Ijeoma’s life into adulthood and her struggles with sexuality. Her voice ranges from helplessness in finding herself in that complex situation to a determination of breaking free from societal rules; questioning time tested traditions. She often questions God on why she, they rather, cannot be accepted by the community.
“Sometimes I sit with my Bible in my hands, and I think to myself that God is nothing but an artist, and the world is His canvas. And I reason that if the Old and New Testament are any indication, of change is the fact a major part of His aesthetic, a major part of His vision for the world. The Bible itself is an endorsement of change”.
It is a journey of love, friendship, sexuality, societal expectations and the place of women in the society.
What stood out for me in this text is how Chinelo tears deep into Ijeoma’s soul and exposes her struggles in a genuine and rather heart-breaking way.
Somewhere along the way, I had a detached connection with the flow. It seemed more of a plot fulfilment especially with Ndidi’s relationship with Ijeoma rather than a natural and believable flow of events. Ndidi’s lesbian community did not seem convincing either. Don’t take my word for it though; perhaps I expected more after how much the text had been hyped.
The pithy chapters make it such an easy read; more of Young Adult.
Chinelo is definitely a brave writer.
Same sex marriages are criminalised in Nigeria and Okparanta believes in the power of the pen to create an inclusive society especially for the LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) . The ending in which Ijeoma quits her marriage and goes back to Ndidi, her lover, offers a glimmer of hope; a future in which love will be enough a parameter to be with someone, irrespective of their gender.
Do you think this is achievable?