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.

Exploring Spontaneous Decision-Making with Malcolm Gladwell in ‘Blink’

‘The Power of Thinking Without Thinking’

How long does it take to make a decision? What influences our decision making processes? Do you always follow your instincts or have to follow a step process that pulls from experience, knowledge, and other factors? Perhaps it depends on what it is you are deciding on.

Blink is about the moments when we “just know something without knowing why we know it.” We are used to the idea that the quality of a decision depends on the length it takes to make it, as well as the effort we put into making that decision. Such efforts include things like gathering enough information. Blink points out that there are moments when snap judgments offer a better means to making good decisions.

Throughout the book, he shares stories of how people made decisions at a glance, as well as studies conducted to show the power in these snap judgments. Gladwell also shows the times when these snap judgments betray us. He goes into when we should trust our instincts and when we should be prudent – “when to blink and when to think.” He also shares how these snap judgments can be controlled and educated.

This is an interesting book that helps us understand how our brains work, understanding ourselves and the world in the process. It’s great for both personal decision-making as well as to guide you through leadership. 

A Review of ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell, In Our World of Little Privacy

Taking us back to 1984

WhatsApp recently announced an update of its terms of service and left some of its users unsettled, especially by the ultimatum they gave to either agree to the terms or no longer use the app.

‘Big Brother is watching you.’

It’s not just WhatsApp and Facebook though. Social media at large, or rather, the Internet, may have become things we can’t live without but it seems there is a heavy price to pay. It does feel like one is gambling with their privacy. With the aim to use personal information to cater to users better, there is also the risk of having one’s information landing in the wrong hands.

It also leaves some people wondering how much is known about them, are they being constantly being listened to, or being watched? How much control does one really have over their privacy?

I recently read Nineteen Eighty-Four and in the world that we live in that is filled with the above questions, the novel is a bit terrifying and it’s hard not to draw similarities to our world.

George Orwell’s ‘1984’

The story is set in the nation of Oceania where the Party is in rule and controls everyone and everything. Everyone is being watched, history is altered, and thoughts and language are also regulated. Everything is under a perceived ruler known only as Big Brother.

Winston Smith works at the Ministry of Truth where he alters historical records. As the story progresses he commits rebellious thoughts and acts – illegally purchasing a diary, getting into a relationship and renting a rendezvous, and other crimes against the laws of the Party. Eventually, he’s arrested and tortured.  

Back cover of ‘1984’ by George Orwell

This novel is loaded with the dangers of censorship and surveillance, and we may not be necessarily watched by Big Brother, or being monitored by the Thought Police, but one can’t help but draw some parallels. One of the themes that stand out in the novel is psychological manipulation, done through technology. Thankfully, we do not live in a complete totalitarian regime as in the novel (well…most parts of the world) but without sounding paranoid, there are traces of Orwell’s work in the world we live in.

There is so much information overload on the Internet that you have to take great care of what you consume, especially what information your children are exposed to. There are dangers of information that can manipulate what we believe about the world. In Orwell’s novel, people’s minds are flooded with propaganda and it’s not too far-fetched to think of how easy it is these days to pick up on certain information and run with it without questioning. We’ve seen enough fake news, okay?

It’s also not difficult to imagine Big Brother in our world. The character in the novel never really appears but he is everywhere, watching and listening. There is this vagueness about who actually rules Oceania, the actual human powers. In our world, we do know the names of leaders, of the super-wealthy, and the parties who own companies such as the ones who create these apps. Do we know exactly where our data goes and what it’s actually being used for? Are we aware of the people who pose as threats to our personal details and what the actual risks of giving up so much information to unknown parties are? Sadly, we don’t.

However, it’s not all bleak and Nineteen Eighty-Four wasn’t a prediction of the present. It is, however, a novel worth reading and paying heed to its relevance to the society we currently live in.

It’s also easy to read, with straightforward language and style. The style mirrors the depressing mood of the story and evokes emotions of misery and gloom but for achieving the effect of reflecting the life of people like Winston.

We’re not in Ninety Eighty-Four but don’t forget to pay close attention to how you protect your privacy and what sensitive information you’re giving out.

If Ninety Eighty-Four is too heavy for you, try Animal Farm by the same author. Another masterpiece but lighter.

Enjoy.