I had no problems finding books from Nigeria, which is great! Finally a chance to dig deep and get to read a book from a local point of view, seen through the eyes of someone who is part of the community, trying to fit in, and is living life the best he or she can. That was my goal. Luckily, I found Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta.
Nigeria was in shatters after the bloody civil war, which ended in 1970. It also ended the life of one million people. One of these people had a wife who was no longer able to take care of her daughter, Ijeoma, and sent her away to a friend in another town. Ijeoma started working as a servant for the family. She met a girl she liked, Amina, and asked the family to take on Amina as the second servant.
This is the backstory to a beautiful yet socially unaccepted love story. It is not a long relationship because society did not approve. Ijeoma was sent back to her mother, while Amina stayed on as a servant. Now what is a mother going to do with a young lesbian daughter? Bible studies! The mother’s solution was to get her daughter to read the Bible. When Ijeoma started working, after she was done with her education, she met Ndidi, and even a greater love story started. However, Ijeoma married a man.
Parents, society, the system, the country… It seems like everyone has their own expectations of what an individual should be. As long as you do as expected, you are left alone and no one really cares. Once you realize you are a lesbian girl living in Nigeria in the 1970s… Every country goes through some of the same changes, and during the change of society and minds, the individuals suffer. In Nigeria, in the 1970s, depending on where you lived, you could end up in prison for up to 14 years, or be stoned to death, for being gay. Still today, you might end up in prison for up to 14 years. At least the death penalty is gone. Sadly, that cannot be said for all African countries.
Changing of minds in matters like the attitude towards homosexuality is not something that happens overnight. I find it an intriguing and unexpected move to write a book about such a controversial subject in this context. According to a recent poll about 90% of Nigerians support the legislation regarding homosexuality, although in 2013 it was 98%. Slow and steady…
This is an engaging and readable book in a provocative setting. It is compelling to read about a subject like this set in Africa. It is different from the other African books I have read. Lesbianism can still be a sore spot in any society, even the most open and progressive ones. Imagine having to deal with such a personal and important issue in the post-civil war era of Nigeria.