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Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus: A reflection of oral tradition and socio-historical realities

  • Though the freshest of the literary genres in Africa, African fiction is currently the most pervasive genre in the continent.

    Popularly seen as a foreign genre imported into the continent, African fiction has evolved over the years with the ingenuity of African writers who have developed it and made it uniquely African by blending “the essential features of the European novel with a native flavor which is recognizably African…” Fusing the European narrative style with the African story-telling tradition, African writers domesticate the novel tradition with African narrative flavors such as the use of proverbs, traditional folktales, myths, legends, etc.

    Similarly, African fiction is predominantly functional. Essentially, it doesn’t follow the formalists’/arts for arts’ sake tradition. Right from the pioneering efforts of R. E. Obeng of Ghana (Eighteenpence, 1943), Peter Abrahams of South Africa (Mine Boy, 1946), through the fifties where we have Amos Tutuola (The Palmwine Drinkard, 1952), Cyprian Ekwensi (People of the City, 1954), Ferdinand Oyono (Le Vieux Negre et la Medaille, 1954), Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, 1958), Sembene Ousmane (God’s Bits of Woods, 1960) Wole Soyinka (The Interpreters, 1965), Ayi Kwei Armah (The Beautiful Ones are not yet Born, 1966), Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (A Grain of Wheat, 1967) to the current period, African fiction predominantly reflects and engages Africa’s socio-historical realities: colonialism, apartheid, neocolonialism, military dictatorship, political/leadership failures, brain drain/migrations, etc.

    It is against the above background one can discuss Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus as a reflection of Nigeria’s/Africa’s oral tradition and socio-historical realities.

    Oral tradition

    The use of oral resources such as proverbs, folktales, etc. is one of the features that distinguish African fiction from others. This feature is copiously used by Chimamanda Adichie in Purple Hibiscus.

    In the first instance, by considering the author’s use of language, one will attest to the fact, despite being written in the English language, the novel is garnished with the use of indigenous/Igbo lexical items. At very regular intervals, the writer intersperses the dialogue with Igbo words, e.g. “Ke Kwanu?” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 22), “Kedu nu?” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 55), and so on.

    Moreover, there is the use of indigenous wise and proverbial sayings. An instance of this is found in Aunty Ifeoma’s speech while advising Beatrice. She speaks:

    “When a house is on fire, you run away before the roof collapses on your on your head”. (Purple Hibiscus, page 213).

    Other examples are “…will you pinch the finger of the hand that feeds you?” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 96), “…to bend over so that I can lick his buttocks to get these things” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 95), etc.

    Equally significant is the inventive dose of the indigenous storytelling art which is explored through the character of Papa-Nnukwu (Purple Hibiscus, Pages 156-161). Storytelling serves numerous roles in African society. It promotes the spirit of collectivism due to the coming together of children and the elders and serves the entertainment and didactic purposes. For instance, the tortoises’ greediness being appropriately punished as narrated in the novel serves as a deterrent for any children who may want to exhibit such (negative) behaviour. One other enjoyable thing about the art of storytelling is the use of music/song. For instance, the “Nne Nne/Njemanze” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 158) song in the story.

    Another instance of oral tradition is the indigenous celebration of Aro festival. The “nnuo” gives a spectacular performance—imbued with dancing and singing with the instruments like metal ogene and wooden ichakas (Purple Hibiscus, Page 86). According to the traditional Igbo belief, the nnuo spirits are believed to have climbed out of ant hole, they could make chairs run and baskets hold water.

    Aside from the above, there are other instances of indigenous/traditional flavours. Examples are; the celebration of Papa-Nnukwu’s “akwan ozu” (Purple Hibiscus, Pages 186, 195, 200), reference to African dishes, e.g. “anara”, “fufu and ogbono soup” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 11), Papa-Nnukwu’s traditional prayer/worship and the practice of throwing a morsel of fufu to the ground with the belief that the god of Ani will eat with him, etc.

    The oral traditional resources help give a flavor of authenticity to the novel, giving the English language an African linguistic blood transfusion.

    Purple Hibiscus as a reflection of Nigeria’s social historical realities

    Purple Hibiscus is set in the 21st century post-independent Nigeria. As typical of African fiction, the novel captures the post-independent Nigeria—a period signposted with the military dictatorship, economic downturn, hypocritical/colonial minded personalities (neocolonial tendencies), lack of social amenities, etc. and transpose it into an imaginative reality.

    The first point of reference is the experience of military dictatorship—a government that is insensitive to the plights of the masses turning the country into a jungle where all forms of anti-social acts are widespread. One of the evils of this government is the denial of fundamental human rights—illegal denial of freedom of information (media censorship). This is portrayed in Purple Hibiscus through the character of Ade Coker, the chief editor of Standard Magazine (funded by Eugene) who is victimized and eventually murdered through parcel bomb due to his engaging in “objective and sincere journalism”.

    In a way, this parallels the historical murder of a prominent Nigerian journalist—Dele Giwa (Newswatch editor) who was also assassinated in this manner by Babangida-led military administration.

    The deplorable state of the Nigerian educational system is also showcased and caricatured in the novel. Nigerian universities are crying for adequate teaching facilities and conducive learning environment. Students engage in violent riot/protests, lecturers go on incessant strikes; the government does nothing! The character of Aunty Ifeoma, a victimized UNN lecturer who was forced to leave Nigeria after being illegally retrenched, depicts this in Purple Hibiscus.

    The health sector is not exempted as doctors also embark on incessant strikes, calling for improvement in medical facilities and better remuneration. This is also captured in Purple Hibiscus through Papa-Nnukwu’s character. When Papa-Nnukwu dies, Amaka laments thus:

    “…he would be alive now if the medical centre was not on strike” (Purple Hibiscus, Page 193).

    Religious fanaticism, a neocolonial menace bedeviling the post-independence Nigeria, is also not spared. The character who epitomizes this is Eugene. He is a fanatic Catholic devout who does not see anything good in African religions, languages, cultures and traditions.

    Besides, the case of aunty Ifeoma being forced to leave Nigeria alludes to a particular period in the Nigerian history when the Nigerian respected sages like Wole Soyinka were forced to leave the country due to their stance against the military dictatorship. Aunty Ifeoma, a university lecturer in the novel laments:

    “…the educated ones leave, the ones with the potential to right the wrong. They leave the weak behind”. (Purple Hibiscus, Page 245)

    Undeniably, Purple Hibiscus is an artistic reflection of the socio-historical realities of Nigeria/Africa. Nonetheless, the novel ends on an optimistic note: the death of Eugene who typifies (domestic) despotism, signifies the end of oppression. Jaja is the symbolic purple hibiscus—“rare, defiant, fragrant with undertones of freedom, a different land of wisdom…a freedom to be, to do.” (Purple Hibiscus, pages 15–16). Jaja’s hope of being released in the nearest future suggests the coming of a new era, an era of liberty. A similar character is Amaka who consciously shakes herself off the vestiges of neocolonialism. For instance, she refuses to be christened English name and chooses African musicians like Fela and others as her favourites. Jaja and Amaka symbolize the germination of freedom after the death of oppression.

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