The Devil has returned again to cast his net on you,” mama would surely say of what I was doing. Or “Adam and Eve, not Eve and Eve.” But even with those words in my head, I could not help myself.
I continued to see Amina. On evenings after classes, we ate our meals together, if not in a cafeteria, then on the veranda steps or inside our dorms, at our desks.
On weekends when we were allowed, or when more holidays rolled around, those holidays during which we did not go home, we strolled over to the river together. Sometimes we held hands as we walked, as inconspicuously as we could, making sure to present ourselves in a manner more like that of regular schoolgirls than that of two girls in love.
But we are in love, or at least I believed myself completely to be. I craved Amina’s presence for no other reason than to have it. It was certainly friendship too, this intimate companionship with someone who knew me in a way that no one else did: it was a heightened state of friendship. Maybe it was also a bit of infatuation. But what I knew for sure was that it was also love. Maybe love was some combination of friendship and infatuation. A deeply felt affection accompanied by a certain sort of awe. And by gratitude. And by a desire for a lifetime of togetherness.
Title: Under The Udala Trees
Author: Chinelo Okparanta
Category: Fiction/ LGBTQ
‘Under The Udala Trees,’ by Chinelo Okparanta is a story set in 1968, a time when Nigeria faced the civil war commonly referred to as, the Biafran War. Narrated through the eyes of an adulting 10-year-old girl, Ijeoma, ‘Under the Udala Trees’ has brought to light what most of the African Countries bury under the sun and look at the matter as an abomination, a curse, or a taboo altogether…, homosexuality. Chinelo Okparanta deserves all the applause for putting on that brave gear to present to the world this powerful novel despite the fact that her mother country is counted as one of the most religious countries in Africa.
Before the war broke out and claimed the life of her father, Ijeoma was living in a humble loving home but the fear they were facing and the hardships that the war brought itself with, was highly felt. If you’ve read ‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ then you have an idea of how the Nigerians protected themselves by seeking refuge in bunkers when raiding started. And so it happened that on that dreaded afternoon when Ijeoma’s home was raided, her father declined following his family to the bunker as it was the tradition. Prior to this day, Ijeoma had noted that her father, had slowly given up and fear was all over his face. A man who had no clue of how he could help his family following the current feuds that claimed the stability of the country. Responding to Ijeoma’s question one afternoon, Papa said, “……., There’s not much one person can do. And to worry over it would be like pouring water over stone. The stone just gets wet. Eventually, dries. But nothing changes.”
Ijeoma’s mother didn’t take the death of her husband lightly. Anger and grief took a toll on her and as a result, Ijeoma became the victim of her misery. Mama stopped being the caring mother she was to Ijeoma and will later send her off to the grammar school teacher’s house as she sought refuge in her late parents house which was in Aba, a different far off town from where Ijeoma was to stay until she came back to take her should Aba be more calm and safer.
During her stay at the grammar school teacher, Ijeoma meets Amina, a girl who had lost all her relatives to the war and will later turn Ijeoma’s life around. Amina was a Hausa the enemy tribe to Igbo, Ijeoma’s and the grammar school teacher, but out of sympathy the grammar school teacher and his wife agreed to give her shelter. It’s from the fondness between the two girls, which they became accustomed to and love brewed. I have to admit that I have never come across an African Literature book that delved and went deep into the homosexuality subject like Chinelo did with this book.
Mama is asked to come get her daughter by the grammar school teacher after they were caught in the act but Amina remains behind because she has nowhere and no one to got to. Their reunion is not a happy one. The tension between them is so notable. The only time they sit to have a conversation is when Mama is reading and pounding scriptures into Ijeoma. Mama will not stop on anything to talk Ijeoma out-of the relationship with Amina. She formulates a bible reading schedule where every day she sits Ijeoma down to feed her with the word of life. The Bible. A life manual. A guide for the relationships upheld and those that are abominable. I disliked and at the same time sympathised with Mama’s pain. Here she was, her husband is dead and her only child, Ijieoma, is not living up to the woman whom she thought she would be.
She was always looking forward to the day that Ijeoma would start dating a man. Not foreseeing a potential suitor coming along, Mama sets up a date with Ijeoma’s childhood friend, Chibundu, who’ll later marry Ijeoma and have a daughter, Chidinma. The marriage is all bitter as Chibundu turns his obsession of having a son to hatred towards Chidinma and sexually assaulting his wife. Ijeoma having had enough, walks out of the marriage and goes back to her mother whom I thought she would turn her back on her but instead accepts her will and readers are meant to believe that she doesn’t cajole Ijeoma like before. The relationship she had with Ndindi before getting married is also awakened during this time.
I loved reading through this story. I shared the pain that Ijeoma was going through when she’d at times seek God’s guidance just to do what the Bible expected of her. The nights she’d wake up sweating and breathing fast because of nightmares. It’s quite clear that the LGBTQ group still faces the challenges Chinelo highlights in this book. She hasn’t failed in bringing this out vividly in this book. Even though fictitious, it’s evident that the message ‘Under the Udala Trees’ presents to readers and people alike, cuts across the board to what we see in our societies today.
During the discussion meet-up, organised by Text Book Centre, we got to Skype call with the author who answered our questions and shared with us her journey while writing this book. From the conversation, Chinelo said she drew her inspiration for the book from the stories her mother used to narrate to her when she was young about the Biafra War. She also said that she chose the title because of her love for Udala fruits (you’ll have to google the image to get the gist of how the fruits and the tree look like). While sharing the challenges she’s had to face after the book was published, Chinelo admitted having received angry notes which has led her to avoid frequenting her home country. Now you understand why I said she’s brave?
We also read the book in my book club last month and the discussion around it was exhilarating! I liked the fact that the discussion carried on after the set date and similar real life event stories shared as well.
This is a must read which I highly recommend to anyone looking forward to reading an African literature book tackling the LGBTQ category. You’ll love the flow of the story and get carried away with the small brief chapter divisions.
Chinelo Okparanta really did a great job in putting together this stellar work of literature!