By Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Chapel Hill, Algonquin 2003.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a Nigerian writer. Like many African novels, her first novel goes far beyond simply being a coming of age story. She tells about the clash of cultures in modern Nigerian society and family life, due to the impact of colonialism and Catholic missionary work.
“Things began to fall apart at home when my brother, Jaja, did not go to communion and Papa flung his heavy missal across the room and broke the figurines on the étagère.”
Fifteen year-old Kambili discloses that Papa’s holy anger was directed at Jaja’s near-heresy: calling the sacred communion a “wafer.” Both before and after that event, everyday life for Kambili, Jaja, and their mom was a nightmare. Their father, Eugene Achike, a well-respected Catholic man in their town, instills authority in his household with bizarre rules and frightening punishments behind closed doors. As much as Kambili is stifled by her father, she also relies on his rules to lend order to her life. He is not just a brutal disciplinarian; he can also be a loving father. Through her eyes, we travel at a child’s pace through both sexual and political awakening. Kambili is her mother’s daughter – cautious, constrained and eager to please. She is a product of a world that leaves children unprotected, at the mercy of a merciless man. She is the reporter, emotionless as she describes the constant abuse, she filters every action, sorting, and learning that Papa is simply passing on the lessons he learned in his own childhood, when he was taught by brutal Catholic missionaries who used corporal punishment. The abused becomes the abuser. Rigid religious instruction, intolerant and unforgiving, made him a rebel against animism and traditional Nigerian rituals, a prayerful churchgoer, who believes in confessions and penance. Yet he also believes in a ‘renewed democracy’ for Nigeria and opposes the corruption of the military government. He uses his newspaper, The Standard, as a mouthpiece for dissent.
A visit to her Aunty Ifeoma’s house in Nsukka changes everything for Kambili. Aunty Ifeoma, Papa’s sister, lives a modest life with her three children. A widow, Ifeoma raises her children alone, yet the family is happy, noisy and outspoken. Kambili’s cousin, Amaka, is a fierce young feminist who asks tough questions. Her whole family cackles when they laugh. There are scenes of laughter and warmth, laughter that is often a relief from suffering. Here in Nsukka, Kambili also meets the young Father Amadi, who offers a different interpretation of her father’s religion, intermingled with a sexuality that Kambili finds irresistible and terrifying at the same time. Her slow awakening is significant because of the tremendous act of will necessary to break free of her conditioning.
Through Kambili’s experience Purple Hibiscus reflects the clash of western and African culture in postcolonial Nigeria. Her trauma highlights the conflicts of a political system that must search for good political governance amidst both external imposition and internal unrest.