Thursday, January 16, 2020

Tropical fruit

Because of Storm Brendan the River Ray has spread all over its floodplain. But indoors from this Swindon January I'm in the tropics, reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's devastating novel Half of a Yellow Sun (2006).

The novel's world is often articulated through fruit trees, and as I've been spending so much of my reading time in Nigeria recently (e.g. here) I thought I would learn a bit more about some of them.

Ripe cashew apples
[Image source: Wikipedia.]

Cashew tree, Nsukka, p. 13, 15, 16, 24, 175, 419. The "wine-like scent of ripening cashews". Orlu, p. 311, 318, 391, 402, 406, 409, 412, 414. Anacardium occidentale, native to tropical America. The pulp of the cashew apple can be distilled into liquor. Its seed is the cashew "nut".

Ube fruit

[Image source: Wikipedia.]

Ube tree, Opi, p. 8. Dacryodes edulis, native to tropical Africa. The fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. It's valued for its high fat content.

Avocado, Lagos, p. 30, 32. At a posh dinner. From "one of our farms.. the one near Asaba". Persea americana, native to South-central Mexico.

Kuka pod

[Image source: Wikipedia.]

"ripe gourdlike pods on the kuka tree". Kano, p. 39, 40, 129, 148. I.e. the baobab (Adansonia digitata), native to savannahs of sub-Saharan Africa. Kuka soup is a popular delicacy in northern Nigeria.

Indian Almond fruit

[Image source: .]

Umbrella tree fruit, p. 73. "they had fallen during the previous night and lay, oval and pale yellow, on the lawn. ..smelt the over-sweetness of their rotting". I'm pretty sure this is the Indian Almond, Terminalia catappa , known in Nigeria as umbrella tree, according to the link above. Both flesh and kernel are eaten. The native range is uncertain; long naturalized in a broad belt from Australia through S. Asia to Africa.

Pawpaw (papaya) tree

[Image source: .]

Pawpaw, Nsukka, p. 15, 24, 107. "blackbirds that ate the pawpaws in the garden". This must be the papaya (Carica papaya), often called pawpaw, native to tropical America (not the pawpaw of the Eastern USA and Canada (Asimina triloba)).

Orange tree, Port Harcourt, p. 77, 113, 316, 426. Orlu, p. 390. The sweet orange Citrus x sinensis is the world's most cultivated tree. It arose in ancient China, a hybrid between pomelo and mandarin.

The sound of the rain slapping against the window woke him up the next morning. Kainene lay beside him, her eyes half open in that eerie way that meant she was deeply asleep. He looked at her dark chocolate skin, which shone with oil, and lowered his head to her face. He didn't kiss her, didn't let his face touch hers, but placed it close enough so that he could feel the moistness of her breath and smell its faintly curdled scent. He stretched and went to the window. It rained in slants here in Port Harcourt so that the water hit the windows and walls rather than the roof. Perhaps it was because the ocean was so close, because the air was so heavy with water that it let it fall too soon. For a moment, the rain became intense and the sound against the window grew loud, like pebbles being flung against the glass. He stretched again. The rain had stopped and the windowpanes were cloudy. Behind him, Kainene stirred and mumbled something.
     "Kainene?" he said.
     Her eyes were still half open, her breathing still regular.
      "I'm going for a walk," he said, although he was sure she didn't hear him.
      Outside, Ikejide was plucking oranges; his uniform bunched up at the back as he nudged fruit down with a stick.
       "Good morning, sah," he said.
       "Kedu?" Richard asked. He felt comfortable practising his Igbo with Kainene's stewards, because they were always so expressionless that it did not matter whether or not he got the tones right.
        "I am well, sah."
        "Jisie ike."
        "Yes, sah."
        Richard went to the bottom of the orchard, where he could see, through the thicket of trees, the white foam of the sea's waves. He sat on the ground. He wished that Major Madu had not invited them to dinner ....  (p. 113-114)


[Image source: . Photo by bennyartist.]

Breadfruit tree. Opi, p. 7, 420, 421. Orlu, p. 400. Artocarpus altilis, probably deriving from a wild species native to the Philippines and New Guinea.

Udala fruit
[Image source: .]

Udala tree, Abba, p. 190. Children "fighting over the fallen udala fruit. They could not climb the tree or pluck the fruit because it was taboo; udala belonged to the spirits." Chrysophyllum albidum, native to tropical Africa, also known as white star apple.

Mango tree

[Image source: .]

Mango tree, Nsukka, p. 175, 215. Abba, p. 185. "fruit drooping down like heavy earrings." Umuahia, p. 264. Orlu, p. 398. Mangifera indica and other species, native to S. Asia.

Olanna ran past the Town square on her way to Akwakuma Primary School in the morning. She always did that in open spaces, running until she got to the thick shade of trees that would give good cover in case of an air raid. Some children were standing under the mango tree in the school compound, throwing stones up at the fruit. She shouted, "Go to your classes, osiso!" and they scattered briefly before coming back to aim at the mangoes. She heard a cheer when one fell, and then the raised voices as they quarrelled over whose throw had brought the fruit down. (p. 264)

Guava tree

[Image source: .]

Guava tree, Abba, p. 184, 194. Its bark "a light clay alternating with a darker slate, much like the skin of village children with the nlacha skin disease." Psidium guajava, native to tropical America.

Kola-nut pods

[Image source: .]

Kola-nut tree. Nsukka, p. 18, 175.
Obosi, pp. 164-165. "broke the kola nut apart into five lobes".
 Abba, p. 185, 188, 195, 299. One of various species, especially Cola acuminata and Cola nitida, native to tropical Africa. The nut contains caffeine. It is chewed, releasing the bitter taste. It reduces hunger pangs and has many social and ceremonial uses.

Lemon tree, Nsukka, p. 15, 24, 209, 365, 432. "'I also use lemons to make cake; lemons are very good for the body...The food of white people makes you healthy, it is not like all of the nonsense that our people eat.'" For both Harrison and Ugwu (his sceptical listener) citrus fruits are alien introductions. Citrus limon seems to have originated in NE India, perhaps as a hybrid between bitter orange and citron.

Banana "tree" (technically the world's tallest herbaceous plant).  Umuahia, p. 326, 331. One of various Musa species, native to tropical Indomalaya and Australia.


The fruit trees in Half of a Yellow Sun are naturally eloquent in ways that need no commentary: they speak variously of locality, community, hospitality, shelter, native culture, alien culture, fulfilment, betrayal, desecration, corruption, memory, loss, continuity, resolve...

But one general aspect of their meaning I might have missed if I hadn't looked up kwashiorkor, the particular brand of starvation that killed so many Biafran children, characterized by a swollen abdomen and pitted ankles. Kwashiorkor occurs where there's a relative availability of energy foods (sugars, carbs) but an extreme lack of protein. (The abdominal swelling is the enlargement of the liver with fatty deposits.) This is the dietary vulnerability that Ugwu's aunty hints at on the very first page of Adichie's novel, when she promises him that in his new job as houseboy "as long as you work well, you will eat well. You will even eat meat every day."

The Biafran war ended in 1970. But
malnutrition and child mortality remain terrible facts of life in some parts of Nigeria even today. Kevin Watkins' recent Guardian article (15 January 2020):

Frederick Forsyth's article about Britain's involvement in the Biafran war:


There's plenty of debate about Half of a Yellow Sun within Nigeria and elsewhere, but it's mostly behind academic paywalls so involves a trip to a university library. Some aspects of that fraught discussion are represented in this 2017 paper by Abayomi Abewela:

Kate Kellaway's piece for the Observer was the most interesting I've seen of the newspaper reviews that came out at the time of publication:

One more extract. People are on relief flour by now.

The cake turned out crisp on the outside and moistly soft inside, and he cut slim slices and took them out in saucers. Special Julius and Olanna were sitting down while Master was standing, gesturing, talking about the last village he visited, how the people had sacrificed a goat at the shrine of oyi to keep the vandals away.
          "A whole goat! All that wasted protein!" Special Julius said and laughed.
          Master did not laugh. "No, no, you must never underestimate the psychological importance of such things. We never ask them to eat the goat instead."
          "Ah, cake!" Special Julius said. He ignored the fork and stuffed the piece in his mouth. "Very good, very good. Ugwu, you have to teach the people in my house because all they do with our flour is chin-chin, every day is chin-chin, chin-chin, and it is the hard kind with no taste! My teeth have finished."
          "Ugwu is a wonder at everything," Olanna said. "He would easily put that woman in Rising Sun Bar out of business."
          Professor Ekwenugo knocked on the open door and walked in. His hands were swathed in cream-coloured bandages.
          "Dianyi, what happened to you?" Master asked.
          "Just a little burn." Professor Ekwenugo stared at his bandaged hands as if he had only just realized that they meant he no longer had a long nail to stroke. "We are putting together something very big."
          "Is it our first Biafran-built bomber jet?" Olanna teased.
           "Something very big that will reveal itself with time," Professor Ekwenugo said, with a mysterious smile. He ate clumsily; bits of cake fell away before they got to his mouth.
            "It should be a saboteur-detecting machine," Master said.
            "Yes! Bloody saboteurs." Special Julius made the sound of spitting. "They sold Enugu out. How can you leave civilians to defend our capital with mere machetes? This is the same way they lost Nsukka, by pulling back for no reason. Doesn't one of the commanding officers have a Hausa wife? She has put medicine in his food." .... (pp. 284-285)

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