The high school that I went to, a Christian catholic girls’ school in Harare, was an environment that reinforced and normalised homophobia. I would like to say that even back then I saw the injustices and hate that it perpetrated. However, looking at my past Facebook posts (cringe) all I can truthfully say is that I was indifferent at best, homophobic at worst. Thankfully as I grew older I was forced to reflect on my hostile attitudes towards homosexuality. You might be wondering why I am telling you all of this – it is because this book, Under the Udala Trees so effortlessly addressed and disregarded all of the arguments that I had in support of homophobia at the time. It might have done me some good to read it when I was still in high school despite the impossibility of this, seeing as the book was published in 2016, after I had already left high school.
This book is a coming of age story of Ijeoma, narrated in the first person by an older and wiser version of herself. Ijeoma’s story is enveloped in the story of Nigeria, the young nation that was at the time also experiencing the turmoil of coming to age through a civil war. At the beginning of the book Ijeoma has a seemingly perfect life until ‘Ubosi chi ji ehihe jie: the day the night fell in the afternoon’, she loses her father. One thing leads to the next and eventually she finds herself doing housework for a rich couple who promise her that one day she will be allowed to return to school. In her time living with this rich couple, the reader gets to know Ijeoma, as she discovers a part of herself when she meets Amina, her first love.
“Legend has it that spirit children, tired of floating aimlessly between the world of the living and the dead take to gathering above Udala trees. In exchange for the dwelling, they cause to be exceptionally fertile any female who comes and stays, for even the briefest period of time, under any one of the tree. They cause her to bear sons and daughters, as many as her heart desires.” – Chapter 77
Udala trees have always played a significant role in Ijeoma’s life. From her childhood days where she sits under one, under the orders of her classmate; to another tree being interwoven in the beginning of her love story with Amina; to nightmares in which the trees haunt her. The Udala trees that are, as the above quote suggests, rather to be sought out by young aspiring wives become a symbol of oppression in Ijeoma’s life as she diverts from the ideal of fertile wife of a man. Her plight against a culture that is senselessly oppressive to women and more so to homosexual women is shown in her story and in her relationship with her God.
Ijeoma gives herself space and time to understand her sexual orientation in a society that does not permit homosexuality. Despite constant hostility, she manages to create a place of comfort and safety for herself that is supported by family and friends. However, for her to be able to do this she makes many sacrifices that not all the characters in the book can afford to make. Through the lives and fates of Ijeoma’s lovers, we see that the Nigeria Okparanta writes of is not accommodating for anything other than heterosexuality. Okparanta shows that this aggressive patriarchal system forces conformity of heterosexuality and that a divergence from it can be as detrimental as death itself.
Okparanta challenges this conformity through Ijeoma, a devout Christian and homosexual, as she brings a new dimension to the debate of homosexuality in Nigeria and by extension, Africa. Instead of relying on the past, where in some places on the continent homosexuality was permitted or even celebrated, Okparanta takes the Nigerian context as it is – a country that has welcomed Christianity and Islam. In an exciting and engaging line of argument Okparanta uses bible verses to support her claims and a god-fearing main character to illustrate that homosexuality is not the straying away from God. Her arguments are so convincing that some reviewers have warned that this book may not be ideal for conservative Christians as they might feel attacked or offended by Okparanta’s interpretation of the bible.
There is no end to my praise of this book.