Chinelo Okparanta’s Under The Udala Trees is nothing short of revolutionary. The novel was published in 2015, a year after Nigeria’s then-president Goodluck Jonathan signed the SSMPA into law. Okparanta doesn’t shy away from the political and lived realities of the time period the book was published in. Rather, she engages with these tensions (and, by extension, the tensions within Nigeria itself) directly. Due to her literary courage and outstanding execution, queer Nigerians — and the world — have been gifted with a book that captures the past and ongoing resistance of a people.
Under The Udala Trees is the story of Nigeria. To understand the Biafran War — the central conflict that upturns the life of the novel’s protagonist, Ijeoma — you must understand Nigeria. In January of 1966, the Prime Minister, Premier, and several members of the newly independent Nigerian Government (and some of their family members), were assassinated by a class of junior military officials. Leadership of the country was then transferred to a military head of state, General Johnson Ironsi.
By July of the same year, there was a counter-coup that replaced the head of state once again. The initiators of the first coup claimed the government was corrupt and acting against the interests of the people, and their coup was an attempt to reset a corrupt government and return power to the people. Yet, from the outside, most of the people who took part in the coup were from one tribe (Igbo), while most of the people being deposed were from another (Hausa). Furthermore, the person that took command after the January coup, General Ironsi, was Igbo. A common narrative — and fear — was that the coup was an attempt by Igbos (Easterners) to usurp power from Hausas (Northerners).
The first coup spurred the killing of thousands of Igbo people in Northern Nigeria. The killings only increased after the July counter-coup targeted Igbo military officials and led to the death of General Ironsi, as well as the installation of a New — Hausa — Head of State, Yakubu Gowon. The increased violence against Igbo people, as well as the fact that Nigerians didn’t get to choose to be Nigeria, contributed to Eastern Nigeria cesseeding. The Nigerian Civil War began on May 30th, 1967 when Colonel Ojukwu declared Eastern Nigeria to be the independent country of Biafra. In response, the Federal Government of Nigeria set out to reinstate Biafra as part of Nigeria through military conquest.
Ijeoma’s childhood in the novel takes place between the first two coups and the civil war. At the start of Under The Udala Trees, Ijeoma believes — because her father believes — the war is a far-fetched impossibility. She doesn’t believe there will be bomber planes over igboland and military blockades intended to starve out millions of civillians. Despite her father’s reassurance, the visibly rising terror of the adults and community members in her life prompts Ijeoma to ask god for help. A year later, Ijeoma and her family are avoiding bomber planes in an underground bunker.
The war and its violence arrive quickly, and Ijeoma isn’t spared from it. Neither are readers. Okparanta’s account of Ijeoma’s wartime experience is meticulous and the best telling of the Biafran War I’ve read in fiction. This meticulousness also makes the stories contained within the novel, at times, difficult to read. The 30 months of war are bitter, and Ijeoma emerges on the other side of it a changed person — and not just because of the violence.
The war, and Ijeoma’s temporary separation from her family because of it, causes her to meet Amina. Ijeoma happens upon Amina and brings her home to offer her food and shelter. Ijeoma’s host family (a grammar school teacher and his wife) agree to take her in, though their reasoning isn’t selfless — they want another helping hand. Still, they likely saved Amina’s life.
Ijeoma’s relationship with Amina deepens as they grow up, and they fall in love. Their blossoming relationship is complicated by a few things. First, Amina is Hausa, and their friendship alone is enough to draw consternation. Second, they are both girls. Even while the war deepens tribal division amongst Nigerians, different groups unite in the joint persecution of queer Nigerians. This persecution is justified through religion.
In Nigeria, both Christianity and Islam establish strict, largely patriarchal, systems of government that centralize power. This is because the systems that establish the authority of these religions in Nigeria were developed concurrently with colonization. In the South, South-West and Eastern parts of Nigeria, Christianity was used to establish and expand European colonial authority. While Islam in the North and North-West Nigeria predates European colonisation, the establishment of Islam in West-Africa was also an attempt to centralize and expand power by pre-colonial Hausa Kingdoms. This worked so well that even after the fall of the Hausa Kingdoms to the Sokoto Caliphate in the 1800s, European colonizers were able to use established religious governing structures to consolidate their power.
As a result of the alignment between religious and colonial authority in Nigeria, much of governmental authority is an extension of these powers, even in 2022. The persecution of queer people — despite the Nigerian government’s claim to be doing so in the interest of African culture — is one manifestation of this oppressive alignment.
So, even after the war, Ijeoma is confronted with a different challenge: living as an igbo lesbian in post-civil war Nigeria. As an adult, Ijeoma contends with the ever-present threat of being discovered, of being outed and subject to beatings — or murder. The suppression of identity Ijeoma faces is so strong that “lesbian” is not a term she uses herself. Ijeoma doesn’t have the space to create and refine linguistic authority. Much of her mental energies are spent deconditioning herself.
Ijeoma’s awareness of and participation in her internal world and forming an intentional identity is cathartic, even more so because it’s a consistent aspect of Ijeoma’s character. Her persistent reading of the bible — a genuine attempt to understand her “sin” — ends up being what frees her from seeing herself as wrong. Okparanta takes the time to craft both the arguments many queer Christians hear growing up and the ways they fail to hold up under scrutiny.
Like Ijeoma, I was warned about Sodom and Gomorrah, but when I came to my teachers with questions about the references to hospitality, I was met with a shrug at best and, more commonly, anger or violence. Like Ijeoma, I learned to keep my questions to myself. When I was older and learned how exactly my parents and grandparents came to hold the beliefs they now browbeat me with, a lot of things started to make sense. It didn’t take long after that for me to detach from beliefs meant to cause me to see myself as less than.
Reading Ijeoma experience a similar religious journey validates my lived experiences and provides the affirmation I didn’t get when I chose to love myself. For that alone, this novel is dear to my heart.
Okparanta’s focus on religious oppression is intentional. The author’s note at the end of the book cites a 2012 global study on Religiosity and Atheism that ranks Nigeria as the second-most-religious country surveyed.
Okparanta’s analysis of religious authority in Nigeria goes beyond outlining its connections to the oppression of queer Nigerians. In my experience, sexual oppression is rarely far removed from misogyny, classism, and ableism. This holds true in Under The Udala Trees as well.
Ijeoma’s choices are shaped in part by her sexuality, but also by her womanhood. Even the women around her who aren’t queer are confronted with restrictions on their freedom, often backed by religious justification. People who occupy positions of difference in various forms are marginalized or ostracized in the novel.
These other forms of marginalization form nucleuses of power that, by the end of the book, show a larger, sinister web of oppression than what is directly facing queer Nigerians. Sinister, because it’s impossible to reinforce oppression on one end without subjecting your own freedoms to oppressive conditions. Yet, different groups of people are being eagerly offered up by governments seeking to expand power and control by any means.
In the novel, Ijeoma’s awareness of her marginalization also feeds her awareness of other people’s conditions. If you can justify your own oppression by agreeing with another’s, then understanding your marginalization helps connect your liberation with someone else’s, which builds solidarity. This is the gift of self-analysis, one Ijeoma continues to nurture as her story develops and she’s met with different types of oppression.
Neither discrimination nor manipulation are solely tactics of colonizers. An easy way to unite and distract two people is to scapegoat a third person. Suffering people are angry people, and angry people often need to be given an outlet for their anger before they start to ask too many questions about why they’re mad. It’s no coincidence that the hyper-vigilance of queer Nigerians is on the rise again as the 2023 presidential elections draw near. The SSMPA was signed into law in 2014, a year before the 2015 Nigerian presidential elections. The further criminalization of queer people in Nigeria will do nothing to alleviate many of the economic and social burdens currently facing Nigerians, but it does provide a smaller, unprotected portion of the populace for the majority to vent their anger on.
In light of current conditions for queer Nigerians — and global conditions facing queer people — a book like Under the Udala Trees is ever-timely. Okparanta succeeds in creating a character that lives, despite survival being tenuous. By the end of the novel, Ijeoma is rooted in her love of herself and has gone past surviving to manifesting a life beyond the boxes she was forced to construct herself in.
Here’s to all our unseen-but-hoped-for futures.
Queer Naija Lit is a monthly series that analyzes, contextualizes, and celebrates queer Nigerian literature.