Chiwetel Ejiofor on The Biafran War

To mark the release of his latest film, Half of a Yellow Sun, we speak to Chiwetel Ejiofor about his very personal connection to the story, set during Nigeria's Biafran war

The Biafran war is a very important part of my family history and one of the reasons that I was born in London. I’d spoken to my mother about it at various times, but it wasn’t until about six or seven years ago, when I was in Nigeria, that I ended up talking to my grandpa about it. It sort of turned into ten hours of tape, about his experiences in the war, going from being an accountant in the north of Nigeria to travelling with his family from village to village as the Nigerian forces were attempting to sort of pincer movement the villages and starve the population. So it was always something that I was very connected to and then my mother spoke to me about the book. It’s a very beloved book and it’s amazing to be able to tell a story like this, which I think is a rare story for people to hear outside of Nigeria, outside of Africa really. We are heading out to Lagos in a couple of days, and the feedback from Nigerians here, Nigerians abroad, and Nigerians in Nigeria has been incredible. It was my first filming experience there, though I’ve been travelling back and forth for years. It’s a very beautiful country, and so to capture some of that beauty on film was something I was very excited about.

"It’s amazing to be able to tell a story like this, which I think is a rare story for people to hear outside of Nigeria"

Fresh from awards season, where he won a BAFTA for his monumental performance in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor is back onscreen in an adaptation of the much loved novel Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. For the actor, born in London to Nigerian parents in the late 1970s, it was a story to which he felt immediately connected. Set in Nigeria, it charts the story of sisters Olanna and Kainene – played by Thandie Newton and Anika Noni Rose – over a period of ten years, from a glittering Independence Day party in Lagos right through the harrowing years of civil war and on to their eventual separation. Ejiofor plays Odenigbo, a young academic full of hope for his country as it sheds its colonial history. Sex, jazz and politics mingle on balmy nights in smoke-filled living rooms and wicker verandas, as Odenigbo and Olanna negotiate their budding relationship and their ideals in a newly free country before ethnic conflict erupts, shattering their home and their hopes. For Ejiofor, filming in his parents’ homeland yielded intriguing connections not only with his heritage but also his other film work, notably 12 Years a Slave. “I was at the slave museum in Calabar [a sea port in southern Nigeria] and a lot of the ships that carried people out of Calabar went on to New Orleans,” he explains. “I remember having plantain and okra in Nigeria and then going to New Orleans [where Slave was shot] and having plantain and okra, and just realising the connectivity of these places.”

Half of a Yellow Sun is in cinemas nationwide from today.

Text by Laura Allsop