There Was A Country: A Personal History Of Biafra by Chinua Achebe

The Blurb On The Back:

From the lengendary author of Things Fall Apart comes a long-awaited memoir of coming of age with a fragile new nation only to watch it torn asunder in a tragic civil war.

The defining experience of Chinua Achebe’s life was the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War, of 1967 – 1970.  The conflict was infamous for its savage impact on the Biafran people, Chinua Achebe’s people, many of whom were starved to death after the Nigerian government blockaded their borders.  By then, Chinua Achebe was already a world-renowned novelist, with a young family to protect.  He took the Biafran side in the conflict and served his government as a roving cultural ambassador, from which vantage he absorbed the war’s full horror, immediately after the war, Achebe took refuge in an academic post in the United States, and for more than forty years he has maintained a considered silence on the events of those terrible years, addressing them only obliquely through his poetry.  Now, decades in the making, comes a towering reckoning with one of modern Africa’s most fateful events, from a writer whose words and courage have left an enduring stamp on world literature.

Achebe begins his story with Nigeria’s birth pangs and the story of his own upbringing as a man and as a writer, so that we may understand both the young country’s keen sense of promise, which too quickly turned to horror, and Achebe’s view of the particular obligation of the artist, especially in a time of war.  For Chinua Achebe, to be a serious writer is to be a committed writer – to speak for one’s history, one’s beliefs, and one’s people, especially when others cannot.

A marriage of history and memoir, vivid first-hand observation and decades of further research and reflection, There Was A Country is a work whose wisdom and compassion remind us of Chinua Achebe’s place as one of the great literary and moral voices of our age. 

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Chinua Achebe discusses his childhood, Biafra and the Nigerian Civil War in a fascinating, beautifully written book that’s part memoir, part history and includes his poetry from the period as he covers the hope of Nigerian independence to the bloodiness of Civil War and the negative impact on the country’s prospects but it’s a highly partisan read and Achebe is hazy on his involvement in the Biafra government, which is a weakness.

This is the first book I’ve read by Achebe and I was struck by how clean and evocative his prose is.  You can hear his nostalgia for his childhood and the reverence he has for the educational opportunities he had as much as his anger through the sections on the problems that emerged in Nigeria following its independence and the racial tensions and violence that led to the formation of Biafra.  He is most passionate about the racial violence against his Igbo tribe and how other Nigerian ethnic groups have wronged them without considering whether Igbos have caused problems for other groups.  He also puts Igbo success down to the group’s willingness to embrace change and opportunity but at the same time fails to consider how those different ethnic groups may have suffered from a lack of opportunity.  He is also hazy on the activities he undertook on behalf of the Biafra government and does not address whether Biafra itself committed atrocities against other ethnic groups or Nigerian soldiers and while I do not say this to denigrate or minimise the atrocities committed against the Igbo during the Civil War, it does demonstrate a blinkered view.

Achebe includes examples of his poetry from the period, which is fascinating and moving but doesn’t provide much detail on his family or the impact of the Civil War on them beyond their brushes with violence and his worry for his wife who had a number of pregnancies during the war, which made her particularly vulnerable.  Achebe also has a habit of listing out names of significant people he knew from the period who were important in Nigeria but as a Westerner ignorant of who some of these people were, it would have been useful to have some description of their significance or a mini biography so that readers can understand their importance.

Despite my criticisms I did enjoy this book as I knew absolutely nothing about this period and so had my eyes opened to a truly awful period in human history (although I’d question Achebe’s claim that this was the first war to be shown in real time on TV).  It certainly raises important questions about the failures of the British and other Western governments and their complicity in the war and explains both some of the events that followed it and how they influenced Western policy in the former colonies.  For that reason and because it is so beautifully written, I would definitely recommend checking it out, just be aware that Achebe is writing from a specific perspective and that the analysis is one-sided.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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