A penguin profile of Chinua Achebe’s personal history of Biafra, There was a Country:
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, 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 masterfully relates his experience, both as he lived it and how he has come to understand it. He 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 might come to understand the country’s promise, which turned to horror when the hot winds of hatred began to stir. To read There Was a Country is to be powerfully reminded that artists have a particular obligation, especially during a time of war. All writers, Achebe argues, should be committed writers—they should speak for their history, their beliefs, and their people. Marrying history and memoir, poetry and prose, There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid firsthand observation and forty years of research and reflection. Wise, humane, and authoritative, it will stand as definitive and reinforce Achebe’s place as one of the most vital literary and moral voices of our age
AN EXCERPT FROM THERE WAS A COUNTRY (c) Penguin Publishers Fall 2012 Catalog
The Nigeria-Biafra War was arguably the first fully televised conflict in history. It was the first time scenes and pictures—blood, guts, severed limbs—from the war front flooded into homes around the world through television sets, radios, newsprint, in real time. It probably gave television evening news its first chance to come into its own and invade without mercy the sanctity of people’s living rooms with horrifying scenes of children immiserated by modern war.
One of the silver linings of the conflict (if one can even call it that) was the international media’s presence throughout the war. The sheer amount of media attention on the conflict led to an outpouring of international public outrage at the war’s brutality. There were also calls from various international agencies for action to address the humanitarian disaster overwhelming the children of Biafra.
Said Baroness Asquith in the British House of Lords, “Thanks to the miracle of television we see history happening before our eyes. We see no Igbo propaganda; we see the facts.” Following the blockade imposed by the Nigerian government, “Biafra” became synonymous with the tear-tugging imagery of starving babies with blown-out bellies, skulls with no subcutaneous fat harboring pale, sunken eyes in sockets that betrayed their suffering. Someone speaking in London in the House of Commons or the House of Lords would talk about history’s happening all around them, but for those of us on the ground in Biafra, where this tragedy continued to unfold, we used a different language . . . the language and memory of death and despair, suffering and bitterness.
The agony was everywhere. The economic blockade put in place by Nigeria’s federal government resulted in shortages of every imaginable necessity, from food and clean water to blankets and medicines. The rations had gone from one meal a day to one meal every other day—to nothing at all. Widespread starvation and disease of every kind soon
set in. The suffering of the children was the most heart-wrenching.