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There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

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From the legendary author of Things Fall Apart comes a longawaited memoir about coming of age with a fragile new nation, then watching 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, 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.

352 pages, Hardcover

First published September 27, 2012

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About the author

Chinua Achebe

135 books3,476 followers
Works, including the novel Things Fall Apart (1958), of Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe describe traditional African life in conflict with colonial rule and westernization.

This poet and critic served as professor at Brown University. People best know and most widely read his first book in modern African literature.

Christian parents in the Igbo town of Ogidi in southeastern Nigeria reared Achebe, who excelled at school and won a scholarship for undergraduate studies. World religions and traditional African cultures fascinated him, who began stories as a university student. After graduation, he worked for the Nigerian broadcasting service and quickly moved to the metropolis of Lagos. He gained worldwide attention in the late 1950s; his later novels include No Longer at Ease (1960), Arrow of God (1964), A Man of the People (1966), and Anthills of the Savannah (1987). Achebe defended the use of English, a "language of colonizers," in African literature. In 1975, controversy focused on his lecture An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" for its criticism of Joseph Conrad as "a bloody racist."

When the region of Biafra broke away from Nigeria in 1967, Achebe, a devoted supporter of independence, served as ambassador for the people of the new nation. The war ravaged the populace, and as starvation and violence took its toll, he appealed to the people of Europe and the Americas for aid. When the Nigerian government retook the region in 1970, he involved in political parties but witnessed the corruption and elitism that duly frustration him, who quickly resigned. He lived in the United States for several years in the 1970s, and after a car accident left him partially disabled, he returned to the United States in 1990.

Novels of Achebe focus on the traditions of Igbo society, the effect of Christian influences, and the clash of values during and after the colonial era. His style relied heavily on the Igbo oral tradition, and combines straightforward narration with representations of folk stories, proverbs, and oratory. He also published a number of short stories, children's books, and essay collections. He served as the David and Marianna Fisher university professor of Africana studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, United States.

ollowing a brief illness, Achebe died.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 313 reviews
Profile Image for Rowena.
500 reviews2,467 followers
March 22, 2013
When I first read Chinua Achebe at age 11 (Things Fall Apart), he was one of the few African writers I'd read growing up. As an African I often wondered why there weren't too many books about Africa written by Africans. Things are changing now but when I was growing up that wasn't the case.As such, Achebe holds a special place in my heart.

I was really excited to read this autobiography and I wasn't disappointed. In the first part, Achebe talked about his childhood, pre-Independence Nigeria, and the great educational institutions the British established that helped him to become a writer. Then he talked about the positive mood of the country after it had gained independence, which unfortunately wasn't to last long.

One of the most important parts of the book for me was the history of the Biafran War, the genocide that killed a large number of ethnic Igbos. I'm actually embarrassed to admit that I had never even heard of this war, despite its magnitude and how atrocious it was. I was surprised to read that many people outside Nigeria (including John Lennon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Charles De Gaulle) were very much involved in denouncing the atrocities.The descriptions of the war (some eye witness accounts) were so gruesome and shocking; I wonder why it's not talked about more.

Throughout the book, Achebe was very blunt about many things. He stated clearly that he was for a new seceded state of Biafra, he also stated how idiotic tribalism is (Nigeria has over 250 tribes). He even went on to talk about corruption in Nigeria and the African knack for choosing awful heads of states.You could feel the passion for his country, for his continent, for the arts etc.

This was an amazing read and one I will definitely be buying.

Disclaimer - reading this book will probably make you add more books to your to-read list (Garvey, Senghor, Nyerere and Aime Cesaire are just a few writers that were mentioned). I guess that's often the case in the autobiographies of writers!

March 22, 2013 - I'm extremely sad to hear of Achebe's death.He did so much for African literature and inspired so many young Africans to write, know their history and be proud of their culture. May his legacy live on.
Profile Image for Lisa.
977 reviews3,327 followers
March 21, 2017
I wonder if we will ever be able to read Chinua Achebe without feeling the pain of his current relevance and impact?

This is an incredibly touching and personal account of a traumatising civil war in Nigeria/Biafra in the 1960s. I admire Chinua Achebe's "Things Fall Apart" and its sequels, and this narrative is a good complement to his thought-provoking fiction. It offers an overview of the political situation that led to the Biafran War, tells the story of his own family's perspective and his efforts to be a novelist, father, husband and politician at the same time. I especially appreciated the poems he added to the text, written during the war and showing the horror of it in a completely different way compared to the historical prose.

I realise that reading poetry is a way for me to feel the personal suffering of individuals during any given historical conflict, and it gives me a deeper insight than just collecting the facts. The Poems Of Wilfred Owen or My Boy Jack opened up a new angle to understanding World War I, and Chinua Achebe helped me see the bigger picture in the Biafra conflict. However, the poems of suffering refugees are not only telling the story of the people of this part of Africa, at this specific moment in time, they speak to and of any refugees, and maybe more universally so now than back then. It takes a writer of the depth of Achebe to put one historical moment into words that are valid fifty years later, in other geographical and social circumstances:

"She took from the bundle of their possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-coloured hair left on his skull
And then - humming in her eyes - began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave."

The child is dying.

Highly recommended reading, especially as a companion to Chinua Achebe's novels!
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews592 followers
September 16, 2015
There was a country; it was called Biafra. This country existed for three years, until 1970 when it "fell," claiming more than three million lives. Forced to flee a section of Nigeria, Chinua Achebe was a citizen, pioneer, even one of the writers of the constitution for that country. This is his experience as a Biafran. So with such a traumatic personal experience, why would this book be published to controversy? The tone could have had something to do with it.

Achebe rearranged literature for many of us when he wrote the classic, THINGS FALL APART. He played with form, syntax and storytelling, unveiling the "voice" of the African narrator. I remember being nine years old and reading that book for the first time. And the first time I saw it displayed in an American bookstore, next to the classics, I almost danced out of my shoes. Some tears may have even followed, for once you've become immersed within a literary world where "African lit" is a separate category in colleges, and books with African settings are rarely seen upfront and face-forward at mainstream bookstores (thank goodness contemporary African authors like Bulawayo, Adichie, and Selasi have changed things recently), your African literary childhood becomes a bit diluted.

THERE WAS A COUNTRY starts with this Igbo proverb, "A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body." In this book, Achebe tries to figure out where the rain began to beat his country. He starts from the Nigerian coup that ignited the tribal war against the Igbos, the exile, the Igbos' announcement of the Republic of Biafra, and the war that came as a result of that announcement. "The Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria," he wrote, "in my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa." Achebe was an Igbo man, a victim of this "ethnic cleansing" that Adichie wrote about beautifully in HALF OF A YELLOW SUN.

There is something terribly wrong about the kind of mentality that targets an entire group of people just because of a few rotten apples (in this case, the couple of Igbos involved with the coup). Unfortunately it happens a lot. Ilbagiza wrote about this in Rwanda (LEFT TO TELL), and Helen Cooper wrote about this in Liberia (THE HOUSE AT SUGAR BEACH), not to mention the many books in European and American literature that capture this same mentality (i.e.: American Civil War and WW II eras).

In Achebe's memoir, poetry and prose intersect and so you would naturally expect lyricism. Yet it is not lyrical. In fact, Achebe's adept storytelling is missing in most of it. This is more of a historical account, a personal affidavit of excerpted facts. It is almost as if the record needed to be set straight, so to speak. You understand why as you read along: Achebe was very influential within the Biafran world, even acting as envoy to Sweden, Canada, Finland, and many other countries. He worked with literary activists (like Norman Mailer) to help spread the word about the Biafran cause. He knew details that most didn't. Even after so many years, you sense the duty he felt as he wrote, for it comes across in the structure of the book. It is less about his personal experiences--which frankly, you almost want to beg for more of--and more of a general experience.

It is a heart-wrenching story, one that has gained so little publicity, so you applaud this effort by a literary great in placing a historical account on record. What he does though that also adds to this being a treasure, comparing to memoirs like Hemingway's A MOVEABLE FEAST and Angelou's ALL GOD'S CHILDREN NEED TRAVELING SHOES, is his remuneration of his literary peers. Here is a postcolonial literary world that you don't see mentioned as often: Flora Nwapa, the first Nigerian female author to be published; Christopher Okigbo, the poet, publisher and Achebe's business partner who would be killed during the war; the American Civil Rights activists and American fiction writers who helped the cause; European writers, and more. Achebe introduced this world and it was endearing--writers gathered around the world, appealing to presidents and diplomats to help war victims. Moving portrait.

So why the controversy? Well this is a book dealing with the sensitive subject of ethnic disparity. So even while empathizing with Achebe's experience, you see how some could have taken a different meaning from the tone of this passage, for example, where though he takes pride in explaining his culture, the contrast with other cultures makes it seem slightly--well you be the judge:
The Igbo culture, being receptive to change, individualistic and highly competitive, gave the Igbo man an unquestioned advantage over his compatriots in securing credentials for advancement in Nigerian colonial society. Unlike the Hausa/Fulani he was unhindered by a wary religion, and unlike the Yoruba he was unhampered by traditional hierarchies. This kind of creature, fearing no god or man, was custom-made to grasp the opportunities, such as they were, of the white man’s dispensations. And the Igbo did so with both hands.

Rest in peace, Chinua Achebe.
Profile Image for Nnedi.
Author 151 books15.1k followers
January 14, 2013
definitely not objective. but that's not what the purpose of this book was. i wouldn't have read it if it were just objective. i wanted to read his take on things and he gave it. that's all i'll say because i'm not in the mood to start a fire storm. the ghost of biafra haunts every nigerian. people still can't talk about it all in a calm fashion. i am igbo and i have a biafran pound framed on my bookcase (my family was VERY affected by the biafran war) and the argument it caused when my yoruba friend came over...geezus!

thus, no review. but i highly recommend this book. read it.
Profile Image for Adebayo Oyagbola.
66 reviews19 followers
November 26, 2012
Extremely jaundiced review of the causes and events that led up to the Nigerian civil war. Chinua Achebe's main theme is that the thinking and actions of the different Nigerian governments were based on the quest for tribal supremacy for the dominant tribes. Unfortunately, he falls prey to this himself. He appears to have bought into the self serving fiction that all the wrongs that led to the attempted secession in 1967-70 were predicated and wrought purely by the rest of Nigeria. He would have us believe that all the grasping and sectional tendencies did not transcend to the East. That simply is not so. There is no denying the pogroms and blood letting and that the Federal Government did very little, very late to put a stop to them. That those acts were reason enough to attempt an enclave in Eastern Nigeria is, to me, undeniable. To however merely gloss over other issues, including the rights of minorities in their midst, is to grossly oversimplify and suggests in itself an agenda to glorify his Igbo tribe and extol it above others in Nigeria. That is regrettable. To also suggest that the different events preceding the war were based on the envy of every other tribe is truly insulting.

In sum, his account is well enough written. He is of course a practised story teller. It however has a lot of spelling and punctuational errors which suggests it was rushed and not carefully edited.
Profile Image for Kaykay Obi.
21 reviews54 followers
November 24, 2012
Writing my final year thesis on The Nigerian Civil War Literature, focusing on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Isidore Okpewho’s The Last Duty exposed me to some elements of the Biafran war I did not know. My father and my grandmother always told me stories about the conflict, which saw over 2,000,000 people dead. However, I was not fortunate to hear my grandfather’s side of the story – he was long dead before I was born.

Now Achebe is back with an extremely important document. I was captivated by the subtitle of the book; a personal history of Biafra. Fortunately, a good friend of mine sent me a copy and I read the book while I was convalescing after an accident.

Achebe starts the book with an introduction of a time before his time, because according to an Igbo proverb, “a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.” He talks briefly about the discovery of Africa by Europe four to five hundred years ago, then the transatlantic slave trade, to the Berlin Conference of 1885, which began colonialism in Africa.

Achebe begins the story with his coming of age “in an earlier and, in some respects, a more innocent time.” He says; “I do this both to bring readers unfamiliar with this landscape into it at a human level and be open about some of the sources of my own perspective.”

The book is divided into four parts. Part One talks about Achebe’s birth and coming into a world at “cultural crossroads”, where the clash between African and Western civilization had generated deep struggles between languages, cultures and religion. He talks about his orphaned father, a clergyman, and his mother, whom he says is “the strong, silent type.” Brought up in an environment where Christianity was trying to get its foothold and African religion was striving to survive despite the new religion, Achebe becomes a little skeptic about his parents embracing customs and beliefs of strangers from thousands of miles away, the same strangers who “delivered us to the transatlantic slave trade and unleashed darkness in our world.” These struggles between the old and the new would come to be the themes inherent in some of his early novels. He goes on to talk about his school days and the publication of his first book, Things Fall Apart, a novel which has sold 12,000,000 copies worldwide and translated into more than 50 different languages. The call for independence began, and years later a new republic Nigeria is formed, run by Nigerians themselves. That independence was literally the beginning of troubles even though there was optimism in the air then in the new country. Within six years of independence, corruption and misrule was at its peak, as public servants and government officials helped themselves with money for the nation. In 1966, there was a coup, one that many labeled an Igbo coup. The coup resulted to an organized massacre of the Igbos, mainly in the Northern part of the country. The Nigerian Government did nothing about the massacres. Even in Lagos, the country’s capital, things were not different, as many Igbos were returning to the East. Achebe has this to say; “As many of us packed our belongings to return east, some of the people we had lived with for years, some for decades, jeered and said, ‘Let them go…’ I realized suddenly that I had not been living in my home; I had been living in a strange place.” July 29, 1966 came a counter coup, led by General Murtala Mohammed which ousted Major-General Aguiyi Ironsi from power and saw him killed. This coup had other Igbo officers and civilians killed in large numbers. By this time, there were calls for independence by the Igbos, and so the republic of Biafra was established, precipitating the start of the Nigeria/Biafra War.

Part Two and Three deals with the war. Achebe talks about the allies of both nations, the neutrals, the United Kingdom and the role they all played. He also talks about his travelling as an ambassador on behalf of Biafra, his nation. One particular account I found very interesting was his meeting and discussion with Senegalese President, Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was a poet too. His narrative about his family moving from place to place due to air raids and the invading Nigerian forces, though distant, is very touching. There were many instances of near-misses. He talks about starting the Citadel Press with his close friend, Christopher Okigbo. Later Okigbo disappears and joins the army. While driving from Enugu to Ogidi one afternoon, Achebe hears the death of his friend death on the radio. By this time, Biafra was suffering a setback because of the economic starvation and blockade. Here, the Nigerian government uses starvation as a weapon of war, going against the Geneva Convention of 1949. The blockade resulted in the death of over 2,000,000 people, especially women and children.

In the last part of the book, Achebe laments Nigeria’s present situation: corruption, indiscipline, greediness of leaders, debauchery, social injustice, etc. He also points that “Nigeria’s Federal Government’s has always tolerated terrorism. For over half a century the federal government has turned a blind eye to waves of ferocious and savage massacres of its citizens – mainly Christian Southerners; mostly Igbos or indigenes of the Middle Belt; and others – with impunity.’ In this last part, Achebe does not just lament his country’s predicaments but also provides a solution. In his own words;

First we have to nurture and strengthen our democratic institutions – and strive for the freest and fairest elections possible… Under the rubric of democracy, a free press can strive and a strong justice system can flourish… A new patriotic consciousness has to be developed, not one based simply on the well-worn notion of unity of Nigeria or faith in Nigeria often touted by our corrupt leaders, but one based on an awareness of the responsibility of the leaders to the led – on the sacredness of their anointment to lead – and disseminated by civil society, schools, and intellectuals.

Achebe also talks also about the artist as the eye through which the society sees. This reminds me of Wole Soyinka’s book, The Man Died, and the famous quotation; “the man dies in him who keeps silent in the face of tyranny.’ Growing up, I read many books by first and second generation Nigerian writers. Most of these books laments and talks about the Nigerian state, in good ways that do not bore in reader. Corruption, poverty, and social injustice are mostly the themes inherent in these books. In a country where businesspersons, politicians, generals, and other officials hoard the country's wealth and power at the expense of the working class, a country where free press doesn’t thrive, these writers can only protest by their books. As Achebe already states, he is a protest writer. Festus Iyayi is another good protest writer. His three novels, Violence, The Contract, and Heroes, as well as his collection of short stories, Awaiting Court Martial, expose the abject penury and disenfranchisement that constitutes the social reality of most Nigerians. Achebe goes on to say that “...If the society is ill the writer has a responsibility to point it out. If the society is healthier, the writer’s job is different.”

Overall, the book was an interesting read. I enjoyed it, but I longed for more of Achebe experiences during the war. Most of the stories in Part 2 and 3 seemed like stories I have heard repeatedly. I wanted to hear more of Achebe’s story, and not the war story. Although a satisfactory narrative, I was hungry for more, which made me read the book in a slow pace as if I was eating a hot meal. Somehow, I did not want the book to finish.

The chapters are brilliantly written in Achebe’s conversational prose style, and interspersed with poems, which, although I have read before, provided much of the emotional connection that held me to the book. These poems, in my opinion were put in the right place or the right time, and if the narrative did not hook me well, the poems did.

I recommend this book to all, and anyone interested in the history of not only Biafra, but also Nigeria and Africa as a whole. Everybody who has read Professor Achebe’s other books ought to read this one too.

Kaykay Obi is a creative writer. He blogs at theartistcreativeforum.blogspot.com
Profile Image for Osita Ebiem.
1 review
January 11, 2013
Biafran - Nigeria war ended forty three years ago. The war was fought between 1967 and 1970. The ethnic/religious cleansing or genocide against the Igbo that necessitated the war took place from 1966 to July 1967 when the actual war began. Chinua Achebe in his characteristic sincere and honest narration clearly stated in this long awaited book that it is because there was genocide against the Igbo people then there became a country Biafra. It must have been extremely difficult on Achebe to maintain a balanced position since he was personally involved on the Biafran side but because he is an expert, he succeeded in writing an objective account of what happened. Because Achebe's There Was A Country is written so lucidly and honestly it should be taught in schools for the benefit of generations who did not witness the war.

Achebe in very plain language calls out those who were behind the crimes against humanity on his people, the Biafrans. It is particularly in this area that Achebe's critics come heavily on him. The parts played by Obafemi Awolowo, Yakubu Gowon and Harold Wilson during the war in deliberately starving to death Biafran children and their parents are just plain enough for all to see. In this aspect of mentioning those who did or did not do anything in Biafra, Achebe is careful and, like he anticipated the criticisms of the Awoists (Awolowo fans), he only recounts by citing copiously statements and verifiable evidences that clearly indict these men. More than three million (20% of the population) of Biafrans, mostly civilians were killed in the space of two and half years. Achebe's critics would have worth any consideration if they had come up with any credible counter arguments rather than simply trying to shout down their presumed opponent only because they do not like the sound of his voice since what he is saying makes them uncomfortable.

In the past many months since the book came out, it has succeeded in refocusing the world's attention on the genocide that took place in Biafra. In all, Chinua Achebe's There Was A Country is an important book by an important and credible witness. And for a better and a more just world, Achebe's account in this book should be taken seriously.
1 review1 follower
October 14, 2012
A profoundly important document from one of the world’s greatest writers. Here, Professor Achebe is addressing his readership not solely as a novelist, critic, children’s author and poet, but as a statesman.

The book is broken into four parts – something the writer Obi Nwakanma has cleverly observed also corresponds to the four market days in the Igbo week and may have provided the super structure for Achebe world view. It seems to me that the insertion of poems in the story is also a throw-back to Igbo traditional narrative styles that emanated from the oral tradition where the story itself was interspersed with chanting, singing and poetry. It occurred to me that Professor Achebe was making a concerted effort to embrace this “authentic African narrative structure” and was not, as some other shallow readings have suggested, just experimenting or taking artistic license.

In the western literary tradition, narrative structure followed very strict rules. I think it was G.F.W. Hegel in the 19th century that referred to poetry as “the universal art of the mind [that] runs through all the arts and is art’s highest phase, one phase higher than music?”[1] Poetry was treated as an art form apart and was hardly ‘married with prose.”

Part one of the book deals with Professor Achebe’s family and coming of age. Tender descriptions of his mother and father and their interactions with English clergy are particularly touching. His own education and encounter with some of founders of modern African literature are also found here with luminous beauty. I found particularly educational the account of the diversity and power of various writers and artists throughout the African continent and the evolution of what we now take for granted – modern African fiction. As a woman, his homage to what he calls the “female progenitors” of African literature "blew my mind."

Part 2 and 3 concentrate on the Biafran war. Stand outs for me include the complex international alliances of the Great powers in the war – the unlikely allies of the Soviet Union, Great Britain, the United Nations, supporting the Nigerians - and France, China, Portugal and four African states supporting the Biafrans. Professor Achebe’s diplomatic trips around the world to plead for humanitarian aid -Sweden, Norway, Canada, the United States and his meeting with Senegal’s Poet-President - are presented brilliantly. His own family’s ordeal during this war as he moved from place to place are also fascinating. What struck me was the amount of death – it seemed everywhere and almost omnipresent and startling - magnified by the inhumanity of the war which was fueled by the hatred of the Igbos.

Part 4 is an analysis of Nigeria’s present situation replete with “corruption, ethnic bigotry, debauchery, political ineptitude.” Achebe portrays a very dim picture indeed, but he also provides challenges for Nigerians (few as they seem)who are seriously committed to transforming what he believes is a "failed state." He urges these groups to come together and pull their nation from the shackles of “self-imposed backwardness.”

This book is a tour-de-force that will elicit wide spread controversy – we are already seeing this in the Nigerian media with everything from moves to ban Achebe's books to others literally calling for his head. In Achebe’s own words creative artists should be allowed to function in “ an environment where freedom of creative expression is not only possible but protected… where an artist from any part of the world can acquire and develop their unique voice and then express themselves on the Great Cultural Stage in full ear shot of the world!” In this brave book Achebe’s own voice is threatened and must be protected. I strongly recommend it.
Profile Image for Bodosika Bodosika.
257 reviews50 followers
September 3, 2016
This book was written by one of the best Authors from Africa and it was about the Nigeria civil war,I read and reread it immediately it was published and it was an interesting read.
Profile Image for Steven Langdon.
Author 9 books47 followers
November 21, 2012
Chinua Achebe is one of Africa's greatest novelists, his books superb at capturing the complex transition to independence in the continent and the social changes associated with this shift. Now, at 82, he has written a retrospective non-fiction book about the bitter struggle to build a separate Biafra in eastern Nigeria and his own personal role in that tragic experience.

"There Was a Country" is a good book, well worth reading, deeply felt in its telling, and powerful in its treatment of the grim events leading up to Biafra's recourse to independence (marked by vicious attacks on Igbo people in northern and western Nigeria and in Lagos.) It is also evocative of the harrowing human damage inflicted on Biafra's population (three million likely died, most of them children, with immense destruction on the ground, some of it affecting Achebe's family directly.) There are some striking vignettes presented, too -- such as the description of Senghor's meeting with Achebe, the memory of poet Christopher Okigbo, and the analysis of Biafra President Ojukwu.

What I hoped for, though, was a more reflective book. It is now 42 years since the fall of Biafra. Eastern Nigeria has earned billions since then in oil revenues. Ojukwu even returned to Nigeria as a senior stateman -- under President Obesanjo who commanded some of the troops who blockaded Biafra. What is the longterm legacy of that dramatic Biafra experience? Achebe writes mainly of the disarray and corruption inside Nigeria and how that reflects the emphasis on ethnicity that set off the attacks on the Igbo. But is there nothing more? Biafra was a tragedy, but it was also a brave and heartfelt effort at African self-direction. Is there no residue from those years of social sacrifice?

If anyone could consider such a set of questions with depth and sensitivity, it would be Chinua Achebe. Perhaps the absence of such considerations is itself an answer -- Biafra can only be understood as a tragic failure. But I wonder. Within Africa, there are many working for new directions and fairer societies. They refuse to accept violence against themselves and dictation from the top -- just as Biafra refused.

Biafra's ordeal moved much of the world in 1967-70. I wish that Chinua Achebe had more clearly asked whether the questions raised then continued to motivate people in the more than 40 years afterwards.
Profile Image for Paul Fulcher.
Author 2 books1,208 followers
September 3, 2013

I'm a fan of Chinua Achebe's novels, and Things Fall Apart in particular is a wonderful book.

But I'm not really sure what to take from this book, as it falls into an awkward middle ground:

- the writing style is mostly too plain and factual for it to be taken as a work of literature (with the exception of some poetic interludes)

- the opinions expressed are too one-sided for this to be a useful work of history

- but at the same time, the material, particularly on the war, is too generic for this to really be a memoir

Perhaps the most interesting part was some discussion on the role of the intellectual during a time of conflict, and whether literature can really be divorced from politics.

Overall, I can see why the author felt he needed to write this book and give his account of a largely forgotten conflict, whose legacy still echoes today in the fate of Nigeria, but I found it rather unsatisfying to read.
Profile Image for Sincerae  Smith.
220 reviews76 followers
September 20, 2017
There Was a Country is the autobiography of one of Africa's most renowned writers, Chinua Achebe, and also the history of lost possibilities, his short lived country the break away Republic of Biafra. Biafra seceded from Nigeria in 1967. It was short lived and went through a war with its' parent nation Nigeria until 1970.

Chinua Achebe writes about his family history and the early years of Nigeria following independence from Great Britain, all the hope and vibrancy of those days and finally the secession of Biafra and the Nigerian-Biafran War. The book is interspersed with so many interesting tidbits about various Nigerian-Biafran intellectual and literary figures, the educated classes especially among his ethnic group the Igbo who made up the majority of the population of the short lived Republic of Biafra. I'm currently reading a novel by one of the authors who was a part of Achebe's generation, Flora Nwapa. I learned about other Nigerian literary figures who were a part of Achebe's circle. Chinua Achebe also talks about many social, political and military personages. This book is very rich in information with a lot of lessons that can be learned.

Chinua Achebe is the first African writer I ever read. When I was in graduate school I dated another graduate student from Somalia, and I asked him if he could tell me who were some African writers. I had never read any writers from African before at that time and was ignorant of any despite being an English literature major. He loaned me his copy of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart which is was the author's first novel. In There Was a Country Achebe talks about the task and anxiety of writing and getting published his first book published. Despite being about one of the most brutal civil wars in history, the tone of There Was a Country is surprisingly not as grim and dry as that of Things Fall Apart.

Another nice feature of this work is Chinua Achebe includes his own poems relevant to the story of of Biafra.
Profile Image for Tinea.
563 reviews257 followers
December 4, 2012
Chinua Achebe's "personal history of Biafra" was too little of either personal memoir or history to be what the subject, and the poetry interspersed every few chapters, deserved. A struggle with the artistic side of honesty is evident in the way the book is detached, the way the story is told unevenly, in corrections to the record and didactic opinions and recitation of poorly contextualized political and war maneuvers. Horror and emotion break through a few times, but overall I don't think think this was the book I expected. Maybe it's a form of entitlement as a distanced reader to have wanted more, to have wanted Achebe to face this awful collective trauma and make some honest clear powerful statement to end all statements on liberty and hunger and Biafra? Too many expectations, in all of this. There Was a Country is a sad story. Maybe, after the endless humanitarian histories, and food policy famine studies and punk rock diatribes, that is as close to poetic truth as we can ever get.

Previous note (when this finally came in the library after several months' wait):
So excited to be reading this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! eeee!!!!!
Profile Image for Adeyinka Makinde.
Author 4 books6 followers
October 29, 2012
The importance of the pen, the brush and the voice of the artist as a social critic and as an interpretive lens to focus on the intricacies as well as the banalities of inter-human conflict may or may not carry less weight than they did in distant and not so distant past.

This of course is a question of perspective; but even in the age of the saturation coverage of wars and insurrections by the apparatus of the mass media, the nuanced touches provided by the evocative poet and the erudite writer can give new dimensions of insight into the background, the evolution and the effects of the wars waged by mankind.

Certainly those artists whose works have profoundly captured the imagination and which have been indelibly marked in human memory thus becoming part of the general narrative of historical consciousness have consistently spoken of the inherent baseness of wars: its infliction of mass suffering and its capacity for unleashing the demonic qualities that lie dormant in men.

The destructiveness inherent in war; the anti-thesis of the creative impulse of the artist has frequently cast the artist as being anti-war. But while Pablo Picasso’s monumental Guernica, the depiction of a Nazi air raid on a Basque city during the Spanish Civil War, projects the pacifist’s angst at the evident traumas induced on a wretched and defenceless civilian populace, the role of many an artist has not been confined to one of conscientious neutrality. There are those who have used their talents to extol the virtues of patriotism and the valour inherent in sacrificing self in the cause of the nation. There are those who have taken unambiguous stances for both belligerence and for resistance.

The Nigerian Civil War fought between 1967 and 1970 was a war which engaged a number of figures drawn from the nation’s cultural life. The dramatist and later Nobel Laureate, Wole Soyinka, made efforts geared towards creating what he termed a ‘third force’ for compromise as the fractured nation hurtled inexorably towards a military showdown. He was jailed for his troubles by the military regime of General Yakubu Gowon.

Another figure, one not widely known outside of literary circles, but whose status has grown in succeeding decades, the poet Christopher Okigbo, was not content to remain in civilian life and joined a regiment of the secessionist army of Biafra. He met his death at the age of 37; an ending which inspired the Kenyan academic Ali Mazrui to indict Okigbo for “wasting his talent on a conflict of disputable merit” in his work The Trial of Christopher Okigbo. “No great artist,” he argued, “has a right to carry patriotism to the extent of destroying his creative potential.”

For Chinua Achebe, author of the seminal work Things Fall Apart, the Nigerian Civil War was one in which he had no choice but to involve himself. As he explains in his book There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, the integration of art with the community in traditional African society formed the basis of his war time ambassadorial role in promoting an international awareness of the plight of the short-lived Biafran state which was composed in the main of people of his Igbo ethnicity; a people who had endured a series of pogroms in the lead up to the war.

Achebe was in the vanguard of those artists who although initially absorbed with writing about the effects of colonial society on the African psyche would later become pre-occupied with the events in post-colonial Nigeria, events which took on increasingly dysfunctional turns.

Indeed his fourth novel, the unerringly prescient A Man of the People, ends with a military coup, an event which for the first time took place in Nigeria at the time of the book’s publication and which served as a trigger that would lead to a concatenation of violence: communal massacres, a second army mutiny and finally an armed conflict replete with the brutal instruments and cynical policies of warfare.

It is a war which was widely covered by Western correspondents and produced books by the likes of John De St. Jorre and Frederick Forsyth, who in contrast to De St. Jorre’s attempts at an even-handed approach was an unabashed polemicist for the Biafran cause.

The writers Arthur Nwankwo and Samuel Ifejika also contributed an important book during the war, and later in the re-united Nigeria, as taboos associated with dredging up the past began to relax, a plethora of books authored by former stalwarts of the Biafran military machinery created an industry of memoirs.

Younger generations of Nigerian writers such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie have used the war as a backdrop to their work. Achebe for his part although far from reticent about the ills which continue to plague Nigeria confined expressions of his war time experiences to poetry writings; twelve of which are interspersed at intervals in this his long awaited memoir of his wartime experiences.

The war of course remains a sensitive issue in Nigeria for a great many reasons; the narrative remains a contested one, but in the minds and the hearts of many Igbos who have for long claimed to be marginalised from the centres of power and influence, it signified more than physical and material defeat: It was a wholesale destruction of the spirit; of the post-Independence-era zeitgeist of optimism and aspiration in a society still operating with some semblance of meritocratic values. Defeat represented the extirpation of all that they considered to be morally right and just.

Achebe’s book works around this central thesis: The Igbos were the willing acquirers of Western culture and that the synthesis with their pre-existing cultural mores of what he considers to be their ‘individualism’, democratic ethos and competitive spirit enabled them to supersede other ethnic groups in the British created colonial order. This led to tensions and their subsequent removal from positions of leadership by forcible means which included a strategy of ethnic cleansing.

For Achebe, the importance of the civil war had profound consequences which went further than the territorial borders of Nigeria. It was he argues “a cataclysmic event which changed the course of Africa.”

In his typically direct, uncluttered style Achebe weaves a compelling literary reportage of roots which were embedded in an ancient society existing within a colonially imposed order and how that cultural dialectic shaped him and the wider destiny of his people within the multi-cultural potpourri of the conglomerate state of Nigeria.

The dramatis personae of the era, their backgrounds their motivations and his critique of their respective roles at this most critical of periods are laid out: The rival colonels Yakubu Gowon and Odumegwu-Ojukwu; the leader of the Yorubas, Obafemi Awolowo, as well as key military and political figures on the Nigerian and the Biafran sides.

Achebe also considers the role of the wider world in a conflict which in his view was influenced foremost by the necessities of realpolitik and not by the objective application of moral standards.

But for all the moral weight behind it and sympathy that the plight of the Igbos engendered, one of the key criticisms of the Biafran enterprise was that its leaders did not provide a clear and distinct idea platform to serve as a template for the rest of Nigeria and the African continent other than one which was dominated by a tribal group seeking self-determination.

The Nigerian Civil War has been typically viewed as one permeated by the ultimate reality of naked tribal interests in conflict and not as a battle of ideas. Achebe attempts to redress this by addressing the motivation behind the Ahiarra Declaration of 1969 which he describes as an attempt aimed at expressing the “intellectual foundation” of the new nation of Biafra.

The effect of the declaration on world opinion at the time was limited and in certain quarters, it was derided as an ill-sorted hodge-podge of ideas and intentions. But the task of evolving a fundamental core of ideas and precepts aimed at transforming an ex-colonial, multi-clan group into a self-constructed modern nation deserves the sort of considered attention Achebe’s book is not able to fully explore.

Granted, Achebe’s explorations do take account some of the philosophical and cosmological constructs of the pre-colonial Igbo and the effect these have had on the Igbo psyche in the modern world. But a consideration of the efficacy of Igbo nationalism and the collective identity of the people must acknowledge to a greater degree the historical record.

From the Igbo-Biafran perspective there have been few if any truly introspective works which have considered the viability of a Biafran state from the point of view of the historical reality that there was never a united Igbo nation which operated as a cohesive national entity. A study of the period before colonial conquest reveals not a united kingdom of Biafra but an aggregate of disparate villages and hamlets whose communities became steeped in the conduct of the brutal trans-Atlantic slave trade.

The argument that by the dawn of the colonial era, the Igbos had not evolved to a feudal level of social organisation and developed attendant indigenous institutions of governance, akin to say to that of the neighbouring Edo people, may of course be met with a riposte that the social organisation practised by many Igbo communities manifested a form of ‘republicanism’ and ‘individualism.’

But whatever the interpretation given to the underlying nature of the relative sophistication of these descriptions, the reality was that tensions arose during the civil war between Igbo-Biafrans based on their places of origin as indeed they did with the non-Igbo minorities within the borders of the former Nigerian Eastern Region without whose acquiescence the Biafran project was doomed to fail.

The unity of the Igbos based on their collective fortune as a successful people in the post-colonial order as well as their ill-fortune through the trauma of pogroms and abuse, understandably provided the strong, emotionally grounded impetus to create a separate nation. Nationalism, a concept that is inherently grounded in the practice of self-invention, can be a force for self-transformation. But while emotion may serve as an excellent form of petrol, it is, in the final analysis, a poor engine.

That said, Achebe has produced an extremely readable personal history in which he provides a masterful series of vignettes that greatly sensitize the reader to the struggles, the triumphs and the tragedy of the artist and his people during an era of rapid change and great turbulence.

Adeyinka Makinde is the author DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal, the story of a Nigerian world champion boxer of Igbo ethnicity who became embroiled in the Biafran War. His latest book is JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.
Profile Image for Marcy.
601 reviews36 followers
August 8, 2013
There was a country named Nigeria. For a time its people were a "beautiful cultural mosaic of traditions and dialects." Although Chinua Achebe does not condone colonialism, he can't forget his exemplary high school and secondary school education that was offered to him under British rule. Achebe, along with many other Eastern Igbo people, became Nigeria's intellectuals, for these legendary British schools produced respected and renowned African professors, leaders of finance, health and government.

Chinua Achebe became a writer, who has lived a writer's life throughout his life. Achebe, through his writing, both in his books and poems, speaks for Nigeria's history, his history. The peace of Nigeria under British rule, which Achebe claims was orderly, disintegrated when the Nigeria became independent. There were ethnic power struggles. The Igbo, the most intellectual of all of Nigeria's groups, (having the highest literacy rate, and grabbing the colonizers' opportunities for a good education), were the leaders of Nigeria. As a result, jealousy ensued, and because of "ethnic bigotry" and "tribal small-mindedness," Nigeria turned into a "toxic environment." The Igbos were kicked out of the best jobs in Lagos to make way for less qualified individuals. Chinua Achebe was one of those forced out of Lagos. (I find it interesting that Achebe likened the Igbo people to the Jews).

The Hausa/Fulani people of the North, where the government resided, massacred over 30,000 Igbos. One million Igbo refugees returned home to the east of Nigeria. The Nigerian government failed to bring the "culprits of mass murders" to justice. Secession was the only viable path for the eastern section of Nigeria. "We concluded that a government that failed to safeguard the lives of its citizens has no claim to their allegiance and must be ready to accept that the victims deserve the right to seek their safety in other ways - including secession." Thus the Republic of Biafra was established and Nigerian/Biafran war began.

Suffering, destitution, and the starvation of Biafrans ensued. The great powers of various countries backed whatever side that would give them the most natural resources and power. At one point, the Biafrans were walking in the army one behind the other, in order to share guns. As Benin and Asaba were overtaken by the Northern army, and Calaba was purged of its Igbo inhabitants, Achebe made reference to the Jews once again.

Achebe and his family were refugees, fleeing from one war-torn area to another. They left their belongings in their car to speed away when necessary. Chinua Achebe was welcomed into many substantial homes. Most refugees fled the war for camps in tented villages - no electricity, no water...

The intellectuals among the Igbo began to write about their experiences. A Black Renaissance began to take place, where African intellectuals recast Africa's and the Africans' image through the written word to celebrate and elevate the African culture. There was a Country is a textbook/novel in that Chinua Achebe speaks on behalf of Biafra's tragedy. The chapters are brilliantly written, interspersed with poetry.

During the Biafran War, Achebe was assigned to become a world traveler, bringing word of the pain his fellow citizens were suffering to various countries, in order to receive aid and understanding. When back in his homeland, Achebe, along with Nigeria's most famous poet and one of Achebe's best friends, Christopher Okigbo, started a publishing company and developed literature for children, taking older legends, and "imbedding the Biafran story" into them. Christopher Okigbo died, a soldier, fighting for the freedom of Biafra.

Achebe writes of the Biafran War: "One of the saddest images of the war was not just the dead and the physically wounded but also the mentally scarred, the so-called made men and women who had been psychologically devastated by the anguish and myriad pressures of war. They could often be seen walking seemingly aimlessly on the roads in tattered clothes, in conversation with themselves."

While I learned the facts about Nigeria's history, I also felt the events through Chinua Achebe's experiences. He tells his story, Biafra's story, with eloquence. As one of the best critical thinkers of his time, Chinua Achebe has written what I believe to be a classic, now, and in many years to come. Through his written word, I will never be able to let go of Nigeria's history. Independence always comes with a price...

Profile Image for T P Kennedy.
814 reviews5 followers
August 10, 2013
I found this disappointing. I had high expectations of anything written by Achebe. Unfortunately, this book falls between two stools. There are some very interesting passages where he describes his and his family's experiences during the Biafran War. There's not enough of these. The rest of the book is a description of the war from the Igbo perspective. It's an odd marriage of politics and biography and a marriage that doesn't really work. "Half of a Yellow Sun" is a more gripping account of this historical period. Still Achebe was a genius and he's entitled to one lapse.
Profile Image for iain meek.
179 reviews4 followers
July 25, 2013
History that I never knew anything about- the Biafran/ Nigerian war from 1966.

A good writer and poet covers the war from the viewpoint of a senior activist from the breakaway Biafran side. Sadly the Biafran Republic was gone by 1970 with millions dead from starvation due to the Nigerian policy of blockading the coast and preventing supplies. According to the writer, the British government policy was to back the Nigerian aim of preventing the breakaway.

Very sad.
Profile Image for D.
495 reviews2 followers
October 23, 2016
Great recap of life in Nigeria in the '60s.

Igbo proverb tells us that a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.

Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party. It was one of the most populous regions on the African continent, with over 250 ethnic groups and distinct languages.

Britain's indirect rule was a great success in northern and western Nigeria. Indirect rule in Igbo land proved far more challenging to implement.

Africa's postcolonial disposition is the result of a people who have lost the habit of ruling themselves. We have also had difficulty running the new systems foisted upon us at the dawn of independence by our 'colonial masters.'

My parents were among the first of their people to successfully integrate traditional values with the education and new religion brought by the Europeans. It is from these two outstanding and courageous individuals that my 5 siblings - Frank, Zinobia, John, Augustine, and Grace - and I got our deep love for education and the pursuit of knowledge.

Children's books: How the Leopard Got His Claws, Chike and the River, The Drum: A Children's Story, and The Flute.

In Igbo cosmology there are many gods. A person could be in good stead with one god and not the other -- ogwugwu could kill a person despite an excellent relationship with udo. Igbo sayings and proverbs are far more valuable to me as a human being in understanding the complexity of the world than the doctrinaire, self-righteous strain of the Christian faith I was taught. The other religion is also far more artistically satisfying to me.

I struggled with the certitude of Christianity - "I am the Way, the Truth and Life" - not its accuracy, because as a writer one understands that there should be such latitude, but the desolation, the acerbity of its meaning, the lack of options for the outsider, the other. Many writers, from Du Bois to Camus, Sartre and Baldwin to Morrison, have also struggled with this conundrum of the outsider, the other, in other ways, in their respective locales.

I began my formal education at St. Philip's Central School, in 1936 or thereabout.

There was a culture of meritocracy and a very high quality of instruction at Umahia.

My professors were excellent people and excellent teachers, but they were not always the ones I needed. James Welch said to me, "We may not be able to teach you what you need or what you want. We can only teach you what we know."

People from different parts of the world can respond to the same story if it says something to them about their own history and their own experience.

The West African Pilot because the nurturing ground for top journalistic and future political talent.

The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care.

Within 6 years of this tragic colonial manipulation around Nigerian independence, Nigeria was a cesspool of corruption and misrule. Public servants helped themselves freely to the nation's wealth. Elections were blatantly rigged.

By "writing back" to the West we were attempting to reshape the dialogue between the colonized and the colonizer. We were clearly engaged in what Ode Ogede aptly refers to as "the politics of representation."

Christopher Okigbo believed, as I do, that art and community in Africa are clearly linked. African art as we understand it has not been distilled or purified and refined to the point where it has lost all traces of real life, lost the vitality of the street, like art from some advanced societies and academic art tend to be. In Africa the tendency is to keep art involved with the people.

The practice of mbari, the Igbo concept of "art as celebration." Ordinary people must be brought in; a conscious effort must be made to bring the life of the village or town into this art. The Igbo culture says no condition is permanent. There is constant change in the world. Foreign visitors who had not been encountered up to that time are brought in as well, to illustrate the dynamic nature of life.

In a novel such as Amos Tutuola's The Palm-Wine Drinkard, you can see this vitality put to work on the written page. There is no attempt to draw a line between what is permissible and what is not, what is possible and what is not, what is new and what is old. Everything plays a part.

We established the Society of Nigerian Authors (SONA) in the mid 1960s as an attempt to put our writers in a firm and dynamic frame. It was sort of a trade union.

Words have the power to hurt, even to denigrate and oppress others. There is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless.

The reality of today, different as it is from the reality of my society 100 years ago, is and can be important if we have the energy and the inclination to challenge it, to go out and engage with its peculiarities, with the things that we do not understand. The real danger is the tendency to retreat into the obvious, the tendency to be frightened by the richness of the world and to clutch what we always have understood.

The Igbo believe that art, religion, everything, the whole of life are embodied in the art of the masquerade. It is dynamic. It is not allowed to remain stationary. There's no undue respect for what the last generation did, because if you do that too much it means that there is no need for me to do anything, because it's already been done.

I found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that Nigeria was disintegrating...

I was one of the last to flee Lagos. My feeling toward Nigeria was one of profound disappointment.

The rise of the Igbo in Nigerian affairs was due to the self-confidence engendered by their open society and their belief that one man is as good as another, that no condition is permanent.

The denial of merit is a form of social injustice that can hurt not only the individuals directly concerned but ultimately the entire society.

The war came as a surprise to the vast majority of artists and intellectuals on both sides of the conflict. We had not realized just how fragile, even weak, Nigeria was as a nation.

The literary harvest from Africa today owes a great debt to female African intellectual forerunners. These griots, orators and later writers played an indispensable role in recording, molding, and transmitting the African story.

Five years before the war, in 1962, Flora Nwapa informed me that she was working on a manuscript to be called Efuru. It was a monumental event when published in 1966, on the eve of the war, as it was, as far as I could tell, the first novel published by a Nigerian woman.

In 2011, Nigeria was ranked 14 in the Failed States Index, just below other "havens of stability" - Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq. Economic deprivation and corruption produce and exacerbate financial and social inequities in a population, which in turn fuel political instability. Within this environment, extremists of all kinds - particularly religious zealots and other political mischief makers - find a foothold to recruit supporters and sympathizers to help them launch terrorist attacks and wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Over 800 deaths, mainly in Northern Nigeria, have been attributed to the militant Islamist sect Boko Haram, since its formation in 2002. The group's ultimate goal, we are told, is to "overthrow the Nigerian government and create an Islamic state."

Many pundits see a direct link between crude oil and the corruption in Nigeria, In a country such as Nigeria, where there are no easy fixes, one must examine the issue of accountability, which has to be a strong component of the fight against corruption.
30 reviews
March 29, 2021
I was not aware of some of the atrocities committed by both sides of this civil war. I was also unaware of the international response to the Biafran War, Achebe's claim that it was the first properly televised war is striking and it is interesting to see which communities related with the Biafran struggle (Haiti, American Civil Rights leaders etc).

The post colonial struggle for power in Nigeria is a sad and common example of how foreign super powers arm opportunistic, egomaniacal despots in their war games. You can point to singular events here and there that triggered the war or you can point to historical forces but at the end of the day if a situation can be exploited then best believe someone will exploit it. An abundance of natural resources and statesmen trained in the British art of war was enough to send a young Nigeria into a race war, the effects of which are still being felt today.
Profile Image for Molebatsi.
125 reviews2 followers
March 29, 2018
Chinua Achebe eventually breaks his silence on the tragedy that was Biafra War that claimed many lives and left the nation scarred. Achebe was deeply involved in the war effort. He provides a personal touch to the history of this sorry chapter in the history of Nigeria.
I enjoyed the book greatly. It gives an insght on the war and how it unfolded, including its ramifications to this day. Most importantly for me, it is beautifully written.
Profile Image for Tim Roast.
735 reviews13 followers
November 17, 2015
Chinua Achebe has been given the accolade "the father of modern African writing" and very few critics can dispute this fact.

I have over the years read numerous works by Achebe the `master story teller' and to date, Things Fall Apart remains my favourite - this novel depicted the life of an `Igbo Man' called Okonkwo. Okonkwo was a tragic leader and a die-hard African traditionalist with a firm conviction in the destiny of his people, yet he was a man who failed to accept the inevitable changes in his world. The book ended with Okonkwo finding totally unacceptable the influence of British colonialism and Christian missionaries on his Igbo community, culminating in his unfortunate suicide. Conflicts between modern societal beliefs and Igbo traditionalism continue to exist.

Achebe's book `There was a country - A personal History of Biafra' will not disappoint his numerous fans - it is is in my opinion a beautifully written account of his personal experiences of the Biafran War. He takes us on a journey of his early life in Nigeria. He speaks candidly about his personal experiences and discusses the principal actors and major players at the time.

The book in itself is a lament on the failure of a giant that never was; Achebe mourns Nigeria's failures, the greatest and most devastating of which in his opinion was Biafra; a nation and a vision that did not come into fruition.

Achebe being Achebe is brilliant in interweaving his narration with proverbs and idioms. He got straight into the act right from in the `Introduction' using the well known Igbo proverb - `A man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body'. He then set out his stall by saying that the `rain' or to put it concisely `the problem' of Africa started four to five hundred years ago by the `discovery' of Africa by Europe through the transatlantic slave trade; to the Berlin Conference of 1885 which precipitated the `Scramble for Africa''. The colonisation that ensued created artificial boundaries leading to tension-prone modern states due to the merging of people from diverse ethnicities and tribes with little or nothing in common. The plethora of nations created were without a doubt dysfunctional, recipes for disaster, catalysts for chaos, anarchy and ticking time bombs.

Part one of the book deals with Professor Achebe's family life, Part 2 and 3 provide an insight into the Biafran war and Part 4 is an analysis of Nigeria's present situation which profoundly illustrates that the country is tethering on the brink as it is currently saddled with the burden of "corruption, tribalism, nepotism and political ineptitude."

Achebe however does not conclude that the game is over but challenges Nigerians to throw down the shackles and embrace the spirit of change.

I strongly recommend this book and give it a Five Star rating.

- Chuka
Profile Image for April Helms.
986 reviews6 followers
November 4, 2012
I admit I never heard of Achebe until I came across this book; I think it was one that was sent to the office. Also, save for a short fictional story I had read in Gods and Soldiers, I was unfamiliar with the Biafra and Nigerian war. Achebe relates his own account of his time growing up under British-controlled Nigeria, to the British leaving and, essentially, chaos slowly taking hold. The new government, says Achebe, started to discriminate heavily against the Igbo people, of which Achebe is a part of. As a result, they attempted to split off from Nigeria and formed their own short-lived country Biafra. This started what in essence was a civil war, the repercussions of which are still felt. It's very sad, and it just makes me thankful that, when the colonies here rebelled against the British we had the leadership we did. So many revolutions fail because, alas, there are more Idi Amins and Mugabes then Nelson Mandelas. Achebe laments the lost potential, the lost resources, the lost human capital, and the brutal blockades that resulted in the deaths of millions, mostly children and mostly from starvation. He includes several of his poems, a copy of the most moving one, Mother in a Refugee Camp, can be found here: http://ghpoetryplace.blogspot.com/201... That one really got to me. Wow. It is hardly an unbiased account, but then it is not meant to be. It is a thoughtful, nuanced and researched account. All in all, an excellent read. I might have to check out his other writings.
Profile Image for Kristen.
139 reviews7 followers
October 24, 2012
I had heard about this war, but I was completely ignorant about what it was about and what took place. I was most disturbed that in none of my history classes growing up, did I learn about this war or that a genocide of 20% of the population occurred. Very disappointing. Most of the time I feel blessed to be an American citizen, but reading this book was not one of those times. It's not that I have the opinion that we should have been heavily involved---but rather, I think a country such as America should at the very least acknowledge human rights violations, teach about the world's tragic wars to its children---etc.

Achebe is not taking the U.S. to task more than anyone else in the book---it's not a bashing on other countries, although he does wish people would have spoken out more on the biafrans' behalf. The book is a wonderful memoir of his life and involvement with and survival of the civil war. He includes war poetry throughout that is beautiful and tragic.

It took him 40 years to write about this. I give him a standing ovation.
763 reviews83 followers
July 29, 2013
There was a country, indeed there were many countries that were born again from the release of the colonial yolk. I say again because for many these places were countries before the invasion of foreign powers. What can be said about a book like this? Three million lives were lost, mostly children, and what has come from the deaths of these innocents? Biafra is a name of a place barely spoken of today. For those familiar with Chinua Achebe whom lived through this we are still reeling from his death. Reading this book of a time not so long ago you are left reeling even more. But that he is no longer on this earthly existence to highlight again and again the atrocities made in the world and to speak of them when they are no longer spoken of. Amazing it is, the book, though the subject, it is remains one of the undeclared holocausts during the Age of Man.
Profile Image for Remi.
117 reviews5 followers
February 23, 2013
Reading this book was reading my parents' history. I feel like I know so much more about them now, and about MY history and culture. The moment I learned about this book, I had no choice but to buy it as soon as possible. I could've easily read about this in a history book or textbook, but to read about it from someone who experienced it was so much fuller, in depth. Maybe I'm biased, but I felt that Achebe still managed to be fair and equally critical to both sides of this conflict, though there is never any doubt who the victims and who the perpetrators are...as well as who the enablers are. I will treasure this book for the rest of my days. If I have children, I will insist on them reading it. In fact, I'll make sure all of my cousins and siblings know about this book as well.
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302 reviews2 followers
August 28, 2020
This was a very informative and personal account of the Nigeria-Biafra war (Nigerian civil war). It is an event I knew nothing of. The writing may have seemed dry in parts had I not listened to it, the narration was excellently done.

Achebe points out how colonizing whites talked (talk?) of Africa and Africans as if they have no past and no culture, simply because they did not (do not?) recognise the past and culture of Africa.
Great Britain rigged the first election in Nigeria in an effort to protect British interests in the region. This destabilized Nigeria, and about 15 years later Britain lost those interests anyway.
The labeling of a series of events or a war as genocide has less to do with the events and more to do with global politics. 2 million Igbo were killed/starved in 30 months and it is referred to as a civil war, not a genocide because African countries were being used as cold war pawns.
In chapter 100 Achebe shares thoughts on mediocrity and how it leads to social loafing.
Throughout the book Achebe seeks to insert art and discuss the place of art and creativity in life.
Africa is far more complex than the West gives it credit for and the West is still a source of problems for Africa and Africans.
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