There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra

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by Chinua Achebe
     
 

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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

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Overview

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, bothas 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Foreign Policy Must Read 2012" by Books from Global Thinkers

“Chinua Achebe’s history of Biafra is a meditation on the condition of freedom. It has the tense narrative grip of the best fiction. It is also a revelatory entry into the intimate character of the writer’s brilliant mind and bold spirit. Achebe has created here a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of story-telling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one. The event of a new work by Chinua Achebe is always extraordinary; this one exceeds all expectation.”—Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

“A fascinating and gripping memoir.” —The Wall Street Journal

There Was a Country ought to be essential reading…an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes.”—Financial Times

“Achebe writes in a characteristically modest fashion…Like much of Achebe’s other work, this book about the progress of war and the presence of violence has a universal quality. In a world where sectarian hatreds augmented by political mediocrity have fractured Syria and threaten to bring Israel and Iran to blows, There Was a Country is a valuable account of how the suffering caused by war is both unnecessary and formative.”—Newsweek

"Memoir and history are brought together by a master storyteller."
The Guardian

Publishers Weekly
Achebe's reminiscences of Biafra, a country whichthat spent the entirety of its brief existence, from 1967 to 1970, in civil war with Nigeria, result in an uneasy mix of history and memoir. After an insightful, masterful account of his education, his attention wavers between the individual and the international without settling on a steady tone. Readers will find his legendary gift with imagery in several poems, as well as in details such as Biafran citizens being warned against wearing the colorful clothing most visible to Nigerian bombers, a brilliantly selected example of war's reach into the previously mundane. But the narrative as a whole never coalesces, and after Biafra declares independence it keeps swinging abruptly between the trivial and the heart-stopping: Achebe never unpacks; he tries to stay alive; his wife employs men to redecorate. Nagging questions remain at the end about his stance towards the conflict, during which he served as cultural ambassador for Biafra, while a closing call for "patriotic consciousness" to overcome Nigeria's current problems fails to convince. Only in a concluding poem does Achebe put his finger on the main theme of this stubbornly loyal celebration of unfulfilled possibility: "haunted revelry." Agent: Andrew Wylie, The Wylie Agency. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Shortly after gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria was subject to a military coup and countercoup that resulted in the massacre of thousands of Igbo citizens. Fleeing to the east, the Igbo proclaimed the eastern region of the country the independent Republic of Biafra. The ensuing civil war ended in 1970 with Biafra's defeat. Achebe (Things Fall Apart) lends his voice to this bloody period in Nigeria's history through a blend of insightful political analysis, history, and memoir, interspersed with his poetry. Because of his prominence as an author and intellectual, Achebe was an integral part of the Biafran government, serving as a cultural ambassador. Yet he was also an Igbo trying to make sense of the brutality and keep his family safe. Achebe's personal stake in the Biafran war makes his account more than just a standard historical retelling. His writing reveals his love and sorrow for his people and his hope for Nigeria's future. VERDICT Achebe's book will appeal to scholars of Africa, but its reach will extend to all readers interested in learning more about the author's life and the life of his country.—Veronica Arellano Douglas, St. Mary's Coll. of Maryland Lib., St. Mary's City
Kirkus Reviews
The eminent Nigerian author recounts his coming-of-age during the now scarcely remembered civil war of 1967–1970 that sundered his country. An Igbo by birth and heritage, born into a deeply Christian family in 1930, Achebe (The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays, 2009, etc.) grew up at a time when British colonial rule was at its orderly zenith and educational institutions in Nigeria were first-rate. These schools turned out the imminent Nigerian leaders and pioneers of modern African literature, who would assume power and position as Nigeria marched to independence in 1960. Yet within the vacuum left by the departing British, Nigeria became "a cesspool of corruption and misrule," with the numerous ethnic groups vying for power, especially the dominant Igbo in the east, the Yoruba on the coast, and Hausa/Fulani in the north. The Igbo were increasingly resented and persecuted for their education, competitive individualism and industriousness. The coup of Jan. 15, 1966 was ostensibly led by Igbo military leaders and was countered by bloody assassinations six months later, followed by pogroms against the Igbo by northerners. Igbo refugees flooded the Eastern Region, which refused to recognize the Nigerian government led by Lt. Col. Yakubu Gowon; the consensus was building across the East, led by Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu, that "secession was the only viable path." The East was declared the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967, with the full backing of the Constituent Assembly and the best Igbo minds of the time, including Achebe. The arrangement proved disastrous, as Gowon aimed to crush the insurrection at all costs, starving Biafra by blockade and creating a global humanitarian disaster that killed an estimated 3 million, mostly children. Achebe looks at all sides of the conflict, inserting poems he wrote at the time and tributes to Nigerian writers and intellectuals. A powerful memoir/document of a terrible conflict and its toll on the people who endured it.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780143124030
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
09/24/2013
Pages:
352
Sales rank:
298,117
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

An 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.

The rain that beat Africa began four to five hundred years ago, from the “discovery” of Africa by Europe, through the transatlantic slave trade to the Berlin Conference of 1885. That controversial gathering of the world’s leading European powers precipitated what we now call the Scramble for Africa, which created new boundaries that did violence to Africa’s ancient societies and resulted in tension-prone modern states. It took place without African consultation or representation, to say the least.

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. The northern part of the country was the seat of several ancient kingdoms, such as the Kanem-Bornu—which Usman dan Fodio and his jihadists absorbed into the Muslim Fulani Empire. The Middle Belt of Nigeria was the locus of the glorious Nok Kingdom and its world-renowned terra-cotta sculptures. The southern protectorate was home to some of the region’s most sophisticated civilizations. In the west, the Oyo and Ife kingdoms once flourished majestically, and in the midwest the incomparable Benin Kingdom elevated artistic distinction to a new level. Across the Niger River in the East, the Calabar and the Nri kingdoms flourished. If the Berlin Conference sealed her fate, then the amalgamation of the southern and northern protectorates inextricably complicated Nigeria’s destiny. Animists, Muslims, and Christians alike were held together by a delicate, some say artificial, lattice.

Britain’s indirect rule was a great success in northern and western Nigeria, where affairs of state within this new dispensation continued as had been the case for centuries, with one exception—there was a new sovereign, Great Britain, to whom all vassals pledged fealty and into whose coffers all taxes were paid. Indirect rule in Igbo land proved far more challenging to implement. Colonial rule functioned through a newly created and incongruous establishment of “warrant chiefs”—a deeply flawed arrangement that effectively confused and corrupted the Igbo democratic spirit.

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.” Because the West has had a long but uneven engagement with the continent, it is imperative that it understands what happened to Africa. It must also play a part in the solution. A meaningful solution will require the goodwill and concerted efforts on the part of all those who share the weight of Africa’s historical burden.

Most members of my generation, who were born before Nigeria’s independence, remember a time when things were very different. Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal—natural resources, yes, but even more so, human resources. But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.

It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
"Foreign Policy Must Read 2012" by Books from Global Thinkers

“Chinua Achebe’s history of Biafra is a meditation on the condition of freedom. It has the tense narrative grip of the best fiction. It is also a revelatory entry into the intimate character of the writer’s brilliant mind and bold spirit. Achebe has created here a new genre of literature in which politico-historical evidence, the power of story-telling, and revelations from the depths of the human subconscious are one. The event of a new work by Chinua Achebe is always extraordinary; this one exceeds all expectation.”—Nadine Gordimer, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature

“A fascinating and gripping memoir.” —The Wall Street Journal

There Was a Country ought to be essential reading…an eclectic range of insights and fascinating anecdotes.”—Financial Times

“Achebe writes in a characteristically modest fashion…Like much of Achebe’s other work, this book about the progress of war and the presence of violence has a universal quality. In a world where sectarian hatreds augmented by political mediocrity have fractured Syria and threaten to bring Israel and Iran to blows, There Was a Country is a valuable account of how the suffering caused by war is both unnecessary and formative.”—Newsweek

"Memoir and history are brought together by a master storyteller."
The Guardian

 

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Meet the Author

Chinua Achebe was born in Nigeria in 1930. He has published novels, short stories, essays, and children’s books. His volume of poetry Christmas in Biafra was the joint winner of the first Commonwealth Poetry Prize. Of his novels, Arrow of God won the New Statesman-Jock Campbell Award, and Anthills of the Savannah was a finalist for the 1987 Booker Prize. Things Fall Apart, Achebe’s masterpiece, has been published in fifty different languages and has sold more than ten million copies internationally since its first publication in 1958. Achebe is the recipient of the Nigerian National Merit Award, Nigeria’s highest award for intellectual achievement. In 2007, he won the Man Booker International Prize. He died in March 2013.

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There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Omotola More than 1 year ago
Chinua Achebe is a master story teller, he has written this one masterfully , his writing is so smooth you won't realize when you finish this good book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
When I was a child, things happened. Nobody explained these important landmarks of that time as current events and now no-one has taken time to write a historical sequences of events as detailed and chronicled in Chinua Achebe's "THERE WAS A COUNTRY". I invite every Nigerian, born, adopted and befriended to READ THIS BOOK AND LEARN. Excellent must read book for this summer. Stella Erondu
Zizi02 More than 1 year ago
The book arrived on time. I wasn't disappointed. Thanks Barnes&Noble :) This is a controversial book that gives an insight on the civil war that broke out in Nigeria. A tell-it-all from the author's perspective.
chiaka More than 1 year ago
Another one from the master himself. 5