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Chinua Achebe’s Memoir ‘There Was a Country’ Bookends His Long Literary Career

Chinua Achebe‘s famous first novel, Things Fall Apart, conspicuously borrows from Yeats. The memoir with which he bookends his long career, There Was a Country, is a far more literal explanation of what happens when “the center cannot hold.”

The titular country of Achebe’s latest book is Biafra, a breakaway republic founded in 1967 in southeastern Nigeria. Just a few years after independence, waves of violent pogroms against members of the Igbo tribe forced millions back to safety in their historic homelands. Declaring the Nigerian social compact irreparably broken, they opted to secede.

The nasty civil war between the central government and the rogue state endured until 1970, when Biafra failed spectacularly. I mean this literally: Biafra was one of the first international conflicts to gain a global media and television audience. Richard Nixon weighed in on the humanitarian disaster. The trope of the “starving African” was born of LIFE magazine photos of Biafran children suffering from the effects of the Nigerian military’s blockades.

The preferred timeline for Nigerian postcolonial history tends to zoom from independence in 1960 to military dictatorship in 1984 back to democracy in 1999. But many non-Nigerians have forgotten or never knew about the civil war. And few Nigerians wish to dwell on the miserable conflict that eliminated 20 percent of the Biafran population, with no lasting institutions to show for it.

Achebe revisits the spectacle as testimony—the book reads like an affidavit cloaked as personal memoir. After giving a brief synopsis of his childhood and ascent to authorship in the late 1950s, Achebe deals strictly with the thirty-month siege in Biafra, neatly fast-forwarding through the back half of the twentieth century during which he was Nigeria’s most celebrated writer.

It’s an odd decision—readers expecting a juicy literary memoir will be disappointed—but Achebe is a credible guide. His account empathizes with Emeka Ojukwu, the Biafran foil to Nigerian President Yakubu Gowon, and illuminates the humanitarian debates, military strategies, and slippery allegiances among senior Igbo officials. As an informal ambassador for Biafra, he maintained a surprising proximity to the leading generals and politicians of the age. One particularly delicious scene has him waiting for days in a Dakar hotel for an audience with Leopold Senghor, the president of Senegal and a great francophone poet. When Senghor realizes he is detaining a fellow scribe, he invites Achebe in—for a discussion that is fruitful intellectually but disappointing for Biafra, which Senghor declined to formally recognize.

The book is at its best when the details are personal: the story of the last time Achebe saw slain poet Christopher Okigbo; his account of cowering overnight in a car emptied of petrol; the tale of trusting his first and only draft of Things Fall Apart to the Royal Mail service. His own free verse poetry is interspersed with the text. But still Achebe would rather talk politics…

Read more: Dayo Olopade, The New Republic

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4 thoughts on “Chinua Achebe’s Memoir ‘There Was a Country’ Bookends His Long Literary Career

  1. I cant wait to get a copy of this text that has been a subject matter in every nooks and crannies of Lagos State.

  2. Blessed Orji says:

    looking forward to reading about this great country.

  3. Achebe, a literary behemoth as far as Nigerian history is concerned.I can't wait to grab my copy of this much talked about memoir. I need to be enlightened on how Gowon and his evil genius dehumanised the people of Biafra. If only we had succeeded, Biafra would have been with any iota of doubt a better country than this corruption-ridden country that claims to be "one Nigeria", of course, we all know it is fallacy.Think I buy the idea of another motion for secession because that is the only way we in this part of the country can get things right.Now or later, Nigeria must surely break-up for the purpose of peace and even development. What are the achievements we have had since the inception of this country?
    No amount of security personnel can make a country crime free when about 70% of the supposedly labour class(force) are either unemployed or underemployed.
    Now, Nigeria has automatically turned into a capitalist economy with the sale of most of her companies, I believe we all know Karl Marx's view on capitalism(the rich will continue to get richer while the prolectorates will continue to get poorer). What is position of the Nigerian youth in the governance of this entity called Nigeria? Those criminals who told us that"the youths are the leaders of tomorrow" forty years ago are still the ones ruling us today. They still repeat this sentence till date knowing fully well that they are fooling(deceiving) themselves. What still keeps us striving in this country is the "religious faith" we all possess is what is giving us the hopeless hope that we are having. Sincerely speaking, the reality on ground states "there is no hope".The rich should continue to loot while the masses will continue to watch or listen to their heroic looting on pages of dailies or on national tv. As Comrade Edema, my coursemate always clamour for revolution.Revolution is the only way-out!

  4. I look forward to hear more about this our great country.

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