"There Was a Country": Chinua Achebe's Memoir of War

Steve Pyke / Courtesy of the New Yorker-Contour by Getty Images

I met Chinua Achebe for the first time when I was in high school, but I knew him through his works long before that. "Uncle," as my siblings and I were told to call him, came to our house in Washington, D.C., for a teatime reception my mother had organized. She had just co-written a biography of him for children, inspired in part by my lament that there were few books about the lives of famous Africans. It was hard to reconcile the taciturn, elderly, black-beret-wearing gentleman in his wheelchair beneath the bougainvillea with the unapologetic in-your-face voice of Africa I had imagined while reading his seminal work, Things Fall Apart, or the determinedly angry man I had pictured working through the arguments of his ever-relevant 1982 essays, The Trouble With Nigeria. The man who sat in our living room reminiscing with my father—who remarked to my best friend's mother when she apologized for presenting a dog-eared copy of Things Fall Apart for him to sign, "Well I know that you have truly read the book!"—was unassuming, not substance over style, but substance as style.

It is perhaps for this reason that Achebe's works have become the foundational texts for much of African literature and his person a role model for many Africans, writers and nonwriters alike. Things Fall Apart, his first and most influential novel has sold more than 12 million copies since it was published in 1958. It is a staple in any course on the modern English-language novel, and has even inspired an eponymous hip-hop album by the The Roots. His essay on Conrad's Heart of Darkness has so profoundly shaped the way Conrad is read that the two texts are now taught alongside each other. Achebe's refusal twice to accept Nigeria's National Honors on the grounds that many of the problems with governance he illuminated in The Trouble With Nigeria remain unsolved, has only solidified his reputation as a man of ultimate principle. But the cultural, historical, and personal antecedents of this "Teacher of Light" have largely remained the focus of postcolonial theorists who have often rendered the world's most accessible author inaccessible.

It seems fitting, then, that Achebe who turns 82 this November, would attempt to offer himself to us in his new memoir, There Was a Country. The book has all the elements of an author's journey through his own life. There is the story of how his orphaned father's conversion to Christianity set the stage for Achebe's education and love of reading; how his own personal early experiences with both traditional religion and Christianity created internal conflicts that form the subject matter of his early novels; how he bounced from studying medicine to English, into a career at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corp., and through that into the arms of Christie Okoli, his wife for the last 56 years. But this narrative stops short, as if Achebe partially subscribes to the thinking of Toni Morrison, who famously canceled a memoir, saying, "There is a point at which your life is not interesting, at least to me." For Achebe it appears that his life is only interesting within the context of the Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Nigeria-Biafra War) of 1967–70, which claimed up to 3 million lives, most of them from the Igbo ethnic group of which Achebe and I are both members. This war began after the mass slaughter of Igbos in northern Nigeria inspired the flamboyant Oxford-educated Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu to declare an independent state in the Igbo-dominated southeast, and inspired many to humanitarian action, even as it became a proxy battleground for corporate and Cold War interests.

Forty years on, it is impossible not to see the impact of that civil war. For many Igbos, the impact is still very personal. Both of my grandmothers can only shake their heads and repeat "It was so terrible" when asked about that time in their lives. As does Achebe in There Was a Country, my grandfather can recount numerous near brushes with death at the hands of often-ruthless Nigerian fighter and bomber pilots. My mother and father speak vividly of the initial excitement following Ojukwu's declaration of Biafran independence followed by fear, deprivation, and eventually an absolute weariness as the conflict dragged on. For the children and grandchildren of Igbos who lived through the war, these stories of trauma have left an indelible impression that underlies a certain mistrust of Nigeria's attempt at national unity. Equally devastating is the war's impact on our national political system. Achebe writes that after the war, "the Igbo were not and continue not to be reintegrated into Nigeria, one of the main reasons for the country's continued backwardness, in my estimation." A trip to the Igbo-dominated southeast reveals abysmal roads, bridges threatening to collapse, and a power grid that is all but entirely useless, all what many Igbos believe is a deliberate policy of neglect as punishment for the sin of secession. The country has suffered as a result of what Achebe calls the evil of tribalism.

Achebe writes determinedly about how we as a country got here, in a fashion that is more about substance than style. Gone is the integration of the oral storytelling that characterizes his fictional works. Away with the sly and understated humor of his critical essays about colonialism and Nigerian society. Enter the history of British nefariousness in rigging Nigeria's post-independence elections, the incompetent and at times downright wicked first-republic politicians, the coups and counter-coups that eventually led to the mass killing of Nigeria's widely dispersed Igbo population, the call for them to return to their villages, and finally the war of secession that Achebe calls a possible genocide. Into it all are woven Achebe's recollections about his personal and professional growth.

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For a memoir it is remarkably distant. Unlike his novels, fear of the unknown is not palpable. We know that Achebe watches as things fall apart in Nigeria, and are largely given what he sees, not what he feels. Writing a war is never easy, and writing the self equally difficult, so writing oneself into a war and that war into the self is a task of epic proportions. Those like myself who are familiar with Biafran-war narratives because I have heard the stories over and over, seen the bombed-out foundations of the house my father grew up in, can therefore understand how Achebe's loss shaped his writing and life. Others without the emotional shorthand might find themselves lost in a collection of names and places whose significance is apparent but incompletely rendered.

It is through the inclusion of poems that formed much of Achebe's literary output during the conflict that we encounter the emotionality that the book's prose lacks. Achebe's own fear of an air raid, the loss of close friends in fighting, and the process of resuming life after the war are all displayed in his strategically placed poems. They are also reminders of his incredibly diverse and prolific literary life, including stints as a schoolteacher, publisher, ambassador for the republic of Biafra, and professor. When There Was a Country ends, we leave Achebe here in the role of the professorial elder statesman and national conscience for a Nigeria that he seems to believe, even after celebrating 52 hard years of independence, is again on the brink of disintegration.

In broad strokes, Achebe is correct and perhaps—though hopefully not—this memoir might be as prophetic as his novel A Man of the People, which predicted a coup and appeared on Jan. 15, 1966, the day a coup ushered in four years of unparalleled violence. Though Achebe has not lived in Nigeria since he was paralyzed from the waist down in 1990, he still understands the national mood, the fear of the radical Islamist political sect Boko Haram, and the little man's complete frustration with a structure that rewards the country's corrupt big men. "I have stated elsewhere that this mindless carnage will end only with the dismantling of the present corrupt political system and banishment of the cult of mediocrity that runs it, hopefully through a peaceful, democratic process," Achebe writes. He is right, and if there is one line that gives us insight into the man and his work, it is this struggle against the "cult of mediocrity" that has defined his relationship with his country and the world. "In my definition I am a protest writer, with restraint," Achebe writes in a characteristically modest fashion. It is without restraint but not without tact that his body of work has protested mediocrity in its various forms, from the British colonial apparatus, to the world's ignorance of African literatures, to the corrosive mismanagement that has plagued Nigeria.

There Was A Country
‘There Was A Country’ By Chinua Achebe. 352 p. The Penguin Press. $27.95

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. It does not sing with the beauty of Things Fall Apart, or any of his other works, but it would be very hard for a man of 82 to outdo his revolutionary role in forcing African writing onto the world stage. It is near sacrilege for any young African writer to find Achebe wanting, and though There Was a Country has one entangled in the way history, person, and prose interact, it leaves one wanting more—more of the Achebe this strange world created, and more of this strange world as Achebe sees it.