Book Review – There was a Country

Book Review - There was a country - Chinua Achebe

There Was A Country: A personal history of Biafra by Chinua Achebe

Published by: Allen Lane – The Penguin Group

Year of Publication: 2012

Genre: Non-Fiction; Memoir

Pages: 319

Source: Bought

Publisher’s Summary

The defining experience of Chinua Achebe’s life was the Nigerian civil war, also known as the Biafran War.

For more than forty years Achebe was silent on those terrible years, until he produced this towering reckoning with one of modern Africa’s most fateful events.

A marriage of history, remembrance, poetry and vivid first-hand observation, There Was a Country is a work of wisdom and compassion from one of the great voices of our age.

My Thoughts

There Was A Country brought me to the realisation of how little I know of Nigeria’s history. I’m in my 20s and this is the first literature on Biafra that I have ever read.

I can’t remember being taught about this war in Primary or Secondary school. I would love to blame this on the fact that I was a science student. But somehow, I doubt it was a major part of the syllabus for the Art students either.

So when Chinua Achebe says there is a conspiracy by the Nigerian Authorities to forget about the Biafran war… I can’t help but think he has a point. This book provides us with the details of the Biafran war as Chinua Achebe remembers them. So I didn’t go in expecting an objective account. Seeing as he was personally affected by this war in so many terrible ways.

He starts with a brief history of his life, and his experiences as a young man in the new Nigeria. The journey this country took from a nation with a bright future to a hotbed of ethnic rivalries sponsored by politicians looking out for their own selfish interests. Next thing you know, there is a military coup, then a counter-coup and all hell break loose.

I watched ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, the book has been on my shelf for a couple of months now.  And that movie completely failed to drive home the horror of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that took place after the second coup. I had a perpetual disgusted look on my face while I read There Was A Country. I just couldn’t believe what I was reading.

Worse still is that the events in this book took place in Nigeria not so long ago and the underlying issues that brought about this terrible affair are still here. Our politicians are still the same set of people who ushered us into this War. The NYSC program created to foster unity is falling into shambles. And though I was born in Lagos and I don’t know the way to my father’s village (I don’t think he does either), I still have to claim Ogun State as my “State of Origin”.

Our politicians are still the same set of people who ushered us into this War. The NYSC program created to foster unity is falling into shambles. And though I was born in Lagos and I don’t know the way to my father’s village (I don’t think he does either), I still have to claim Ogun State as my “State of Origin”.

Chinua Achebe is such a great story-teller that I have to keep reminding myself that this is not Fiction. There really was a country called Biafra, which I have always thought about in abstract terms. I have never bothered to learn about this subject and I still don’t know what possessed me to read There Was A Country.

I’m glad I did though because Chinua Achebe doesn’t refer to Biafra as a concept. There was a government, an economy, a people united by a common cause, and this, in particular, makes part of me wish they had succeeded. Because people should be able to choose their own destinies.

Nigeria’s problem continues to be terrible leadership and Chinua Achebe doesn’t shy away from calling out the same phenomenon within the Biafran Government. He gives an account of how bad leadership on both sides led to the starvation and death of millions of Biafran citizens, something that could easily have been avoided if the leaders had taken their egos out of negotiations.

I was very reluctant to write this review when I finished reading There Was A Country more than a week ago, and it was a terrible experience. It’s shameful that I never thought to learn more about the Biafran war. And it hasn’t been that long either. Less than 50 years and no one will talk about Biafra except for political reasons.

Why aren’t we talking about this more? Why isn’t this a compulsory subject for School Children? Are we so willing to bury our heads in the sand while our world falls to pieces around us? How come so many people got away with murder? These are questions I know I won’t be getting answers to.

There Was A Country has sparked an interest to learn more about the Biafran War. And I am very interested to read what all parties have to say for themselves. It seems I am not alone in this too. Has anyone else noticed an increase in literature on the war in the streets of Lagos? The other day I saw a newspaper displaying a Map of Biafra.

It would be unfortunate if this renewed interest in the subject is perverted for nefarious purposes. I just wish our leaders would realise that encouraging open discussion about the realities of the war will deglamorize the idea of secession that is being passed around so carelessly these days.

My Verdict

This is a necessary book. I wasn’t aware of it when it came out so I don’t know anything about any controversy around it but I would say if you are looking for an “objective” account then you should find a library.

Chinua Achebe has told his own story. This is his perspective, his personal experience; this was his reality as a Nigerian, then a Biafran. It is a unique one too since he had a front row seat to many of the state affairs in Biafra. I still wish there were more personal accounts though. Sometimes it did feel like I was reading a newspaper.

This was an easy read, which was surprising to me since when I bought the book I fully intended to shelve it for future reading. However, Chinua Achebe proves why he is the father of African Literature and I was hooked the instant I read the introduction. His story telling ability is almost obscene in the face of the horrific events taking place in the book but I couldn’t put this book down even as I was completely disgusted with the players in this War.

I could write an epistle and it wouldn’t cover the range of emotions this book took me on. However, I wish it had been arranged in a chronological fashion. It was a bit confusing sometimes to get the order of events. Also, the poetry went right over my head, Sorry!

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  1. “The poetry went right over my head” 🙂 I can relate with that. I just can’t seem to understand some poems.
    Indeed, we need to talk more about Biafra, and not for political reasons. A lot of people still bear the emotional scars from that war, but the rest of us prefer to just keep quiet about it and pretend like it never happened.
    Yes, Chinua Achebe’s storytelling is excellent. I felt like I was watching a movie when I read the book- the descriptions were really detailed!
    It is a very nice book, though there were points when I got bored.
    How have you been?

    1. Yes!! I kept thinking that it’s a pity this movie will never be made because our leaders loooove to live in perpetual denial.
      I have missed you on here actually… Welcome back, 🙂

  2. “Also, the poetry went right over my head, Sorry!”

    That is so hilarious and so true for me, too.

    I read this book about 2yrs ago but it’s contents are still green on my mind. I was, and am appalled at how much havoc egoism can wreak.

    In fact, this book sailed me right to the conclusion that the responsibility of leading a nation should never be given up to 30-yr-olds.

    I felt many things – anger, shock, sadness, whatnot. Many times, I thought Biafra would give up, I wanted them to. The killings were unbearable, even to a reader who is decades away.

    And Chinua kept using the word “genocide”. Not that I think he’s wrong to see all of that drama that way, but… I would love to read something from someone on the other side, too.

    All in all, I liked that I read ‘There was a country’. I don’t have an objective perspective of Biafra, but I have Chinua Achebe’s perspective. And for now, that will do.

    1. This is a lovely review… Obasanjo wrote his perspective years ago too. I haven’t read it though.

  3. Temilade! I woke up to study as it’s exam season for me, but I stumbled on your blog and I’ve spent all my study time on it. Welldone! The best part is the e-books, you’re already my BFF (Book Friend Forever) Nice looking out for us especially in this economy where one can’t afford to always buy books. I wonder why I’m just finding you out. You’ll be seeing more of me.

    1. Lol!!! Please study hard o, abeg. Thanks for taking the time, dear. I look forward to seeing more of you.

  4. I almost bought this book. Now I’m wondering why i never did. Biafra, it leaves a bitter taste in people’s mouth but we have to learn from our past. A lot of hinge went wrong at that time that wasn’t fixed and it’s causing unrest as we speak. Ignoring problems never solved anything.

    1. “Ignoring problems never solved anything” That should be on a bumper sticker. Thanks for your beautiful comment Simzah. And you should really get the book, you won’t regret it. I think there’s a link in this post too.