There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra by Chinua Achebe (The Penguin Press, 2012)
It’s one of those tragedies that you will remember vividly. You will recall what you were doing and where you were, even when you heard the news of the passing of Chinua Achebe. It was Human Rights Day in South Africa – 21 March – when Achebe passed away but it was only made public the following day. As a testament of the times we live in, the news first broke on Twitter. At first the news was met with disbelief; the social network is infamous for “killing” people. Even when Achebe’s death was confirmed, disbelief still lingered on. Just like in the twin metaphor of “the eagle on iroko”, a tree too sacred to be cut down – a phrase coined by scholar and novelist Michael Thelwell to describe Achebe – the Nigerian writer seemed destined to live forever. Passing away at the ripe age 82, he certainly lived up to that image as well.
The grim reaper had made half-hearted visits on Achebe’s door before. His first close encounter with death was in the bombing of the offices of the printing house he co-owned with late poet Christopher Okigbo. And then there was a time soldiers were sent for him – only for them to turn up at the wrong house. Then another day he was woken up by the noise of shelling in front of his parents’ house. Most recently (actually in 1990) he survived a car accident that left him paralysed from waist down. In all those encounters he gave the grim reaper the proverbial middle figure and carried on with his life as before.
In this new state of absence it’s his words that are immortal, ringing and reverberating into eternity. Achebe’s words gave Africa a voice. And no book is so definitive of Achebe’ oeuvre as Things Fall Apart, a work which drowned out the sensational novels that had an “obsession with lurid and degrading stereotypes of Africa”. The demeaning work of literature about Africa and Africans is what he drew a bead on in an essay titled Africa’s “Tarnished Name” from his biographical essay collection, The Education of A British-Protected Child.
In his last, and controversial book, There Was A Country, the Nigerian writer returns to a vexing question about why Africa finds herself in the position she is in (South Africans should take note). Achebe’s quest with this work is perhaps best captured in the Igbo proverb that says: “a man who does not know where the rain began to beat him cannot say where he dried his body.”
He begins with the Berlin Conference of 1885 during the Scramble for Africa where European countries carved up the continent handed each other bits of Africa “like a piece of cake at a birthday party.” Achebe then moves to dissecting the eras of colonialism, independence and post-independence where corruption is rife.
He uses Nigeria and the Nigerian-Biafran War as the backdrop to a story which can be of relevance to many countries on the continent. Just like Nigeria, many countries in the post-independence era have become “cesspool[s] of corruption and misrule”, where “civil servants help themselves freely to the nation’s wealth.” It’s a story that mirrors the one he wrote in A Man of the People, published in 1966, a work set in a fictional African country. The book got him into trouble with the Nigerian authorities as the narrative climaxes in a coup which, in a strange case of fiction imitating the “real”, also happened in Nigeria. Hawks in the military believe he must have known something about the coup plot.
The coup on 15 January 1996, widely believed to be an Igbo initiative, was led by Major Chukwuma Nzeogwu and resulted in the death of Prime Minister Abubakar Tawela. It sparked the flame that would lead to a devastating fire during the Nigerian-Biafran War that claimed the lives of over a million people – most of them Igbos. The war not only affected Achebe personally (his friend Okigbo died in battle) but it left him emotionally scarred: he mentions an incident where he ducked for cover when he heard planes take off from an airport in England. He also didn’t (or couldn’t) write a novel for a long time; his last novel Anthills of the Savannah (1987) was published 21 years after A Man of the People came out.
“There Was a Country”, Achebe’s final essay, is framed around Biafra’s war for independence from Nigeria. The war began six months after the 1966 coup; a counter-coup followed which led to riots and killings of Igbos who fled from the north to the south eastern regions of Nigeria. The Biafrans wanted to secede from Africa’s most populous country and form a republic. The ensuing horrors of the war from 1967 to 1970 underpinned Achebe’s belief that it “changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa.” The conflict stripped the newly independent Nigeria of her innocence; moving from a place that was “enveloped by a certain assurance of an unbridled destiny” to nothing more than “a bankrupt and lawless fiefdom”.
In “The Education of a British-Protected Child” Achebe describes Nigeria in a way that could describe many other states on the continent. He writes that Nigeria is “neither my mother nor my father. Nigeria is a child. Gifted, enormously talented, prodigiously endowed, and incredible wayward. Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting. I have said somewhere that in my next reincarnation I want to be a Nigerian again; but I have also, in a rather angry book called The Trouble With Nigeria, dismissed Nigerian travel advertisements with the suggestion that only a tourist with a kinky addiction to self-flagellation would pick Nigeria for a holiday. And I mean both.” He continues to say it is “a country where nobody can wake up in the morning and ask: what can I do now? There is work for all.”
The “father” of modern African literature gave Africa her voice. Before Achebe, in many ways, it was the hunter who had told the history of the hunt, not the lions, as he once cited a proverb. After him, the hunted was also given a voice, “so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail—the bravery, even, of the lions”, as he famously said in a 1994 Paris Review interview.