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There Was a Country

Chinua Achebe offers a moving personal history of the short-lived African nation of Biafra.

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There Was a Country
Byy Chinua Achebe
Penguin Press
352 pp.

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If you hoped, as I did, that There Was a Country would be a full-fledged memoir to set beside those of Nelson Mandela, Wole Soyinka, or Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, you will be disappointed. But if you come to the book without those expectations, you may find it a powerful, enlightening, and sometimes moving work.

"There Was a Country" is in fact what its subtitle promises. It is a personal history of Biafra, the short-lived nation that broke away from the newly independent Nigeria, battled for its life for three years, then was crushed from existence, leaving memories of emaciated children with the staring eyes and potbellies of kwashiorkor. A kaleidoscopic jumble of childhood memories, literary friendships, political analysis, wartime traumas, and poetry, it culminates in an angry indictment of Nigerian governments past and present for their oppression of the Igbo people.

The book begins with an account of Achebe’s early years in the town of Ogidi. As a child, Achebe’s worldview was shaped by his father, a Christian, and his great-uncle, a follower of the Igbo religion. Achebe enjoyed the magic of "A Midsummer Night’s Dream" and traditional tales of a mischievous tortoise. A brilliant schoolboy, he was admitted to a prestigious government college, where he met the future poet Christopher Okigbo, the best-known casualty of the Biafran war.

Switching from warm reminiscence to the cool tone of the historian, Achebe sets the stage for the war in short essays titled “Post-Independence Nigeria,” “The Role of the Writer in Africa,” and “The Aburi Accord.” He outlines the series of electoral crises that followed independence and the coup by a mostly Igbo group of army officers that overthrew the government in 1966.

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