“There was a Country”: More Ladies Would Be Nice

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There Was A Country by Chinua Achebe

In 1966, thousands of men women and children of the Nigerian Igbo tribe were brutally and systematically murdered. What followed was the Biafran War, when the Igbo majority broke off from the rest of Nigeria to form their own state of Biafra.

The Biafran conflict left millions dead, mostly children who had starved to death. Biafra was re-absorbed into Nigeria, which today ranks with such failed states as Somalia and Afghanistan.

If all books have genders, then this book is a boy through and through. That’s not to say the Achebe discounts the importance of women; he makes a point of talking about how awesome his wife, mother, and sister are.

But it is a book about a man’s world, from boys schools to governments to armies. Achebe respects many women, but he doesn’t seem to befriend any. In those early days of Nigeria’s democracy, it was a coup to have a woman publish a novel at all.

Achebe’s experience of the Biafran conflict was very much a man’s experience. He writes of friends going to war and being killed. He writes of political conflicts, of the work he and a colleague did for Biafra in the early years. And he writes of all this with detachment, with the distance that comes from time and from a position of disconnect.

Women’s experience of the Biafran war was very different from this. In his occasional inclusion of his wife’s experience, Achebe describes women getting up at 4am to get food, going to markets set up in deep forests to escape bombs, narrowly avoiding air raids and trying to protect children who didn’t understand what was happening.

Personally, I’d rather read Achebe’s wife’s story. She was constantly pregnant, at a time when pregnant Igbo women like her were horribly mutilated. She had to protect her daughter and herself from rape as a weapon of war. She had to find food for her constantly moving family at a time when millions of children starved to death. She, and the other women who brought their family through the Biafran War, must be the strongest women in the world.

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