About the Nigeria-Biafra war, and the novel that so perfectly captures it

Chimamanda Ngozi ADICHIE, Half of a Yellow Sun


« The world was silent silent when we died. »

It is a story of love and war, of life and sex and death and courage and striving and learning and losing and winning. It is a story so powerful that it could finally araise the Western world’s consciousness about its own silence, its own indifference to hunger and desperation and the brave fight for an impossible independence.

The bright light cast on the Biafran war (1967-1970) by Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is communicative. It makes one realize that there is a whole continent whose history has been ignored, who has even been denied having a history. History only becomes real when there are people not only to write it but to acknowledge it. There is a whole continent that isn’t even taught its own history, and whose history very few people outside Africa know about. It is not a mere mistake ; it is a voluntary wiping out of the fate of millions of human beings.

I cannot even start to recreate here the strength with which Adichie speaks of hunger and destruction and the thousand humiliations that war and blockade bring into people’s everyday life, in a story-telling that is always dignified and standing up, and yes, funny at many moments.

It has been since the Biafran war that the world has really started to see Africa as the place of eternal misery, of desperate and inescapable poverty, and it was the moment when unbearable pictures of starved-out children started to flourish everywhere. Yet it did not help improving those children’s fate, and millions have died. As the author relentlessly writes in her book, like a refrain : the world was silent as we died.

It served nothing, and quite on the contrary : seeing Africa as a continent of poor people is exactly the same as seeing it as lacking any history – any « interesting » history with fights and changes and improvements. It is like condemning it to the eternal return of the same absurd misery, that no one is brave enough to fight. Ignoring people’s everyday striving and fights and struggle against horrible oppression is denying their strength as human beings, and considering them as mere « poors », inert in their miserable condition, and not as full responsible adults who do their best to live their lives – not just to survive, or to defend great political causes understandable to the outside world, that one can present explicitly in a polished geopolitics talk. Truly living also means being afraid and uncertain of one’s own fights, and also spending time nourishing relationships and jealousies and fleeting desires. Adichie’s characters fully acknowledge to themselves their right to be humans.

She manages to capture the true meaning of human misery at the exact same time as she restores the dignity of the Biafrans – not the propaganda dignity of people shouting « Biafra will win », but the dignity of going on with human affairs and human lives and human loves and friendships and sense of sharing in the middle of bombings and refugee camps. One example could be the moment when one character receives a parcel from a friend (and former admirer) in London, who sends her deluxe soap and tells her about his polo matches. She is infuriated at the uselessness of having deluxe foreign soap sent to a refugee camp, and at the unawareness of the outside world, and yet she shares it with her neighbors and they all enjoy having a single reminder of how life used to be before the war, of what life can be like when it is not uglied by the mud and drought of a constantly shelled camp. We could also invoke the everyday details and absurdly funny thoughts that pass in people’s head as they wait, terrified, for an air-raid to be over in a bunker. And the hopeless yet crucial fight for education in places where children are so weakened by hunger that it erases their memories from one day to the next.

Yet this can be considered a sheer novelist’s talent. Adichie has something else. She fights against forgetfulness. Without ever saying it, she becomes an incredible advocate for a whole continent’s right to know itself and get recognition ; not as a poor and hungry continent, but as a continent with hopes and aspirations and contradictions and defects, like anywhere else. The importance of speaking up, of having « the lions tell their own story »[1], their own version of the same stories, as the American black abolitionist Frederick Douglass (whose autobiography deeply inspires one of the characters in the novel) said and did nearly two centuries ago, is too easily forgotten. Maybe I have been too Western, too forgetting, too ignorant, and I feel like I have given way too little consideration to Africa’s history. I have been working on and in Africa for 5 years now, and yet I know nothing about its history, or so little. All I knew about the Biafran war was the image of Western NGOs like Doctors without Borders rescuing starved children in an absurd war that was supported by ex-colonial powers ; I knew the wise and cold political analysis that it was paradoxical that relief organizations should be created in the same Western capitals where bombings were also being decided. I also faintly assumed that since it was a war, with blockades and hunger and destructions, it must have been horrible for the poor people who lived it.

But I had not realized how people whose history is denied are as good as non-existing on the surface of this earth. Yes, the lions have to tell their own story ; yes, story-tellers are important, long after the heroes have died, because the heroes have died, and because men and women have died, who were no heroes, fought their best or did not want to fight, were cowards or were strong in the battle, or outside the battle.

Today, the world is silent as Syrians die. We are silent as children, just like in Biafra fifty years ago, do not have one meal a day. They do not know why they are being bombed everyday. We don’t really know either. Really. Again, am I the only who has not worked on her homework hard enough ? Am I the only one getting lost halfway (or not even halfway) because she does not understand why bombing civilians in Aleppo will help us get rid of terrorists in our Western cities, and of ISIL ? Are we fighting them ? Are we fighting the dictatorial Assad regime that claims to fight ISIL ? Are we silent as children die ? Are we fighting against our own consciousness, to silence our own doubts ?

Read Adichie’s books, all of them. And at least, give Africans the benefit of a history. Give all the bombed children a history that ackowledges their fate.

[1]    As goes the African proverb, often quoted by another Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe : « Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. » A very similar story – is it the same ? – the Fable of « The man and the lion » seems to have been popular in the US at the beginning of the 19th century.

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