A Review of Achebe’s There Was A Country
Official history encourages collective denial, collective forgetting, encourages silence. Literature, then becomes an affirmation, an excavation of memory, a shattering of silence. To paraphrase Cathy Caruth, history, like trauma, is never simply one’s own, history is precisely the way we are involved in each other’s traumas. Achebe’s There Was A Country [his “Personal History of Biafra”] originated in the experience of trauma – the Biafra-Nigeria war, whose murderous impulse Achebe witnessed and survived. Literature becomes, too, a witnessing, a testimonial. We need to consider how we are implicated in each other’s history and trauma. In this instance, we seem to be involved with each other as victims, perpetrators, and collaborators.
It is this that Achebe’s accusers are running from: the implication of being complicit in the genocide testified to in There Was A Country. Hence, the noisy distraction of ethnic bias, which intention is to absolve perpetrators and collaborators of all historical guilt by locating the misery of a section of Nigerian humanity [at a certain moment in our history] in a non-historical source – the mentality of the Biafran leadership. The intellectual basis for this is provided by Odia Ofeimun – now joined by Biodun Jeyifo. As for Ayo Adebanjo, let no one say anything to him.
It is correct to say that There Was A Country, properly speaking, is not history, dependent, as it is, on personal recollections. The subjective tone, impermissible in a work of history, is nevertheless inevitable in autobiography and memoirs. It is correct to say that, as a memoirist Achebe stands upon the same viewpoint he stood as a participant in the events narrated. The reader is, of course, not obliged to share this viewpoint with the author, who is not also obliged to conceal his views, his sympathies and antipathies. This much a reader demands, and this much a memoirist owes: scholarly conscientiousness, an honest study of the facts, a faithful portrayal of the actual events.
And what of the historian’s so-called objectivity? Well, we are yet to get a clear explanation of what this objectivity consists of. Objectivity is clearly not the tendency Achebe has of suggesting indirectly to the reader what he finds inconvenient to state directly. We do not need this, for it is nothing but a conventional trick. Having submitted to the necessity “to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story,” Achebe ought to have no reason to hide his sympathies or antipathies, his loves or his hates. One suspects, however, that had Achebe confined himself entirely to the pretended indifference of this sort, had he not, in rare moments of open and undisguised antipathy portrayed certain individuals in light their followers do not like them shone in, the book would still have been found lacking in indifference in certain quarters.
How does one bear witness to a trauma that “changed the course of Nigeria,” that was the “cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa?” To go back again to Caruth, “Trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena.” Achebe responds by excavating the repressed memory of the pogrom, genocide, and the tragic consequences of the Biafra-Nigeria war, so that these events can never be forgotten: […] The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,/ Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs/ And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps/ Behind blown-empty bellies…. She took from their possessions/ A broken comb and combed/ The rust-colored hair left on his skull/ And then–humming in her eyes–began carefully to part it./ In their former life this was perhaps/ A little daily act of no consequence/ Before his breakfast and school; now she did it/ Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.
There Was A Country is, thus, a reencounter with trauma, as well as an attempt to understand it. The monsters of Hieronymous Bosch had stalked the land. They had neither horns, nor tusks, nor hooves. They had human form. “I want to see no Red Cross,” The Commander of the 3rd Marine Commando was quoted as saying, “no Caritas, no World Council of Churches, no Pope, no missionary, and no UN delegation. I want to prevent even one Ibo [sic] having even one piece to eat before their capitulation.” Here, we are confronted with the human face of evil. And, one of the things Achebe achieves is not only to witness and memorialize the life of those denied even one piece, but to also confront perpetrators with the ghosts of their victims. Thus, There Was A Country becomes an excavation site.
Why did this systematic slaughter, this genocide occur? The infinite debates about who was actually responsible for the war, have only served to confuse the real issue. To lay the blame on this or that individual, on this or that accidental events only obscures the real cause of the tragedy that was the Biafra-Nigeria civil war. A weakness of the narrative is this: history ought first of all to tell what happened and why. From this very telling, however, it ought to be clear why the event happened the way it did and not another way. Yes, this is not history, but to say that “The British governed their colony of Nigeria with considerable care. There was a very highly competent cadre of government officials imbued with a high level knowledge of how to run a country. This was not something that the British achieved only in Nigeria; they were able to manage this on a larger scale in India and Australia.”
Achebe himself recognized the contestable nature of this assertion. No, sir, this is more than “heresy”. Agreed, this is a memoir, not history, but what about scholarly conscientiousness? In addressing specifics – the genetic makeup of the January 15, 1966 coup and its tribally one-sided killings, the counter-coup six months later and the pogroms – we must situate them within the larger context of colonialism, imperialism, the backwardness of the Nigerian bourgeois, it’s late entry into history after the world had already been divided up among a few imperialist powers, and its failure to unite the country.Of course one is unable within this limited space, to examine these complicated theoretical postulates critically in their essence.
Also, it would take us far afield from the intended direction. Suffice to say that the Biafran secession and subsequent civil war, like the other crisis across Africa at the time, proved the inevitable failure of trying to construct a modern, viable state under the basis of neo-colonialism.
To revisit the excavation site: “All is fair in war, and starvation is one of the weapons of war. I don’t see why we should feed our enemies fat in order for them to fight harder.” In this lies the conflict: to agree to confront excavated history is to implicate oneself, to become aware of one’s role in the uncovered memory. Refusal, therefore, is intended to absolve one of guilt. Confrontation, however, does more than implicate. It destroys gods. Part of the response to There Was A Country, is a struggle to prevent the destruction of one’s god, even if it means the erasure of memory. But, does the refusal to acknowledge memory mean the non-existence of memory? Does merely refusing to visit history’s excavation site, for fear of being unable to tear oneself afterwards from history’s gaze, erase history?
Memory is capricious and arbitrary, and tends to suppress, to drive into a dark corner events that the mind is cognitively unable, or unwilling to grasp. Still, these memories do not entirely disappear, for they tend to leave their scars in print. “Let me first correct some misconceptions which I have discovered here. It is said that the so-called Biafra is a gallant little nation fighting for self-determination, threatening nobody, wishing to live its own life, led by a young Rockfeller. Why then not let them go? This is not the case. Biafra is not and never was a nation….
The act of union which created Nigeria also created Eastern Nigeria and there was Nigeria long before there was an entity known as Eastern Nigeria.” Apropos Awo’s hunger as a weapon of war, Achebe had wondered how a “thinker” like Enahoro could accept this without question. The answer is contained in the latter’s World Press Conference in London, after his release from prison and absorption into Gowon’s regime. History is no respecter of gods, it preserves their transgressions in print.
But There Was A Country had not set for itself the task of destroying gods. No, Achebe is not that kind of nihilistic writer. Rather, Achebe is simply using literature to trace trauma, to make sure it does not repeat itself, by revisiting its hurts, its hidden places. It is the voice of a man haunted by history. Successive regimes had imposed an official silence intended to prevent public witnessing. “I believe it is impossible to write anything in Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest.
In my definition I am a protest writer, with restraint,” Achebe writes of himself. And so his memoir becomes an act of public witnessing, a protest whose aim is to keep alive the memory of things denied. It becomes, also, an act of mourning, a reburial. Here is how Achebe reburies Okigbo, whose death he heard on the radio while driving: “I pulled up at the roadside. The open parkland around Nachi stretched away in all directions. Other cars came and passed. Had no one else heard the terrible news?”