There Was a Country Summary

Chinua Achebe

There Was a Country

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There Was a Country Summary

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Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s memoir, There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra (2012), is his personal account of the Nigerian civil war (1967–1970), also known as the Biafran War. The book covers his early life in the Eastern Region of Nigeria where his people, the Igbo, were the majority ethnic group. By this point, he was already a successful novelist with a family. However, his life as he knew it came to a crashing halt as war consumed his region, and he and his family were pulled into a battle for survival. Published a year before Achebe’s death, There Was a Country is his only memoir and the first time he wrote publicly about his personal experiences in the war. Exploring the theme of sectarian conflict and its affects civilians, There Was a Country is considered one of the defining works of modern African non-fiction.

There Was a Country begins with an overview of Chinua Achebe’s youth in Nigeria. From an early age, he was drawn to storytelling and struggled to find the role he wanted to play in society. Eventually, he decided to commit to his first love, rejecting a full scholarship to medical school in order to follow his passion for the arts, especially writing. As he matured and attended classes at the University College in his home country, he became focused on developing his craft to create an honest voice for his writing. He dreamed of creating a new genre of African literature written by real African voices, spreading their stories to the rest of the world. During this period, most of Africa was still under colonial rule, and Achebe was a strong activist for independence from Great Britain and other colonial powers. Much of his early writing focused on anti-colonial themes and the need for Africa to be free, to spread its wings and fly.

Achebe tells the story of his childhood, education, marriage, and fatherhood, as well as his rise to become one of Africa’s elite writers. This narrative runs parallel to the rise of Nigeria as a nation. Nigeria had been under British colonial rule since 1914, and in 1960 the movement for independence was growing beyond the colonial power’s attempts to quash it. The British had successfully exploited Nigeria’s resources for decades; with the independence movement growing in strength, Britain decided to pull out with the treasure it had taken. Nigeria achieved its independence in 1960, but with the great hope that freedom brought came new problems. Although the people hoped for a bright and peaceful future, the new country remained dominated by old problems. The country quickly devolved into chaos due to weak leadership and corruption; demagogues took advantage, pushing the country towards ethnic conflict. Nowhere was this clearer than in the Eastern Region, the home of the Igbo. The dominant group of the region, in the rest of the country, they were a hated and much-resented minority.

In 1967, after a period of intense oppression, the Eastern Region decided to break away from the nation of Nigeria. However, the Nigerian government refused the secession of the Eastern Region when it declared itself the independent Republic of Biafra. A brutal civil war erupted, lasting three years. With staggering atrocities and war crimes, the Nigeria-Biafra War was considered one of the worst conflicts in human history. Achebe’s writing career was disrupted as he and his family were forced to flee. Through it all, he never stopped writing down his experiences, strongly sticking to his goal to elevate the stories of Africans to a level where they would be read and appreciated throughout the world. He led his family through the civil war and eventually brought his stories to an audience far outside of Africa, but he never told the story of his time during the Nigeria-Biafra War until 2012. Ultimately, Biafra was surrounded; a severe humanitarian crisis ensued that was only resolved with the surrender paper in 1970.

Chinua Achebe was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and literary critic. Things Fall Apart, his debut novel, is considered his greatest work. It remains the most widely-read book in modern African literature. He wrote an additional four novels and four children’s books, as well as many short stories and poetry collections. He was also widely known for his political commentary about the impact of colonialism on modern Africa. A titled Igbo Chieftain himself, most of his works focused on traditional Igbo society as informed by his first-hand experiences. A political activist and strong believer in independence for the Biafra region of Nigeria, he also served as a Professor of Languages and Literature at Bard College and a Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.