One thing that really struck me living in Africa as a teenager were the lack of books (both fiction and non-fiction) about Africa. The number of books written by Africans were even less. As such, I never really felt compelled to consider writing, especially living in a society that didn’t do much to encourage the literary arts. Chinua Achebe was the very first African author I’d ever read and even now, he’s still my favourite. These days there are many more African writers, but Achebe is a legend and I believe he inspired a whole continent to take the arts seriously and to acknowledge the fact that they had a story to tell.
Achebe’s autobiography “There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra” was just released a few weeks ago. It’s a truly informative and inspiring read.
I was really excited to read this autobiography and I wasn’t disappointed. In the first part, Achebe talks about his childhood in pre-Independence Nigeria, and the great educational institutions the British established that helped him to become a writer. He went on to talk about the positive mood of the country after it had gained independence, which unfortunately wasn’t to last long.
I’m actually embarrassed to admit that I had never even heard of the Biafran war, despite its magnitude and how awful it was; it was one that went on for two and a half years, killing between one and three million people. I was surprised to read that many people outside Nigeria (including John Lennon, Kurt Vonnegut, and Charles De Gaulle) were very much involved in denouncing the atrocities.The part of the book that detailed the war was heartbreaking and very hard to handle. Since Achebe witnessed some of these horrors, it was no wonder he supported the movement for Biafra to become an independent nation and secede from Nigeria.
Achebe is very blunt in the book ; he talks about his desire to secede, he’s honest about tribalism, and about how Africa needs to stop choosing awful leaders. He even goes on to talk about corruption in Nigeria. You could feel the passion for his country, for his continent, for the arts etc.
One of my favourite quotes from the book:
“The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader, who then becomes ready to be drawn into unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes so to speak, toward a deeper understanding of self or society, or of foreign peoples, cultures, and situations.”
Reading Achebe’s autobiography made me admire him even more than before.