Rediscovering Biafra through a Nigerian Novelist

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses attendees of event at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the Nigerian civil war.

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about Biafra, the 1967 civil war in her country. (Photo courtesy of the Elliott School of International Affairs)
May 05, 2017


“I grew up in the shadow of Biafra,” said best-selling novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to a crowd gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. She was referring to the 1967 civil war in her native Nigeria. “The war was a great presence and yet, strangely, an absent one. It was referred to, gestured to, but never fully talked about.”

Ms. Adichie, whose book Half of a Yellow Sun is set against the backdrop of that war, addressed the crowd at an April 21 event organized by the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, the Institute for African Studies and Columbian College of Arts and Science, in partnership with the Smithsonian and Howard University.

The event was the culmination of a two-day conference on “Remembering Biafra: History, Memory & the Global Impact of the Nigerian Civil War,” which brought together scholars, humanitarians and activists to discuss the lasting impact and legacy of the war.

The Nigerian civil war, often called the Biafran War, was triggered when an eastern region of the country attempted to secede and create its own independent state, known as Biafra. Over the two-and-a-half years of the war, between some estimate as many as three million civilians died from fighting, disease and widespread starvation.

Ms. Adichie said even as a child, Biafra captured her imagination. One reason: the stories she heard growing up about her grandfather, who died during the war.

“Biafra is not only about loss and injustice for me, it is also about heroism. It is about pride and possibility, about self-sufficiency. About people who made things from grit, and scrap and faith.”

During the war, media images of starving children in Biafra captured the attention of Western countries and prompted the involvement of international nongovernmental aid organizations—a development that has been both lauded and criticized.

On one hand, the global response showed the capacity of international non-governmental organizations to act quickly and make a significant impact. In hindsight, however, some observers concluded that Westerners’ passionate support for the Biafrans prolonged a hopeless struggle and, in turn, increased civilian casualties.

“Biafra as an idea, even as a word, is not value-free. It is, depending on where it is said, how it is said, loaded with assumptions,” Ms. Adichie said.

The event moderator, Melani McAlister, an associate professor of American Studies and International Affairs in ESIA, said Ms. Adichie’s novel served as a “touchstone” for conference participants.

“Half of a Yellow Sun was a landmark book for people who are interested in Biafra,” said Dr. McAlister. “There had been other novels about the war, many of them very good, but Adichie's story was so vivid, populated by a broad range of characters -- it gave a powerful sense of the emotional draw of the idea of Biafra as well as a searing portrait of the horrors of war.”

Ms. Adichie, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship—sometimes called a “genius grant”—recognized the role books can play in helping people remember and relate to unpleasant or distant events.

“Stories, human stories, perform important functions in every society, one of which is memory,” she said. “It is imperative that we remember, actively, always. It is uncomfortable. But are those who died not worthy of our discomfort?”

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