Olanna unfurled the cloth flag and told them what the symbols meant. Red was the blood of the siblings massacred in the North, black was for mourning them, green was for the prosperity Biafra would have, and, finally, the half of a yellow sun stood for the glorious future.
“There are two answers to the things they will teach you about our land: the real answer and the answer you give in school to pass.” says Odenigbo to Ugwu, his house-help.
The land is Nigeria. The time – 1967 to 1970. The real answer? So often is it lost in the labyrinths of history, buried deep, until a wanderer unearths the fossils and the truth is then attempted to being understood, theories invented and situations created. The journey from ‘was’ to ‘might have’ is traversed on an uncertain drive. And the real answer? Is most of the times lost forever, was known only to those who lived the moment, maybe isn’t as dramatic as history reveals it to be, maybe is, maybe – always a point of view.
Adichie’s book is based on the Biafran war and her protagonists are educated, politically opinionated and knowledgeable people, thinkers and believers. The story unfolds through the affected and altered lives of Odenigbo and Olanna, then Nigerians, now fighting for the Biafran cause and their family, friends and close associates. The point of view of a foreigner, Richard, a white man, having learnt the local dialect, in love with Olanna’s sister Kainene and now one of them makes it more real. Through his lens and others, the abrupt and brutal changes that war brings are presented.
The demand is for a separate country called Biafra. By the Igbo (a Nigerian tribe) people. And why? There’s always a spark. To light the fire. The disdainful massacre of the Igbo people in the north is supposedly the cause for the unrest. But is it really so? And what caused the massacre? And has there ever been a war without British involvement?
“David Hunt thinks we are all mental children.” It was Okeoma. “The man should go home. Why is he coming to tell us how to put out a fire, when it is he and his fellow British who collected the firewood for it in the first place?”
Richard writes in his book ‘No doubt these groups also fought wars and slave-raided each other, but they did not massacre in this manner. If this is hatred, then it is very young. It has been caused, simply, by the informal divide-and-rule policies of the British colonial exercise. These policies manipulated the differences between the tribes and ensured that unity would not exist, thereby making the easy governance of such a large country practicable.’
Odenigbo said while arguing with Kainene “The white man brought racism into the world. He used it as a basis of conquest. It is always easier to conquer a more humane people.”
An interminable dissection of the war has always been the norm of the day, after it has killed millions. The war epilogue is not just banal but longer than the contrived war itself. But to what result; has it ever been able to stop the next one? How many times has it been concluded that the civilians who fight for the war never benefit from it, only the powerful with ulterior motives do, how many candles have been burnt at war memorials, how many tears shed! And what have we learnt? Nothing! We read, we talk, resent, argue at times of normalcy but the hatred is always there, locked inside with an easily accessible key that unlocks itself at the slightest instigation. We cease to be humans, we cease to think. We are imbeciles not naïve to not accept the disparate differences in people, we are ugly to be so easily brain washed and carried away by religion, caste, fanaticism; we are a hatred hungry creed, we frenetically turn to monsters, we crave for power only to realize in the end that we have none. It’s so laughable to hear that a war is being fought for peace. Which civil war has actually been civil?
“What peace are we looking for? Gowon himself has said that a basis for unity does not exist, so what peace are we looking for?” Odenigbo asked.
“Yes! Yes! Ojukwu, Give us guns! There is anger in our hearts.” The chanting was constant now.
And there is damage beyond the eye can see. Irreparable damage, irreversible damage. The lives of the Biafrans are changing every single day; from the comforts of their homes they are shoved to the abuses of stifling shanties. Beyond the hunger and the bullets and beatings, does war change something deep inside? Adichie answers that through Ugwu’s complicity in the stoic rape of a bargirl, the priest satiating his hunger with the young kids before satiating their need for protein food to stay alive, in Kainene’s forgiveness of her sister for her immoral act.
Beyond the bloating stomachs of starvation and the loss of tufts of hair, do we, as individuals lose ourselves in war or do we find ourselves; can we still hold on to our sanity? How steadfast can morality be in the proximity of death? Should a bereft stomach justify adultery just because it’s the time of war, can friendship hold more weight than the caste, creed or religion you’re fighting for, and can forgiveness replace barbaric acts?
Richard’s book – He writes about starvation. Starvation was a Nigerian weapon of war. Starvation broke Biafra and brought Biafra fame and made Biafra last as long as it did. Starvation made the people of the world take notice and sparked protests and demonstrations in London and Moscow and Czechoslovakia. Starvation made parents all over the world tell their children to eat up. Starvation aided the careers of photographers. And starvation made the International Red Cross call Biafra its gravest emergency since the Second World War.
His Excellency would come back from his foreign visit with justice and with salt.
Was it risible then that Olanna asks of her husband if he slept with her starving neighbor when their car wouldn’t start while the bombing and shelling were fast approaching them? Why couldn’t she get that out of her mind even when the next bullet could’ve rendered her or her husband dead? And was his complicity in the rape of the bargirl an incredulity for Ugwu, a simple, honest, loyal, conscripted, god fearing teenager; why did he do it, did the moment define him? Would he have done that if it wasn’t war time and does that speak something about who we are and who we can be?
Finally Ugwu looked at the girl. She stared back at him with a calm hate.
Olanna thought “how a single act could reverberate over time and space and leave stains that could never be washed off. She thought about how ephemeral life was, about not choosing misery.
As Chinua Achebe quotes ‘One of the truest tests of integrity is its blunt refusal to be compromised.’
Richard about Kainene – there was something brittle about her, and he feared she would snap apart at the slightest touch; she had thrown herself so fiercely into this, the erasing of memory, that it would destroy her.
Richard, a British writer, now turned into a war journalist and a local unfolds and unveils the unrelenting gruesomeness of happenings and his rendition spurts vividness to the reality of matters. His book on the war is aptly titled ‘The world was silent when we died.’
Richard’s book – He writes about the world that remained silent when Biafrans died. He argues that Britain inspired this silence. The arms and advice that Britain gave Nigeria shaped other countries. In the United States, Biafra was “under Britain’s sphere of interest.” In Canada, the prime minister quipped. “Where is Biafra?” The Soviet Union sent technicians and planes to Nigeria, thrilled at the chance to influence Africa without offending America or Britain. And from their white-supremacist positions. South Africa and Rhodesia gloated at further proof that black-run governments were doomed to failure.
Adichie’s pedantic pen is calm as she unnerves the Biafrans from their lucidity. No furtive glance is cast; her lurid delirious description frames the brevity of human life. You read it and visualize it as a documentary video. Nothing is misconstrued, not even feelings.
Finally before Richard fell asleep, Moliere’s words came to him, strangely comforting: Unbroken happiness is a bore; it should have ups and downs.