- Surviving Biafra: A Nigerwife's Story by Elizabeth S. Bird, and Rosina Umelo
The Nigerian-Biafran war,1 fought between 1967 and 1970, has received insufficient critical attention, largely as a result of political bias and humanitarian concern. Among existing works on it, "more than two-thirds of those who recorded their experiences … are male" (5), making it a politics-centered discourse, with a resulting focus on the "spectacular violence" (Nixon 2011, 4) of the fighting, while the "slow violence" (2011, 4) of disintegrating home fronts and women's roles in them have not enjoyed as much attention. Surviving Biafra: A Nigerwife's Story, by Elizabeth S. Bird and Rosina Umelo, underlining the complexities of wartime motherhood and family life, is a vital female contribution to discourse on the war.
The book is an eyewitness account of the war from a Biafran perspective. Umelo, shortly after she left London for Nigeria with her young family, found herself in the middle of the war. Narrated by Bird, but mostly from the perspective of Umelo, the book offers details of everyday life in an Igbo (Biafran) village during the war. It is divided into three parts, which depict life in Nigeria/Biafra before, during, and immediately after the war, with an opening containing background information about colonial Nigeria, the country's early days of independence, and the events that led to the war. The catalyst for the war has been a gray area in historical accounts, and introducing the book with background information about Nigeria's colonial history, especially the role of the British government, gives context to the events that follow.
Although written by white women about a Black African nation, Surviving Biafra is in effect an objective account, without a hint of the white savior complex. It is the story of an Englishwoman who takes root in an Igbo community by marriage and goes from being an outsider to an insider. Her perspective thus becomes an advantage, as the book is enriched with mundane details that would easily have been missed or underappreciated by people who have been Igbo all their lives. Deviating from dominant stories about Biafra—which are mostly gruesome and terrifying—Bird and Umelo tell a story of family, community, resilience, and even love, presenting Biafra in a light different from that of stereotypical stories of starvation and victim-hood. However, this does not necessarily imply that Surviving Biafra is a story of laughter. While it is not all horrifying, it describes the heartrending living conditions in Biafra during the war, especially the hardships of sick [End Page 95] and starving children, who had neither medication nor food. But the narrative is not centered on these alone. The moments of love and laughter are captured as well, just as in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). Also important are glimpses of the frustrations of an interracial marriage between an Englishwoman and a patriarchal Igbo man, as well as the dynamics of being an English Nigerwife.
A major strength of Surviving Biafra is that, although a historical account, the book will readily appeal to lovers of fiction and poetry because of Bird's and Umelo's storytelling prowess and the thoughtful poetry with powerful imagery distributed across chapters, drawing readers into Igbo folklore and the world of an Igbo village. Additionally, the use of simple language suits perfectly the simplicity of the story of ordinary people during extraordinary times. The book, although predominantly about Biafra, will appeal equally to international readers. For instance, one of the issues it addresses is the question of applying a humanitarian solution to a political problem, one continuing to elicit arguments as a global concern.
There is hardly anything not to like about this book, but the lack of a definite critical standpoint about the politics of the events, and the lack of engagement with the Nigerian side of the story, might leave readers wondering what was going on in Nigeria at the time. However, this seeming one-sidedness can be justified...