Biafra lived less than three full years, from May 1967 to June 1970. Its national symbol, half of a yellow sun, shining from the flag, gleaming on the arms of soldiers, hanging on a string around the neck of proud citizens. Today, for those who have heard of Biafra, the image most likely to come to mind is a starving child.
Our story starts in the early 60s, Nigeria newly independent from Britain, ethnic fault lines papered over by a map wilfully ignorant of cultural, religious and political boundaries.
Ugwu is a village boy, eager to please in his new job as houseboy for mathematician Odenigbo, fascinated by the intellectual Pan-Africanist worldview of the Master and his radical friends. Olanna, Odenigo’s lover, and her business-savvy sister Kainene are London-educated children of the Lagos elite. English Richard, drawn to Africa for art not money, steps away from the expatriate circle to follow Kainene, and Biafra.
Adichie immerses us in the rich lives of these people and then lobs in the grenades, personal and political, as betrayal and war break relationships and nations into pieces, and the survivors salvage what they can from the wreckage.
The World Was Silent When we Died is the book within the book: a woman carrying her dead child’s head in a calabash on the floor of a train; the Berlin conference of 1884 carving Africa into pieces for Europe to plunder; independent Nigeria as a market for Britain and a thorn in France’s side; postcolonial elites, oil and massacres that made the Igbo people into fervent Biafrans.
But this is not a political treatise. It’s a moving story of a handful of fervent Biafrans, and the war that broke their hearts.