This novel is ostensibly about the Biafran war, but it’s also about identity in modern Nigeria. It spends a lot of its pages exploring the daily lives and inner thoughts of three people from very different backgrounds and how they experienced the changes that were happening around them. This, along with some added background from a few overheard discussions among intellectuals and excerpts from a historical novel titled The World Was Silent When We Died, are crucial to explain why Biafrans were so committed to the cause, and why it’s more complex than the thought-terminating cliché that ethnic tensions in Africa are ancient, so of course that leads to horrible conflict every once in a while.
I knew about the Biafran war before this novel, and what struck me reading it is how much longer the conflict lasted than it should have. Everyone thought the war would be quick, but Nigeria opted to blockade Biafra and let the population starve. The general lack of interest from foreign parties, probably because everyone’s eyes was on Vietnam at the time, also contributed to that. It makes me think of how nowadays conflicts in the Middle East receive a good deal of press but conflicts in Africa proceed largely unnoticed.