"Girls at War" by Chinua Achebe

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Emily Gould

February 2015


“Girls at War” by Chinua Achebe

“People have sometimes asked me if I have thought of writing a novel about America since I have now been living here some years [but] America has enough novelists writing about her, and Nigeria too few.”
Chinua Achebe (1930-2013)1
-Born in November of 1930, in the Igbo town of Ogidi in eastern Nigeria.

-Educated in English at the University of Ibadan and had a short teaching job

-In 1958, Achebe published his first novel, Things Fall Apart, which “centers on the cultural clash between native African culture and the traditional white culture of missionaries and the colonial government in place in Nigeria.”

-From 1961-1966, Achebe worked at the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation as director of external broadcasting.

-External broadcasting: in charge of broadcasting outside Nigeria

-1961, marries Christie Chinwe Okoli and they went on to have four children.

-Achebe and renowned poet Christopher Okigbo co-founded a publishing company in 1967 called the Citadel Press. They intended for the company to be an outlet for a “new kind of African-oriented children’s books.” Okigbo was killed soon after in the Nigerian civil war.

-Two year later, Achebe toured the U.S. with fellow writers, giving lecture at various universities.

-Throughout the 1960s, 70s, and the rest of his life, Achebe was publishing numerous pieces of work like collections of short stories, children’s books, novels, etc.

-In 1975, while visiting the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Achebe gave a lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” Achebe asserts, “that Joseph Conrad’s famous novel dehumanizes Africans… [and] referred to Conrad as a ‘thoroughgoing racist.’” The work went on to be published in essay form and became a “seminal postcolonial African work.”

-“Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world,’ the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilization, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality.”2

-“It might be contended, of course, that the attitude to the African in Heart of Darkness is not Conrad’s but that of his fictional narrator, Marlow, and that far from endorsing it Conrad might be indeed be holding it up to irony and criticism.”3

-“Conrad saw and condemned the evil of imperial exploitation but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth.”4
-That same year, he joined the faculty at University of Connecticut, and returned to the University of Nigeria in 1976.
-1990s: Achebe was in a car accident that paralyzed him from the waist down and confined him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Soon after that, he moved to the U.S. and taught at Bard College for 15 years. Moved to Brown University in 2009.

-Chinua Achebe died on March 21, 2013 at the age of 82 in Boston, Massachusetts.

The Nigeria-Biafra War5

Birth of the Conflict

-Berlin Conference of 1885, “that controversial gathering of the world’s leading European powers… what we now call the Scramble for Africa.”

-“Great Britain was handed the area of West Africa that would later become Nigeria, like a piece of chocolate cake at a birthday party.”

-“Indirect rule in Igbo land proved far more challenging to implement. Colonial rule functioned through a newly created and incongruous establishment of ‘warrant chiefs’ – a deeply flawed arrangement that effectively confused and corrupted the Igbo democratic spirit.”

-Igbo (historically Ibo): one of the largest ethnic groups in Africa from southeastern Nigeria

-The structure of Nigeria was composed by the colonial powers that ruled, and the colonists neglected to consider religious, linguistic, and ethnic differences. This created tensions, obviously…

-Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1960, 60 million people consisting of 300 differing ethnic and cultural groups6

-The Igbo post-colonial living was extremely difficult: “lost the habit of ruling themselves,” were not able to run the new systems “foisted upon [them] at the dawn of independence by [the] ‘colonial masters.’”


-Scholar Douglas Anthony identifies a lack of humility from the Igbos trading and migrating (‘economic migrants’ he calls them) to the Hausa town of Kano (Northern Nigeria) as a catalyst to the pogroms that would begin to occur.7

-This sparks intense tensions among the Hausa inhabitants toward the Igbo

-Coups and counter-coups

-1966 Nigerian Coup d’état: One Yoruba and four Igbo majors plan to assassinate Prime Minister Abubakar Balewa—dissatisfied with the government’s actions and that most of the politicians were of Northern Nigerian origin.8

-An Igbo officer, Aguiyi-Ironsi, then seizes power and control of the government

-A counter-coup led by Northern Nigerian officers sets out and kills thousands of civilians, including Igbos and Ironsi and southern officers.

-Gowon (from the north) takes control of the military government

-Ethnic rivalries increase exponentially and lead to massacres and purging (pogroms) throughout the north

The Biafran Position9

-“January 15, 1966, coup d’état, through the counter-coup (staged mainly by Northern Nigerian officers, who murdered 185 Igbo officers) and the massacre of thirty thousand Igbos and Easterners in pogroms that started in May 1966 and occurred over four months”

-Left future Biafrans feeling terrified and they fled to Eastern Nigeria

-Federal government of Nigeria did not respond to calls to end the pogroms (violent, organized massacre of a particular ethnic group), so victims decided to seek safety in the form of secession

The Nigerian/Federal Gov’t/ Hausa-Fulani Argument

-“If Biafra was allowed to secede then a number of other ethnic nationalities within Nigeria would follow suit. The Nigerian government, therefore, had to block Biafra’s secession to prevent dissolution of Nigeria.”

-BUT really, the would-be Biafra area was extremely rich in natural resources, especially oil that brought in a lot of profit. Following the eventual surrender, the Nigerian government commandeered the oil production and took over the profits.10

The War

-The war began on July 6, 1967 when the Nigerian government launched a “police action” to retake the secessionist territory.11

-The Nigerian force offensive plan was to advance into Biafran territory, close in around them, and seize Igbo areas.

- Besieged areas were subject to starvation and genocide.

-Calabar Massacre: “In actions reminiscent of the Nazi policy of eradicating Jews throughout Europe just twenty years earlier, the Nigerian forces decided to purge the city of its Igbo inhabitants. By the time the Nigerians were done they had ‘shot at least 1,000 and 2,000 Ibos, most of them civilians.”12

-Surrender came to General Gowon of the federal army in January of 1970 and the secession did not succeed.

-Following the surrender, Igbos continued to suffer from hunger and disease and were faced with discrimination in attempts to enter or reenter the Nigerian workforce. “With ill-advised bravado Gowon was busy banning relief agencies that had helped Biafra.”13

Achebe and the Nigerian Civil War
-Very little was written during the war

-Most novels and non-fictional accounts began publishing in the 1980s

-“The political situation in Nigeria in the early 1970s was not conducive to such publications and many Nigerians were too traumatized to appreciate accounts of a war that had torn the country apart.”14

-“It is for the sake of the future of Nigeria, for our children and grandchildren, that I feel it is important to tell Nigeria’s story, Biafra’s story, our story, my story.”15

-“Chinua Achebe worked both with the secessionist territory and outside it to gain international recognition and support for the Biafran cause.”

-The war inspired Achebe and many like him to write.

“Girls at War”
“That was in the first heady days of warlike preparation when thousands of young men (and sometimes women too) were daily turned away from enlistment centres because far too many of them were coming forward burning with readiness to bear arms in defence of the exciting new nation” (11).

-Starts in the early days of Biafra’s independence as the war slowly moves southward16

-How might this illustrate the spirit of the would-be Biafra people entering a war state?

“The second time they met was at a check-point at Awka… Although intellectually he approved of thorough searches at road-blocks, emotionally he was always offended whenever he had to submit to them” (11).

-Do you see significant change in Nwankwo between the two “times?” What do you make of Nwankwo’s thoughts?

“Sorry to delay you, sir. But you people gave us this job to do” (11).

-Consider, too, the rest of their interaction. What does it tell you about Gladys’ character? Gladys is also referred to as a “local vigilante.” Do you see a set up for the male versus female experience during war? Does Gladys change as much?
“He had seen plenty of girls and women marching and demonstrating before now. But somehow he had never been able to give it much thought. He didn’t doubt that the girls and the women took themselves seriously, they obviously did… The prime joke of the time among his friends was the contingent of girls from a local secondary school marching behind a banner: WE ARE IMPREGNABLE” (11-12).
“When their paths crossed a third time, at least eighteenth months later, things had got very bad” (12).
“Nwankwo was deeply embarrassed not by the jeers of this scarecrow crowd of rags and floating ribs but by the independent accusation of their wasted bodies and sunken eyes… By nature such singular good fortune in the midst of a general desolation was certain to embarrass him” (12).
“She wore a high-tinted wig and very expensive skirt and low-cut blouse. Her shoes, obviously from Gabon, must have cost a fortune. In short, thought Nwankwo, she had to be in the keep of some well-placed gentlemen, one of those piling up money out of the war”

-Are you starting to track the progression of war? How are the two characters changing? Compare Gladys’ clothing.

“Because if she is not at home I will offer you bed and breakfast…” (13).

-Why does Nwankwo feel compelled to “care” for Gladys?

And then…
“Owerri is real swinging now, and we live the life of gay bachelors”

“That’s what I have heard”

“You will not just hear it; you will see it today” (14).

-Why does Nwankwo insist on taking Gladys to one of these parties? Yet say that he hates the parties and frivolities? What do you make of Gladys’ reaction, or lack thereof?
“’Great!’ said Nwankwo as they drove away. ‘She will come back on an arms plane loaded with shoes, wigs, pants, bras, cosmetics and what have you, which she will then sell and make thousands of pounds. You girls really are at war, aren’t you?” (16)

-What war is he referring too? Or perhaps doesn’t fully know he’s referring to?

[Drunk Red Cross man explodes] “Not for this stinking place. Yes, everything stinks here. Even these girls who come here all dolled up and smiling, what are they worth? Don’t I know? A head of stock-fish, that’s all, or one American dollar and they are ready to tumble into bed” (16).
“At the same time Nwankwo and a friend on the other side of him were saying quietly, very quietly, that although the man had been rude and offensive what he has said about the girls was unfortunately the bitter truth, only he was the wrong man to say it” (17).

-Are these thoughts something that the reader agrees with? Does Achebe feel this way? Does Nwankwo’s sexism, whatever the degree, reflect Achebe’s views? Does Nwankwo see Gladys this way in this moment?

Following the Red Cross guy’s explosion, Gladys asks Nwankwo for permission to dance with another man. “Go ahead,” says Nwaknwo.


“’You took me there,’ she said in final revolt. ‘There are your friends. I don’t know them before” (17).

-Asking for permission comes immediately after Nwankwo quietly agrees with the Red Cross man. What do you make of this? The men complaining about the state of women, yet the women are obeying the men, asking for permission to do things?

“She gave him a shock by the readiness with which she followed him to bed and by her language. ‘You want to shell?’ she asked. And without waiting for an answer said, ‘Go ahead but don’t pour in troops!’” (17)

-How is the reader to understand Gladys’ willingness here?

“One of the ingenious economies taught by the war was that a rubber condom could be used over and over again. All you had to do was wash it out, dry it and shake a lot of talcum powder over it to prevent its sticking; and it was as good as new” (17).

-What purpose does this fact serve at this moment in the story? Why would Achebe put this in?

“He had his pleasure but wrote the girl off. He might just as well have slept with a prostitute, he thought. It was clear as daylight to him now that she was kept by some army officer” (18).
“What a terrible fate to befall a whole generation! The mothers of tomorrow!” (18)
“By morning he was feeling a little more generous in his judgments. Gladys, he thought, was just a mirror reflecting a society that had gone completely rotten and maggotty at the centre” (18).

-Does anyone else find this ironic? What is the experience of war for a woman? Do the men who are typically in charge of the war perpetuate the conditions of society that occur during war?

-Nwankwo also states that he has a duty to her. Why??

The Ending

“Vaguely he saw Gladys stop; he pushed past her shouting to her at the same time to come on. Then a high whistle descended like a spear through the chaos and exploded in a vast noise and motion… From afar… he saw the remains of his car smoking and the entangled remains of the girl and the soldier” (19).

-What does the ending scene reveal about Nwankwo and Gladys? How do their actions in this final moment compare to their actions throughout the rest of the story? Was there ever a question of moral superiority? Who had it? Who has it?

How do you interpret Achebe’s thoughts? Why is the title of the story, “Girls at War?” Is the story a critique or does it serve to express Nwankwo’s perspective as a man during the war? Is Nwankwo a sympathetic character? Can you compare Nwankwo to other characters we’ve read?

1 http://www.biography.com/people/chinua-achebe-20617665#synopsis

2 Chinua Achebe. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

3 Chinua Achebe. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.”

4 Ibid

5 Chinua Achebe. There Was a Country.

6 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigerian_Civil_War

7 http://www.jstor.org/stable/3518821?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1966_Nigerian_coup_d%27état

9 Chinua Achebe. There Was a Country.

10 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigerian_Civil_War

11 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nigerian_Civil_War

12 Chinua Achebe

13 Ibid

14 Françoise Ugochukwu. “A Lingering Nightmare: Achebe, Ofoegbu, and Adichie on Biafra.”

15 Chinua Achebe

16 Françoise Ugochukwu.

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