The National Catholic Review
Gerald T. Cobb

If war is hell, a literary corollary might be that every society touched by warfare needs its own version of Virgil or Dante to journey to that hell and return to tell the tale. In her collection of short stories, Anthonia Kalu plays such a role with respect to the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70. This conflict produced 100,000 military casualties and as many as two million civilian deaths, leaving untold numbers of families devastated and dislocated. The image of a malnourished Biafran child with distended stomach came to haunt the world’s imagination in the late 1960’s, and it remains today an emblem of suffering and a call to conscience.

Kalu, a professor of Africana studies at the University of Northern Colorado, was a teenager in Biafra during the war, which may explain the youthful resilience that animates her stories with a narrative faith that sustains the reader through heart-wrenching material. There is little reporting on the policymaking or international “big picture” behind the Nigerian civil war, although a foreword by Emmanuel N. Obiechina provides helpful historical and literary background. Kalu identifies the real front lines of the war as those domestic sites where hearts were broken and families were divided. The domestic intimacy of her collection is its greatest strength.

Kalu captures the innocent optimism that existed in 1960 as Nigeria prepared to assume postcolonial independence. Young girls thrived in mission schools: “Our days were measured and full. We were happy. We were the promise that had been made to our great, great-grandparents at colonization. We were Africa’s future. We waited.” In the opening story, “Independence,” people talk of Nigeria’s impending freedom so feverishly that the schoolgirls suppose it must be something animate that will be coming to their village. In anticipation, older women proudly wear “a new hair style called Independence.”

This euphoria proves to be short-lived, however, as the new Nigerian government fails to provide equally for all parts of the country, giving way to a pervading sense of worry and menace in Biafra. Eventually the school-day calm shatters under a traumatic barrage of bombs when Nigerian forces move to isolate and crush the Biafran independence initiative. Kalu describes young girls exchanging games and lessons at Our Lady of Peace School for a new regimen of air raid drills.

The author wisely focuses on a limited number of sharply drawn characters, primarily the women, children and elders whose voices seemed most suppressed during the hostilities. Children struggled under the crushing unpredictability of war; young women languished under diminished marital prospects and shuddered in terror of rape. Joining the army was not a viable alternative, either, for “Girls in uniform were perceived as potential harlots, while young men in uniform were potential heroes.”

The 10 stories in this collection find their unity in Akasi, a township of 19 villages where many of the tales take place. Kalu grants us access to a venerable and beautiful Biafran culture—songs, rites of passage, meal customs, ritual purifications and legal procedures. The war destabilized many of these cultural foundations, and especially disrupted patterns of storytelling because of the energy required to meet “the daily need not to die.” The book includes a number of songs created by people to sustain themselves through the war. Some are plaintive dirges reminiscent of the psalms, while others express a defiant call to arms.

The war also precipitated a kind of theological crisis for people because of their faith in ancestors, who seemingly turn a blind eye toward the outrages and fail to bring retribution down on the heads of those who massacred civilians. When people look into the malignant face of war, the face of God seems ever more elusive or absent, and their supplications assume a more urgent or angry tone. Perhaps, as we ask ourselves when there will be an end to our own current military conflicts, Kalu’s words take on an added significance: “No one knew if all were worthy of after-the-war grace, but it was a promise held for those who believed in an eternal goodness reserved by the Universe for nations under stress.”

The narrative trajectory of these stories moves from a hopelessness—out of which characters recall: “Our life was without salt. Our days were without dreams”—to a new vision, in which a character dreams of planes dropping umbrellas instead of bombs. The umbrellas float protectively down upon the people, sheltering them from harm. Kalu convincingly presents such dreams and visions in a land where nightmares had reigned for so long. By the end of the collection she affirms her hope that small triumphs may assuage the bitterness of war. In “Relief Duty,” her story soars to an unpredictable (though not unbelievable) conclusion, demonstrating that the unpredictability of war occasionally leads to an unexpectedly consoling outcome.

Broken Lives and Other Stories is part of the Ohio University Research in International Studies, Africa Series. One must applaud such an insightfully broad definition of university research that includes literary works. These stories represent the fruit of research into the memory, imagination and soul of a troubled time and a suffering people. Although the image of the suffering Biafran child has been displaced recently as an icon of African suffering by images of Rwandan genocide and the ravages of AIDS, these stories give us an opportunity to revisit the image of that child and experience its enduring significance in our own time.

Gerald T. Cobb, S.J., is associate professor in the English department at Seattle University.