When you have no memory, but plenty of stories

The desolate unfairness of Half of a Yellow Sun makes for a cruel story. My naïvety of world history catches me out when I read such books.

It’s set in Nigeria and the short-lived Biafra. I’ve heard of Lagos, but I hadn’t heard of Biafra of the Igbo people, and I couldn’t have pointed out Nigeria on a map.  I had no awareness of the atrocities I was going to read when I started the book. Yet the book isn’t all dark depressing and horrible. It’s a story of people, families, children and love.

But the backdrop to these relationships is horrendous. Emotionally, I can’t comprehend such unfairness. My brain has been washed with a lukewarm ‘there are people starving in Africa’, but most of the time my world feels no larger than this one bedroom house or the concrete office block where I work.

My closest understanding of Africa comes from my Egyptian friend, at college in America, my South-Africa colleague, applying for British citizenship, and my obsession with ancient history. To this Africa, I can relate. It’s educated and eats three meals a day, often with cake or biscuits. It looks familiar, barely any different from my world in my one bedroom house and concrete office block.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun shook me up. I need shaking.

And I have a huge amount to learn. If you have any suggestion of stories that have touched you and educated you about this world that we don’t see, please share.

But with regard to Biafra, and the characters of the story I just let into my heart, there’s a small fact that particularly jars at me.

From Wikipedia, “Britain supplied amounts of heavy weapons and ammunition to the Nigerian side because of its desire to preserve the country it created. The Biafra side on the other hand found it difficult to purchase arms as the countries who supported it did not provide arms and ammunition. The heavy supply of weapons by Britain was the biggest factor in determining the outcome of the war.”

Estimates suggest 3 million people died from the fighting or the associated famine.

Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns is a very different book. It’s not quite as tightly written as the Half of a Yellow Sun, but is definitely worth reading, especially, if like me your knowledge of recent history is sparse.

Again, I know the name Kabul from the newspapers, but in reality, I know nothing about the history of Afghanistan. I’m an independent educated woman, so Mariam in the book is alien to me. Her learning consists of reciting some religious verses and cooking. Her life is held within a tiny, closed world where as a woman her power is limited to a level that I simply cannot comprehend. The street outside changes around her: first by the Soviets, then by civil war, then the harsh rules of the Taliban, who in turn are pushed out by the Americans and the British declaring a war on terror.

Reading a story makes her street my street. Her family is my family. Her heartache is my heartache. But her humility isn’t my humility, it takes me a moment to accept that I can’t comprehend what it is she goes through, I don’t know I have that depth. I’ve never been pushed to my limits.

So, with this all churning in the back of my mind, my thoughts on remembrance day didn’t go along the lines of ‘I remember…’. They went along the lines of what do I need to plan to learn next. It’s a way of thinking that started in Poland, as I was walking through a stunning, beautiful city I became aware that where each modern building stood had once stood a street where men, women and children fought until death for an elusive freedom.

I went to the Warsaw Rising museum, and came out wondering why I knew nothing. I know nothing more than the British school curriculum. This doesn’t once mention the Warsaw Rising or the Biafran War or the many other catastrophes that I know nothing of. It says nothing of the soldiers who, as I was listening to the teacher regurgitate the textbook, were fighting and dying.

Knight in Warsaw