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African Literature Book Club: Review of Girls at War by Chinua Achebe

Hosted by Alice Gbelia, featuring Elizabeth, Aminata, Grace, Tope, Kazvare , Sharon and Gabrielle
Achebe’s Girls At War is not a well known collection of stories as Things Fall Apart has become the focal point of Achebe’s work and a seminal text when exploring African Literature. However as Achebe states himself in the introduction to the Penguin African Writers Series “Africa is not simple”. It follows that Girls At War is not a simple collection, the majority of stories included are thought provoking, humorous and multi-faceted while others miss the mark. We discussed the themes running through the collection and our own issues when approaching the collection.

African vs European Values
Throughout the stories there is an opposition between African and European values and how the two are affected when they come into contact with one another. The story that triggered the most discussion was Marriage is a Private Affair. A young man marries a woman who is not Igbo and not from his village. As a result his father disowns him, but comes to regret the decision when he finds out about his grandsons.

Alice: These questions of marrying someone from your own tribe are still present today. I still meet girls who say they want to marry someone from their own country. To which I reply” We’re not in a village anymore”. But its still there!

Tope: The reason why it is there is this feeling that a family should be harmonious from the youngest to the eldest, and in order to do this there must be a common language and a common culture; that’s where it stems from. Nowadays people don’t mind having to learn a new language because their partner is French for example. But when it comes to African languages there is no school – you have to be in it and pick it up. It’s about fear of how a child will fit into the whole family. Being rejected by either side is disastrous for an African family because it can mean exclusion for generations. It’s a question of educating people about making the effort whoever you choose to marry. Not making the effort and living in your own little island (husband, wife and children) is un- African.

Grace: Yeah but that’s how the West has being doing it.

Tope: …and it’s not working!

Kazvare: Ok that’s all well and good, and obviously I do recognise the importance of having family around but at the end of the day husband and wife are husband and wife – you can’t invite all and sundry into your business.

Ami: It’s more complex than just the culture you come from it can also be the religion. Nowadays it’s more complex, there are so many more layers to what can make you feel as one in a couple.

Gabby: This story pushes on how important family is.  My parents are West Indian and there is a bit of that small island thing of “I don’t want you marrying this Jamaican” but its not serious and no one will disown you if you do. Obviously your parents won’t like everyone you are with but there has to be some common ground.

Alice: I loved that they talk about love in this story. The couple loves each other and that’s something you don’t always get in African stories.

Relationships Between Men and Women
In the stories Akueke and Girls at War the relationship between men and women is in the forefront. In Akueke the young girl called Akueke is sick and lives with her brothers and refuses. Going against the tradition, she adamantly refuses their offers of suitors. In response her brothers decide to leave her in the forest to die. In Girls At War a Biafran government official begins an affair with a young woman during the Biafran war which ends in tragedy.
Tope: What you think of the story Akueke being put in with this collection? To me it’s the only one where it states that in the old days things weren’t so sweet. They were going to leave Akueke in the jungle to die.

I liked that Akueke was so angry and active and would not give in to her brothers demands. “Let them eat shit!” she tells them. I wanted to ask how people felt about the title story [Girls At War] as women are in the stories but don’t feature as much…I guess I’m not quite sure what Achebe is saying about women.

I think [Girls At War], some of it came across as quite scathing about women.

Gabrielle: Yes it seemed Achebe was really criticising women for sleeping around…
Tope: I don’t think that’s what Chinua Achebe is saying. I think he is commenting on these women becoming victims of circumstance. The woman goes from being a person active in the Biafran movement to eventually saving someone’s life. I think Achebe is commenting on the transition of roles between men and women. Women simply have to adapt to the circumstances whatever they are…

Elizabeth: I think [the male character] has misinterpreted the woman’s survival as whoring. He takes advantage of the situation but judges her harshly for doing the same.

Grace: I think it would have been great to have had the female character’s point of view. Instead [the story was written] from the point of view of a man taking advantage of a woman and being quite self-righteous about it.

Do we need a glossary when reading African literature?

Girls At War is laden with references to Nigerian Igbo culture and history. We were torn as to whether a glossary would have been a helpful addition. For the majority of the stories this was not a problem, but for some stories like The Sacrificial Egg the lack of background may have prevented an understanding of the story.

Alice: I didn’t get it [The Sacrificial Egg]

I had to do quite a bit of research, and read it twice before I figured it out that the God Kitipka and the Pox were the same. It’s not bad once you get it.

Tope: It went between reality and voodoo, reality and voodoo. Western and African.

There were some things I just couldn’t relate to because they are of the environment and of the culture.

Kazvare: There is an author – I can’t remember his name – but he said as an African author you are always having to translate your reality to others. But at the same time I like having to work for it, I don’t like it all being laid out all the time. Sometimes it’s not always of a case that you must understand.

Elizabeth: Well when I was researching it I couldn’t find much on this collection. I had to contextualise the stories and find out what the different words meant. I think a glossary would have helped.

When I read Sosa Boy [by Ken Saro-Wiwa] it had a glossary at the end of the book and I think it helped because otherwise you get the feeling that you’re missing something like an in-joke.

: Sometimes you have to be the outsider. There are some things that you will never get because of the difference in cultures. There are some things you can never translate. You always end up filtering something out whether it’s your thought processes or whatever…

Pros and cons of a short story collection?

Mostly the group found that the short stories were positive but that some stories needed more plot.
Sharon: My favourite story was The Vengeful Creditor, about the young girl denied free education. In the comparison between African and European literature this has a lot more layers, there’s so much slipping through… There’s humour, the political stuff and the social aspect of going to find a child to look after your own child and its all done in the space of 20 pages but it is so full- but it never feels heavy ….It’s a moving story but its kept light, I loved it.

Grace: I found The Vengeful Creditor very sad. It showed the young girl’s thoughts and her feelings really well when the family she was working for denied her the education that their children received.

That was one of the stories that left me hanging.
Sharon: Yeah it kind of ends with the mother’s political awareness growing.

Grace: I liked reading the short stories; it was a good introduction back to reading. You can dip in and out. I couldn’t understand how Achebe could get such comprehensive stories into so few pages… That blew my mind! I really rate him as a writer.

Tope: I loved the proverbs and the humour that’s what I love about this book it reminds me of the mentality of being at home.

Overall verdict
Girls At War is a challenging and thought provoking read and has wetted our appetites for more African Literature. This short story collection is opportunity to see another facet of an amazing writer.


Posted: Sunday 11th July 2010 4:49 pm


2 Responses to “African Literature Book Club: Review of Girls at War by Chinua Achebe”

  • Achebe’s books are always inspiring

    Amamchukwu amara says
  • An excellent short story collection from Achebe who conveys the humanity of his characters in his very open and unbiased style of writing. The many stories which are possibly based on his own life experiences for example, ‘Chike’s School Days’ vividly show the changes in traditional societies and the way individuals experience and navigate the impact of modernity.
    I probably would not have come across this largely unknown work, even for such a great author and it was fascinating to have further access to his interpretations.

    Joanne says


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