The Road to the Village: Novelist Chigozie Obioma on Nigeria’s Brutal Civil War, Love and Redemption

The Road to the Village: Novelist Chigozie Obioma on Nigeria’s Brutal Civil War, Love and Redemption
Troops from the Nigerian Federal Army in Biafra during the civil war. Express Newspapers/Getty Images

Chigozie Obioma is the Nigerian author of the novels The Fishermen (2015) and An Orchestra of Minorities (2019), both shortlisted for the Booker Prize for their unique, folkloric tales of Nigerian life in decades past. Like them, his 2024 novel The Road to the Country is “tinged with fable and prophecy”. It’s set in the brutal Nigerian Civil War of 1967-1960, fought between Nigeria and the Republic of Biafra, a secessionist state which had declared its independence. This epic story of “a young man seeking redemption in a country on fire” is about a shy Lagos student whose brother disappears during the war. He sets out to find him and make right something that happened in the past. We asked Obioma about the work.

Why did you undertake this story; how did it reveal itself?

I knew I wanted to write this book from very early on. In 1993, during a visit to my parents’ eastern village for the first time, I saw a lot of people with physical deformities of all sorts. I was surprised by this, having grown up in a city where I hardly saw anything of that sort. I asked my mother why these people were like this and she said to me, simply: “The war”. The village is in the former Biafran territory.

That stuck with me, and I never forgot it, so that, years later, I began to research the war very avidly and as I read and read, I realised I was going to be writing about it.

Then a couple of years ago, I had the idea of a Yoruba man from the west of Nigeria being conscripted to fight for Biafra, whose army was primarily made up of Igbos and minority groups. That gave me the window into the story and, almost immediately, I found the narrative pulse of the novel, which is centred on the journey into war of a man called Kunle looking to atone for a mistake he made as a child and ending up finding love and regeneration.

Was it a painful experience to recreate the war scenes?

I think so – this is historical fiction and I was looking to recreate a time in history that has not received as much attention as it should. And these events actually happened to people. I know it’s a cliché to say that people who have experienced the horrors of war, especially combatants, do not like to speak about it, but Biafra is especially unique in that this was a war of unequal forces to the nth degree.

As I depict in the novel, much of the time the Biafrans were fighting without weapons. We are talking of a company of 70 soldiers with only 40 rifles and very limited ammunition going against a federal unit equipped with tanks and heavy weapons and aerial support.

Why is family and brotherhood such a central concern of yours?

I am interested in relationships, which for me is the energy for storytelling. How do people form connections, break those connections, and sometimes attempt to put those connections back together again? This is what I am interested in investigating in stories, and it so happens that familial relationships have been part of that (The Fishermen).

I have also explored varied relationships including romantic relationships between a man and a woman and a mystical relationship between a man and his spirit (An Orchestra of Minorities). In The Road to the Country, I investigate the relationship between Kunle and his comrades, and a romantic relationship between him and his love interest, Agnes. So, while brotherhood features in many of these novels, it has not been the only focus.

What role does Igbo identity play in the work?

Chigozie Obioma. David Levenson/Getty Images

I believe that a writer is a sum of herself. There is the sense of who you are, have become and are becoming. These are the things that shape your writing to a degree. That is to say that these things are malleable, and must constantly change or, at least, shift.

Identity is too stiff, too anchored to be useful for the serious writer – I think. So, it doesn’t play a role. That said, it is obvious that I am interested in Igbo worldview, cultures, traditions and history.

Part of the reason for this interest is that I see a lot of unmined treasures for storytelling there, rather than for any sentimental reason. But I am also curious about the Yoruba cultures, American, Turkish, Danish, Swedish, Indian, Jamaican and all the places I have lived in or am interested in.

That said, outside the page, I am of course Igbo, Nigerian, African, Black…

Why the war? Why is a younger Nigerian writer interested in it?

I don’t know who wouldn’t be interested in something of that scale. The Biafran War of Independence was a catastrophe of epic proportions in the history of Nigeria. It reshaped the country and helped birth Nigeria as we know it today.

I wanted to write this novel because I was surprised to find that there was an abundance of non-fiction written about the war. There is some war-time fiction: that is, fiction in which the war is the backdrop. What you don’t find are many war novels: fiction in which the war is the central focus. I wanted to write a novel very much focused on the war, like All Quiet on the Western Front, a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, which depicts the fighting in the first world war.

What do you want readers to take away?

I framed the novel as a general warning on the consequences of not engaging in dialogue. What starts wars? Isn’t it often years of neglect, inability to arrive at a meaningful dialogue and shared understanding? That is why large scale violence is still occurring today.

So, the war portion of the novel itself has been presented to us in its entirety as a vision of the future so that it appears as if this war, though a historical fact, has not yet happened and can somehow be prevented if only we heed the warnings of the seer. The prime question for any society in this world then is this: who is or are your seers? Are we listening to them?The Conversation

Chigozie Obioma, Associate Professor of English, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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