Bush war stories

Explanations for the ferocious post-Independence wars in West and Central Africa fall into two main camps. In “Fighting for the Rain Forest: War,Youth & Resources in Sierra Leone” (1996) Paul Richards refutes Robert Kaplan’s thesis that these wars are caused by social breakdown in turn resulting from population pressure and environmental collapse. Rather he argues that they are a consequence of political failure, specifically the crisis of patrimonial relationships in failing states: stagnant economies, rising poverty and corruption add up to social exclusion, isolation and dissatisfaction particularly amongst young people. Richards finds that many of those drawn into these conflicts seek peace, modernity, good government and sustainable use of natural resources.

Novelists have tackled the wars also. The writer and political and environmental activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was one of first, albeit some twenty years after the fighting, drawing upon his eye-witness experiences during the Biafran War in “Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English” (1985). He would also write the autobiography On A Darkling Plain: An Account of the Nigerian Civil War (1989). In Sozaboy Meme is a young apprentice driver of the truck “Progres”. To appease his girlfriend he joins the army, and is soon embroiled in the fighting in the forest (“And the bush no be any man friend”), becomes a prisoner and later a refugee. As he loses his naivete he realise that he has lost everything, including his identity. At the end as Meme walks away from his home town for ever he says:

And I was thinking how I was prouding and call myself Sozaboy. But now if anybody say anything about war or even fight, I will just run and run and run and run and run. Believe me yours sincerely.

The same fate falls to Agu the narrator of Uzodinma Iweala’s “Beasts of No Nation” (2005). This is an unflinching (often almost unreadable) violent story of a boy-soldier wrenched from family and childhood innocence by rebels and becoming a child capable of terror and revelling in killing. After killing a man for the first time he says to himself:

I am not a bad boy. I am not a bad boy. I am a soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing. .. so if I am killing then I am only doing what is right.

By the end of his part in the fighting Agu is left homeless and speechless: “I am not saying many thing because I am knowing too many terrible thing to be saying…”

In both novels the protagonists share an incomprehension about the events which they are engulfed: both novels take place in unnamed countries and at unspecific times. Since both are narratives the novelists make good use of Nigerian and English pidgin, broken and idiomatic English, particularly in Meme’s ‘rotten’ English. Uzodinma Iweala is a young Nigerian writer, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed by the Abacha military regime in November 1995. These are both great novels.

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