A City university lecturer is behind a ground-breaking documentary marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the Nigerian-Biafran War
Dr Louisa Egbunike, who teaches English Literature at City, produced the documentary, which was screened for the first time at the Curzon Bloomsbury cinema on 25 January this year. Those wanting to catch the next viewing will be able to see it at The Frontline Club in west London on 24 March.
In The Shadow of Biafra focuses on the Nigerian-Biafran War through the eyes of Nigerian writers.
Resulting in the deaths of more than a million people, the war came to an end on 15 January 1970, after almost three years of conflict. Divisions in the wake of Nigeria’s independence from British colonial rule led to the killing of hundreds of Igbo people in the north of the country. No longer feeling safe in Nigeria, the Igbo people moved to the eastern state of Biafra and declared its independence, creating tensions that resulted in a civil war.
“When people think about war in the late sixties, they think of Vietnam. But this was happening in West Africa, and we must remember it too,” said Egbunike.
The lecturer has a personal connection to the war as her father’s family came from Biafra. Although he never spoke to his children about the war, after his passing in 2017, Egbunike started to reflect on how the war affected her father and other Biafrans.
To produce the documentary, Egbunike went on location to Nigeria to speak to and film people who had lived through the war. She also visited critically acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at her home in Maryland, in the United States, who spoke to her about growing up “in the shadow of Biafra”.
Adichie is one of the main voices narrating the documentary as she reflects on what Biafra means to her.
“Even in war time, class still matters,” she says at one point, speaking about how her family’s middle-class background meant that their experience of the war was incomparable to the experience of a working-class family.
In the 2006 novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which focuses on the impact and legacy of the Nigerian-Biafran War on civilians, Adichie emphasises the economic and ethnic differences of her two protagonists. One belongs to the Igbo people of Biafra and the other to the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
For the Igbo people who fought for independence from Nigeria and for the creation of the Republic of Biafra, the war was a life-defining event. But for most other Nigerians, it is something best to be forgotten about.
A woman of Yoruba heritage at the second screening of the documentary, which took place at the Lexi Cinema in Kensal Rise on 22 February, said: “I feel like I grew up in the silence of Biafra. It’s still never spoken about and I don’t know how to approach my family about it.”
The history of the Biafran War is neither taught in Nigerian nor British schools, despite Britain’s role in supplying arms to the Nigerian government and putting blockades in place at ports, which led to mass starvation and thousands of deaths.
As well as Adichie, other voices in the documentary include Nigerian poet and playwright Inua Ellams, whose 2019 adaptation of Chekhov’s Three Sisters is set during the Biafran War, Nigerian-American author Nnedi Okorafor, and late Nigerian writer Chukwuemeka Ike, who passed away on 8 January this year. In the Shadow of Biafra is dedicated to him.
Egbunike said: “The recent passing of Chukwuemeka Ike is a reminder as to why it is so important to record and share these stories.”
Dr Louisa Egbunike is currently in the process of scheduling further screenings for In the Shadow of Biafra. For updates, follow @ShadowOfBiafra on Twitter.