This a personal & non-academic review of Chinua Achebe’s Short story ‘Girls at War’. Originally done for a Whatsapp book discussion group but which I’ve been encouraged to share far & wide. The Short Story ‘Girls at War’ is from the collection of Nigerian civil war time short stories of the same title by Chinua Achebe.
Let’s start with the title, I have always had thing for titles.
Have you ever seen teenage girls fight? Well, if you have then simply multiply the confused, abusive, scratchy, revealing spectacle a few times over & you have ‘Girls at War’. Girls play dirty & fight crazy. Maturity & civility goes out the window. Fairness remains a distant past, order is lost completely, wisdom a mirage & a ‘strip tease’ a strong possibility, very much expected by amused bystanders, who watch with keen selfish interest.
Even those who step in to separate the Waring ladies will have their motives questioned, especially if they are male. (And in these modern days, even female ‘referees’ get their sexual preferences scrutinized also).
Who to grab, where to hold, what to say, to laugh or not, how to behave, self preservation, (dangerously essential for guys with their two very fragile natural passengers to worry about).
Now if you’re the poor fellow the warring girls are in battle over, you’re not on your own for nobody minds their business anymore. Everyone is in your face nowadays. Blaming everyone & you, for the ‘hurt’ girl is always right by default these days.
‘Who rules the world?’, don’t ask Beyonce, just read the tabloids. “That time done pass. Now everybody want (their say). They call it (free speech). You put your number six; I put my number six.
Everything (is) all right.”
Nigeria was at war with Biafra, is the setting of the story & Biafra was doing quite badly. War is the art of survival. Which of the the two sexes is most dexterous in the practicalities of survival? Girls are at War, perpetually.
The manipulation in daily living is survival, one that is sired in us from that maiden race down a ‘penish’ tube, as we aim to win the fertilization laurel & indirectly cause the demise of millions of our first ‘spermy’ peers.
This a story of changing priorities, of changing times & changing people surprising themselves & but not really altering stereotypes & established perceptions.
The first hint of romance is carried through, ’till death do them part’. The young Gladys clad in khaki, searching cars at a roadblock in the early days of the war, changed into a reluctant battle field for troops to ‘not march in’. The privileged intellectualism of Reginald Nwankwo of the Biafran Ministry of Justice is reduced to the pettiness of the pursuit of luxuries everywhere, that will end with ‘drilling his troops’ in Gladys’ ‘battle field’.
The war efforts had commenced with enthusiast children ‘who marched up and down the streets at the time drilling with sticks and wearing their mothers’ soup bowls for steel helmets.’ Alongside them was the jest of the likes of ‘the contingent of girls from a local secondary school marching behind a banner: WE ARE IMPREGNABLE!’
By the time Gladys & Reginald crossed paths for a third & final time, eighteen months of ‘Death and starvation’ had long
chased out the headiness of the early days.’
Amidst the lackness in
blank suicidal resignation of multitudes, Reginald towed Gladys along to a party with the better-off few feeding off the war. Those ‘who had no other desire than whatever good things were still going and to enjoy themselves to the limit. ‘But unlike these strange lot, normalcy had not returned to the rest of the world. ‘Girls became girls once more and boys boys,’ only in the parties of these priviledges few, as the world around them ‘was a tight, blockaded and desperate world.’
Living in these war days made
heads of stockfish & tinned meat a very privileged luxury and the likes of ‘the dreadful American stuff called Formula Two’ heaped on the populace by international relief bringers. Reginald’s contacts kept him within easy reach of a variety of relief stuffs like ‘rice, beans and that excellent cereal commonly called Gabon gari.’ He has an official car & a driver to ferry him through the land & a bomb shelter within reach of his home to weather the horrific fear of air-raids.
Reginald Nwankwo is fortunate and not one of ‘the starved scarecrow crowd of rags and floating ribs’, reduced ‘by the independent accusation of their wasted bodies and sunken eyes’ as they perpetually hung around relief centres, making crude, ungracious remarks like “War Can Continue!”
Reginald did the best he could to keep the clutches of kwashiokor out of the reach of his driver’s (Johnson) home by making sure that whenever he got sizeable supplies he gave some to Johnson, for his wife and six or
At one pound per cigarette cup in the market, Gari might as well be caviar for most ordinary folks. Something has to give & always did. Priorities changed & things like respect & sympathy lowered in standard, so much that only pretty girls get rides in staff cars, not begging old women.
When gentleman say to a pretty girl, ‘I broke my rule today to give you a lift. I never give lifts these
days”, it’s not love or fondness, it is good old sweaty panting lust. When a girl braves bomb raids on the road to a major city during a war & tells you ;“I am going to visit my girlfriend,” it’s good old fashioned survival hunting.
Gladys got the bush meat she came out for in a comfy bed, party fun, good food & scarce money. Reginald got the ‘match’ he wanted to win for a looooooooong time.
“But your family is not there with you?” “No,” he said. “Nobody has his family there. We like to say it is because of air-raids but I can assure you there is more to it. Owerri is a real swinging town and we live the life of gay bachelors.” “That is what I have heard.” Gladys heard the hunting is good in the Owerri metropolitan bush and she came to get lucky.
In a real swinging party hosted by a Lieutenant-Colonel, in the real fun of the moment, she saw someone better than Reginald and fell in-love with what she saw in a man for the first time in Owerri & as it turned out, for the last time. While Reginald was ashamed of himself, hating the parties and frivolities to which his friends clung like drowning men, Gladys found her mojo.
Still it was always about taking a girl home for the classy dude & Reginald was always a classic guy who wants to get the babe. ‘And this particular girl too, who had once had such beautiful faith in the struggle and was betrayed (no doubt about it) by some man like him out for a good time.’
This personified the entire story for me. Gladys is the ‘Girl at War’ with the circumstances she has found herself in & setting out to make the best of it. Just like a young controversial nation at war with the circumstances it found itselt & making a whole mess of it. And five decades later, that region of the nation is still making a mess of the politics of it, playing the blame game still.
Their last morning together, Reginald felt better as he saw Gladys as ‘a mirror reflecting a society that had gone completely rotten and maggoty at the centre. The mirror itself was intact; a lot of smudge but no more. All that was needed was a clean duster.’ One that is still being awaited over fifty years later. And like the bold Biafran experience, Gladys ventured to be bold & heroic at the moment that called for it. Like Biafra, she ended her in a monumental crash of her world in a charred, smoking and entangled remains of the girl and that didn’t what ‘troops to match’ in her insides.
Sadly, the story is a comical but romantic take on how wrong it could be when it feels so right, like fighting a war to regain the peace the war shattered.