Girls At War And Other Stories By Chinua Achebe
A Literary Review

South Africa By: Anne Taylor on 28 May 2010
Category: Books > Reviews Comments View Comments

Girls At War And Other Stories is a collection of short stories written over a period of 20 years that not only celebrates the diversity of African culture but questions and explores the conflict between traditional African beliefs and modernism introduced by British colonialism.

Girls At War And Other Stories by Chinua AchebeI picked up this collection of short stories with relish. Chinua Achebe has been my favourite Nigerian author since I read his most celebrated novel Things Fall Apart, which was published in 1958 and is now considered to be a classic of contemporary African fiction. It has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide in more than 50 languages. As part of the Penguin African Writer Series, Girls At War And Other Stories contains a dozen stories sourced from literary journals and magazines, including two earlier student pieces, which Achebe admits in the preface that he "slightly touched up here and there without, I hope, destroying their primal ingenuousness". Written between 1952 and 1972, this short fiction covers late British colonisation and the disintegration of old tribal customs to the political turmoil of the Biafran War in Nigeria. Varied stories range from The Voter, in which old customs and monetary bribes collide to rig a local village election, to the title story, Girls At War, which is about a beautiful girl, Gladys, who has been forced to become a woman "kept by some army officer" in her struggle for survival during the war.

The mix of short stories provides an interesting insight into Achebe's progression as a writer as he develops his unique style and major themes that would become so central in his later work. One returning theme is his examination of the way that Western values have affected traditional African society; a theme clearly observed in his earliest short story, Marriage Is A Private Affair, which was written in 1952 while Achebe was a student. In just a few pages, Achebe brings into focus the deep hurt caused when traditional African customs clash with modern Westernised ideologies, and, in this case, marriage. Nnaemeka, a young man from the Igbo ethnic group in Nigeria, puts off telling his father about his engagement to Nene because he fears that his father will disapprove as Nene is not an Ibo, a member of the Igbo nation. His wife to be has lived all her life in "the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the city", Lagos, and "it had always seemed to her something of a joke that a person's tribe could determine whom he married". Nnaemeka receives a letter from his father telling him that his father has already found him a wife, Ugoye. Nnaemeka remembers Ugoye quite well as "an Amazon of a girl who used to beat up all the boys, himself included, on the way to the stream". When Nnaemeka explains to his father that it is impossible to marry Ugoye because he does not love her and that "marriage today is different..." his father retorts that all he needs in a wife is a good character and a Christian background. His father comes to believe that his son's behaviour is "Satan's work" and prays vehemently for him. Despite his father's grief, Nnaemeka marries Nene. For eight years Nnaemeka's father has nothing to do with the married couple until the day he receives an unexpected letter from Nene imploring him to accept his grandchildren. Although Achebe appears to be saying in this story that Africans hanging on to their traditional customs will have no choice but to accept modernisation as the way forward his message is quite the opposite in Dead Men's Path.

Dead Men's Path reveals similar problems that occur when British colonials enforce their value systems on people who have a desire to retain their traditional beliefs. Michael Obi is a determined, educated, "modern" man who is appointed the new headmaster of a village school. An almost disused path runs from the village through the school grounds, connecting the village shrine with an ancestral burial ground. Worried about what the white government education officer will think of it when he comes to inspect the school, Michael has heavy sticks planted across the path to prevent the school grounds from becoming the village "highway". The village priest sternly warns him that "this path was here before you were born and before your father was born. The whole life of this village depends on it". Michael scoffs that "the whole purpose of our school [...] is to eradicate just such beliefs as that". When a young village woman dies two days later in childbirth the locals, fearing that "the path of children coming in to be born" has been blocked, destroy part of the school. The white supervisor then writes a report about a "tribal war situation developing between the school and the village" as being perpetuated by the misguidance of the new headmaster, thus revealing the hypocrisy of colonial authority.

Achebe's writing style in his early works is as moving and eloquent as it has ever been. His concise and unusual sense of humour can be found in the most unexpected situations. Achebe has long been recognised for his skill in combining Western social and political ideologies with Igbo proverbs and idiomatic expressions. However, when Nigerian proverbs or words were used I was not always able to understand their full meaning and my only criticism is that it would have been useful if a translation had been provided. Nevertheless, these engaging, insightful short stories offer an authentic examination of the Nigerian social and political past (although my favourite work is still Achebe's later, more developed work, Things Fall Apart). These short stories can be enjoyed independently but readers might find it useful to read Things Fall Apart as well because Achebe's short fiction reveals the same themes that become more fully developed in his later fiction. Achebe has a unique ability to make uncritical observations as he explores aspects of modernism versus tradition. In this selection of short fiction readers will enjoy the plethora of different narrative styles used, from the first person to omniscient, as well as the broad spectrum of characters originating from different social positions and backgrounds.

The review copy of Girls At War And Other Stories by Chinua Achebe was provided by Penguin Books (South Africa). It is available from leading book stores and online retailers, including,,, and Opinion Share/Bookmark
Rating: 8/10

Key Facts (Review Copy)
Title: Girls At War And Other Stories
Author: Chinua Achebe
ISBN/EAN: 9780143026235
Publisher: The Penguin Group (SA) (first published by Heinemann Education Publishers in 1972)
Edition: First
Year: 2009 (1 August 2009); first published 1972
Format: Paperback
Pages: 109
Dimensions: 128x197x10mm (WxHxD)
Genre/Keywords: culture, colonialism, fiction, Nigeria, politics, war, drama, identity

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