Surviving Biafra

A Nigerwife's Story

October 2018 9781849049580 256pp
EU Customers


In 1961, Rosina ‘Rose’ Martin married John Umelo, a young Nigerian she met on a London Tube station platform, eventually moving to Nigeria with him and their children. As Rose taught Classics in Enugu, they found themselves caught up in Nigeria’s Civil War, which followed the 1967 secession of Eastern Nigeria—now named Biafra. The family fled to John’s ancestral village, then moved from place to place as the war closed in. When it ended in 1970, up to 2 million had died, most from starvation. Rose (‘worse off than some, better off than many’) had kept notes, capturing the reality of living in Biafra—from excitement in the beginning to despair towards the end.

Immediately after the war, Rose turned her notes into a narrative that described the ingenious ways Biafrans made do, still hoping for victory while their territory shrank and children starved by the thousand. Now anthropologist S. Elizabeth Bird contextualises Rose’s story, providing background on the progress of the war and international reaction to it. Edited and annotated, Rose’s vivid account of life as a Biafran ‘Nigerwife’ offers a fresh, new look at hope and survival through a brutal war.


‘Umelo’s harrowing account does not exoticize . . . she captures the reality of living in Biafra – from the early excitement to the bitter end. Surviving Biafra takes its place in a valuable corpus of grassroots accounts . . . Putting ordinary people to the fore, it reminds us that women often pay the greatest price in war.’ — The Times Literary Supplement

‘A vital female contribution to discourse on the war.’ — Africa Today

‘Reading Surviving Biafra is in many ways exceptionally thrilling. The text is a combination of history, autobiography, biography and strands of a story including what could be described as semi-fictions to make a new literary genre.’ — African Studies Quarterly

‘Here is a book on Biafra that juxtaposes the dualities: the historical and figurative narratives; history and memory; the complexity and simplicity of politics and warfare; the incredulity and reality of facts; the very essence of life and death; and the personal engagements with plenty and hunger, desire and denial.’ — Toyin Falola, Professor of African Studies, University of Texas

‘A captivating account of Nigeria’s war. Having heard the voices of a cross-section of Igbo and Nigerian women, we welcome the voice of a woman from across the seas who lived through the tragedy with us.’ — Egodi Uchendu, Professor of History, University of Nigeria and author of Women and Conflict in the Nigerian Civil War

‘Rosina Umelo, an English teacher married to a Biafran, lived through Nigeria’s civil war, giving birth and raising a family in the middle of it. This is both her story and the story of the people she lived among, vividly told.’ — Jonathan Derrick, author of Africa, Empire and Fleet Street and journalist for West Africa magazine (1966–70)




S. Elizabeth Bird is Professor of Anthropology at the University of South Florida. Her books include The Asaba Massacre: Trauma, Memory and the Nigerian Civil War, co-authored with Fraser Ottanelli.

Rosina Umelo lived in Nigeria for fifty years, working as a teacher, writer and editor, most recently at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, Ibadan. She now lives near London.

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