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The Lady Who Cried at the Galle Literary Festival

The Lady Who Cried at the Galle Literary Festival

MARYANNE KOODA Maryanne profile pic

“If you are Muslim you are free to leave” they shouted.

Gun toting and masked, they separated their targets for easy pickings. One of the hostages, an Indian man, tried to leave when they asked him; “what is the name of Prophet Muhammad’s mother?” He didn’t know, so they shot him down. Dead! This is an eye witness account of one of the murders that took place in a shopping mall in Kenya recently.

As the world mourned the loss of 72 lives in that shopping mall on that day, the evil of terrorist attacks become real to more civilians: over 100 people were left injured. Once again though, far away from home, I’m reminded of Nigeria’s own tragedies and an embarrassing moment in the 2011 Galle Literary Festival, where I had burst into tears in front of a live audience.

They were all gathered to listen to Chimamanda Adichie’s reading of her book; Half of a Yellow Sun. After which an interactive session, for questions and comments was permitted. In my bid to participate in the spirited conversation, I committed a faux pas, and showed raw emotions in public much to my consternation.

Chimamanda Adichie is the most renowned Nigerian Novelist since Chinua Achebe. She speaks for the new generation of Nigerians in ways Achebe never could. I loved her work even before she gained critical acclaim. I was delighted to meet her in person, and perhaps get an autographed copy of her latest book. Only to find myself making a scene and would be remembered for a short while by some as “the lady who cried at the Galle lit fest”.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie at The Forum recording at the Galle Literary Festival

I often questioned my state of mind that day, in retrospect. To try and understand why I cried like that, making a public spectacle of myself. Not until I had let the sting of embarrassment fade, was I able to speculate that perhaps, it was a mixture of nostalgia, helplessness and frustration. By then, I had been away from Nigeria for about three years, and still kept close watch on news from home. As is typical of the media, only tragedies gain wide publicity. All I could read of was the rising tension between Christians and Muslims, as they took turns to massacre each other in varying degrees of goriness.

Sitting there that day, as I heard Chimamanda talk about the Nigerian civil war that predates my birth, I couldn’t help but be confounded by the sentiment that she held about the Igbos as marginalized people in present day Nigeria. Some Sri Lankans in the audience nodded and commented on the similarities between the LTTE war with the Sri Lankan government and the Biafran fight for their own state. This similarity struck a chord in many hearts, and perhaps was a good reason for the relative commercial success of the book in Sri Lanka.

Prompted by a member of the audience, she explained a scene in her book where a mother carried the decapitated body of her child in a calabash by train on her way back to her village. The intricate braids still on the corpse as the macabre story unfold. The sympathies of the subjugated Igbos were at an all-time high in the audience that day, which stirred in me a feeling that something was not right there. There is more to the story than hers and her people’s version of it. I am no history buff, but it didn’t feel right to me!

At that point it hadn’t occurred to me that, even though Adichie and I were about the same age, we grew up in different versions of Nigeria. Before moving to the US, she spent part of her childhood in the east of Nigeria where the majority tribe where Igbos and the losses and scars of the civil war had remained long after the rest of the Country had moved on. The Igbos lost the war at a great price, and the pain remained to hunt them for generations.

I, on the other hand had grown up in Northern Nigeria, where the majority tribe were Hausas and an even number of Christians and Muslims coexisted with frequent outbursts of violence. I grew up knowing that the benign ‘mallam’ selling provisions in the kiosk nearby, will not hesitate to butcher me if it was rumoured that I accidentally stepped on a page of the Quran.

Where I grew up it wasn’t, Igbos versus the rest of Nigeria as Adichie tried to express in her book set in 1960s Nigeria, and to the audience that day. It was the poor against the rich, and the Christians against the Muslims. Back then, the stories of the coups and counter coups that eventually lead to the civil war had strong economic and ethnic undertones. There was no denying that the Igbos felt justified in demanding a seperate state. A state they would call Biafra which seceded from Nigeria. The war lasted two and a half years. By then, the Igbos where ‘conqured’, and forced to rejoin the Nigerian Federation.

Yet, i was bothered that she did not point out that, in present day Nigeria, you are more likely to be blown up to bits in a church than for being Igbo. I found it tragic that instead of all Nigerians uniting to fight the common evil of religious fanaticism and poverty, we were still caught up in a dated war that should have been put to rest by now. I felt pretty certain that human suffering transcends ethnicity in Nigeria, and with the news from home still fresh in my mind, I phrased the question carefully and collected the microphone to chime in my 2 cents. An act I would soon regret.

I asked, “Are today’s problems in Nigeria not more religious than ethnic?” to illustrate my point I continued, “Recently I saw pictures of corpses of children in the streets of Jos…”The tears overwhelmed me, stealing my breath as I struggled to regain my composure. It was only a few seconds but the silence in the hall was palpable, till Adichie asked me, “Are you alright?” I nodded and asked my question in a shaky voice “is the stive in Nigeria not more religious than ethnic”? Tactfully, Adichie conceded that the issues in Nigeria where multifaceted and yes, religion was one of them

The rest of the talk went on with my mind occupied with the latest stories of villages in Jos, a town in North-central Nigeria, attacked in the dead of night, houses set on fire as families slept. Those who tried to escape were shot or caught in animal traps that were set for them. I cried then too, alone in my grief, when I first read about it. I couldn’t believe the depth to which people could sink. To use animal traps on humans. These horrors seemed more real to me than a civil war that has since come and gone.

It would not occur to me then that the most recent activities of Boko Haram to topple the Nigerian government by creating lawlessness, was mostly in the North of Nigeria. The Easterners were dealing with their own economic and security issues while nursing the grudges from the war that has since stopped being relevant to most of the North. With a population of 140 million, and over 250 ethnic groups, Nigeria is torn apart by ethnic rivalry that has been long ingrained since precolonial days. There is no sense of Nationalism and no reason to feel pride for a country that seems bent on self destruction by appalling levels corruption.

“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” So says an African maxim. So as the colossal issues of religion and ethnicity ravage the country, hapless victims will continue to die, many of them women and children, who have no voice in the international community. Who really cares when “black” people massacre each other? Surely, my tears are useless in the face of such predictable calamity.

As I write this, the latest horror story from Nigeria is the news of students in a University hostel murdered in their sleep. Boko Haram attacked the hostel in the dead of night and shot the students as they slept. Throwing grenades and shooting randomly. The US intelligence has linked Boko Haram to Al Shaaba, the Somali terrorist that attacked the Shopping Mall in Kenya.

This time, I do not shed tears at the sight of corpses that litter the social media sites; this time with my fingers shaking I write their story, hoping that someone, somewhere will care enough to do something soon. I hope that they will not wait for another Hotel Rwanda or another Half of a Yellow Sun to be written but intervene now, while hundreds of helpless victims are displaced and living in fear.

This time I am praying that those who have recognition enough to hold the world attention like Chimamanda Adichie, will tell the tales not only of old wounds created by Biafra, but of the new scars created every day. New nightmares replayed day in and day out by the people who have no voice in the international community.

Gaya’s postscript to this writing is here.

Maryanne Kooda was born and raised in Nigeria and did her graduate studies at the University of Abuja. She holds a post-grad qualification in special needs education from the Open University Sri Lanka, is a CELTA qualified English teacher to adults and children  and launched the Reading Room for Children with Specific Learning Disabilities in the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia area. Her blog is here.  She writes when her passionate desire for peace among diverse peoples in Sri Lanka, Nigeria and elsewhere on this planet forces words out of her pen despite her busy life.  She is a mother of two lively sons and lives in Sri Lanka.



  1. Very insightful article. I should also partcipate GLF one day..

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