Biafra: A disaster from the 1960s
The images from the catastrophe in Haiti this past week reminded me of another time that Americans were gripped by a similar disaster and its shocking images: the civil war in the tiny breakaway state of Biafra that was coming to a bloody peak in 1968.
Ask people today where "Biafra" is and I suspect there would be few looks of recognition. *The civil war began there in 1967, when mostly Ibo tribesmen of southeastern Nigeria attempted to secede and create a new country: Biafra. *But, as LIFE's editors said in 1968, it was a civil war that "has raged with a savagery barely noticed by the rest of the world." *The vastly better equipped Nigerian forces--with arms supplied by Great Britain, Russia, and Arab countries--bombed Biafran towns and created blockades that led to mass starvation. The Biafran leader, Odumegwu Ojukwu, said to a reporter: "All I really ask is that the outside world look at us as human beings and not as Negroes bashing heads."
Images of starvation
It was not the first time that the West had seen images of war and revolution coming from Africa, struggling to overcome centuries of colonial rule. *But in*the 1960s, the word "Biafra" began to take on especially totemic meaning. In the American media at least, the word became synonymous with images of starvation, particular of starving children, with bellies incongruously bloating below stick-like ribcages, and always the huge, pleading eyes (like the "big-eyed" Keane paintings so popular in the 1960s). *People in the West even learned a new African word: kwashiorkor, a word describing protein malnutrition.
It's striking to compare this LIFE cover from July 1968 is to one published just a few months earlier, a photograph by Gordon Parks to illustrate LIFE's story about race and*urban*America, "The Negro and the Cities: The Cry That Will Be Heard." *The*inescapable*similarities provide more evidence that visual culture in 1968 increasingly reflected the sense that the world's concerns and peoples were coming closer together.