From 1967 to 1970, the Nigerian civil war riveted the world’s attention, as a secessionist movement in the eastern province of Biafra struggled to create an independent state. More than a million people died in the eastern region, due to war, disease, or starvation. Images of starving children circulated broadly. In response, a transnational coterie of advocates embraced Biafra’s struggle as a humanitarian crisis and, ultimately, as a political cause. The “Remembering Biafra” project explores how the crisis in Biafra inspired a set of a social movements in the United States and Europe that helped forge a new form of popular humanitarianism.
The research question for this project is straightforward: What was the role of non-state actors in shaping the transnational response to the Nigeria-Biafra war? Sponsored by GW’s Institute for African Studies, the project will be international and interdisciplinary, and will be an important intervention into the history of humanitarianism, the study of international affairs, and the history of Africa.
The goal is to provide material that will help teachers, students, and scholars engage more fully with the impact of this often-forgotten war. We already have an external board of historians who will support and evaluate the project. We plan to hire two student workers, one undergraduate based in the humanities and one graduate student with skills in computing technology. The project has four components:
1) An interactive timeline that highlights major events in the war, including the global response. This timeline allows users to click on any of the important dates (35 nodes) to see a detailed description, an image, and a list of relevant sources. This will form the structural backbone of the project.
Where it stands: Almost complete. With funding from the Institute for African Studies, Prof. McAlister worked with an undergraduate student in summer of 2017 to develop the first iteration of the timeline. We have a web designer working on the timeline and the basic structure of the page overall, which will be available in May 2018.
2) A set of interpretive multi-media essays linked to the timeline. These essays will be written by participants in the “Remembering Biafra” conference held at GW in spring 2017. That conference brought together more than twenty scholars from around the world to analyze the war on its 50th anniversary. Those essays will become multi-media working papers, focused on transnational social actors, human rights politics, visual culture, and religion.
Where it stands: We have commitments from the speakers. In 2018-2019, the PI and the humanities-based student, along with the librarian, will work with the scholars to develop their written papers into genuinely multi-media projects that draw on documents, images, interviews, and other digital materials. The essays together will create an interactive, multi-media anthology of scholarship on the war. They will be available on the website by the end of the grant period.
3) A machine-aided comparison of the media coverage of the war in the US and England. Working with a graduate student who is familiar with the computing tools available, we will use term frequency analysis to compare the language used in two US and two UK newspapers’s coverage of the war. (The number of newspapers could expand in future iterations of the project.) The Stanford Literary Lab’s pamphlet, “Bankspeak,” provides a model for this type of comparison. The goal is to understand more fully how media coverage helped shape public understandings of the war and civilian suffering.
Where it stands: This will be the primary project of the graduate student worker, who will work with the PI to design and carry out the study.
4) An exhibit of photographs drawn from already digitized collections online. The global response to Biafra was driven significantly the work of a new generation of photojournalists, several of whom made their reputation traveling between Vietnam, Biafra, and South Africa. Many photographs from the war are available online but scattered. For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross has an excellent collection of photographs that can be freely reused, as do other sites. Working with the librarian and with permission from the relevant organizations, we will put together a curated set of visual images that highlight the increasing role of visual images in news media in the late 1960s.
Where it stands: Putting together this exhibit will be the primary work of the humanities-based student worker, working closely with the PI.
Our overall goal is to produce an information-rich interpretation of the non-state activism that highlights how social movements work, the role of non-state actors in international affairs, and the importance of visual culture in social mobilization. Through an interactive timeline, a set of multi-media essays, machine-aided analysis of news coverage, and an exhibit of photographs, this project will produce a resource for understanding the global impact of the war.
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