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The publishers of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a novel set during the Biafran war, offered a free book to former Nigeria Peace Corps Volunteers who promised to tell their Biafra stories. I promised. I got the book. It so powerfully evoked my memories of that time, forty years in the past, that I was afraid I had promised something too big. I could say a lot, and there was a deadline.

Until I read that book those memories were tucked snugly away in my past. Somewhere in a box at the back of a closet laid a pile of inert Biafra memorabilia. I had no desire to access it. Some of it was best left forgotten, but mainly I didn’t want to overwhelm my promise. It would take long enough to write the vivid memories provoked by Adichie’s book.

But I had another reason for writing about my involvement in the Biafran Airlift. By writing about it I sought to understand it. Why was I there? What strange attractor pulled so many diverse people into its loopy orbit around Biafra? Was the Biafran Airlift the greatest private humanitarian effort of all time, or was it something much more complex? Or more banal?

I wrote the piece off the top of my memory, assisted by a few old photographs. If my memories were not historically accurate in all details, the distillation of those memories into a residual core of meaning guided my writing. The Friends of Nigeria, an organization of returned Peace Corps Volunteers, published it on its website under the title, “The World Is Deep.” The title is a translation from the Igbo language of Nigeria.

Comments about the article arrived from around the world. Ndaeyo Uko, a journalist who was writing a history of the Biafran Airlift, flew from Australia to interview me at my home in Pennsylvania. Mr. Uko asked me a lot of detailed questions that required deeper information. Other people encouraged me to expand “The World Is Deep” to a full book. I searched out the old box of memorabilia and found a cache of audio cassette tapes. Elsewhere I found a cassette player that still worked when I inserted a fresh set of batteries. More than forty years old, the glue holding some of the tapes to the spindles had decayed, and the tapes no longer turned. A friend of mine, Bob Kalan, helped with the delicate job of dismantling the cassettes and reconnecting the tape.

The tapes were a shock, a sudden, bright window into my past. Events, people, sounds leapt out in clarity and detail long eroded from my memory. I reported events out of history that may be recorded no where else. There were many things on the tapes that I had not remembered. But writing the book was not a matter of just transcribing the tapes. The tapes had detail, but they were rambling. I was very poor at reporting dates. I would say things like, “On last Wednesday’s Boeing…” To find out that date and others, I had to transcribe all the tapes word for word on paper and comb through them to establish an exact timeline of things. I checked and cross-checked. I would find things on one tape that made sense of something I said elsewhere. Over the course of a year, I pieced it all together. It was like doing an archeological dig on my own life. It felt weird. Wherever possible I tried to verify what I said, knowing that I am claiming historical accuracy and that future scholarship may be based on what I wrote. For instance, when I referred to a moonlit night at Uli, I checked astronomical tables to determine the phase of the moon on that night. The spelling of some names, like Captain McCombie, are guesses based on my pronunciation on the tapes.

In 1968 and 1969 the story of mass starvation in Biafra played out in the world’s media, but reporters tended to interview heads of state, directors of relief organizations, colonels, and the big actors on the scene. My story flows around the lower echelons: the flight crews, the mechanics, the laborers, the quiet missionaries in the middle of the action, and the children.

As the fuller story emerged it was gratifying to realize that its meaning to me remains intact. Memory fades; meaning abides.

The tapes, widened points of memory, revealed a lot, but hinted at much more that is not recorded, that is lost. They represent no more than flickers in the overall darkness of history.

I offer this peek into the past.
October 2011

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