Reviewed by Don Schlenger (Ethiopia 1966–68)
David Koren was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Eastern Nigeria from January 1964 through December 1965. At the end of his two-year service, after a brief return to the States, he re-enlisted, or ‘extended’ his service, as it was called at the time, and returned to Nigeria in January 1966, during a coup led by army officers.
Many of these officers, who were from the Igbo tribal group, were Christian and their home was the eastern district of Nigeria, where Koren served as an English teacher. They overthrew the ruling Hausa leaders who were Muslim and mostly from northern Nigeria.
In June and July 1966, another coup ousted the Igbo officers and led to the slaughter of Igbos in the north and stopped their flight to return to eastern Nigeria. By the end of 1966, when Koren completed his service and returned to the US, there was talk of secession. In May of 1967, an Igbo General named Ojukwu declared the eastern district had seceded from Nigeria, formed a military government, and named the new country Biafra.
Meanwhile, Koren was attending graduate school during 1967 through September 1968. In October 1968 he was married to an African American woman he had met in the Peace Corps who was teaching in New York City. Days after getting married, he returned to Africa to work for UNESCO as part of the airlift of food and medical supplies to Biafra, which was engaged in a civil war with Nigeria and, as part of the conflict, was being blockaded by the Nigerian military so that no food or medical supplies could be brought into Biafra.
Before leaving New York, Koren had approached CBS news and sought a position as a correspondent from Africa. Though he was turned down, he took with him to Africa a cassette recorder and tapes and faithfully kept them up to date throughout his work on the airlift. When he found them packed away years later, they became the basis for this book.
I was interested in reading this book because, as Volunteers in Ethiopia during this time, we followed the news about Biafra on the BBC, the Voice of America, and in the issues of Newsweek that found their way to our site in northern Ethiopia. Additionally, one of the new Volunteers who was assigned to our town in September, 1967, was part of the contingent of Peace Corps Volunteers who had been evacuated from Biafra. Also I had read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, about the Igbos in the time of the British colonization, and thought I knew something of the culture.
All that said, Far Away in the Sky is a wonderful book.
After three chapters about Koren’s Peace Corps service and a surprising account of the New York City teachers’ strike focused on Oceanhill-Brownsiville in Brooklyn, where his soon-to-be wife was a militant, middle-school teacher, the scene shifts back to Africa; specifically to Sao Tome, a small island off the coast of West Africa which served as the base of the airlift, and where planes from the rest of the world brought supplies which were unloaded then reloaded onto older planes, many World War II vintage, for transport to Biafra. Koren, along with other Americans and Europeans and many religious leaders, worked loading and unloading the planes, fixing the planes, and flying with the payloads to Biafra. All flights were at night to avoid the Nigerian air force patrols and bombers, which struck the Biafran airfield occasionally. It was a dangerous place.
Koren’s ability to put the reader both on the ground and in the air in Sao Tome and Biafra owes much to the tapes he found and the notes he took during this time. The detail in the stories is wonderful. Vignettes, which will be recognizable to any American who lived in Africa, are funny, perceptive and, at times, terrifying. The heroics of the pilots and crews and the dedication of the aid workers, many of whom were working for religious aid programs are a large part of the story. Absent pretty much are western governments, most especially the British and the Soviets, whose vested interests were with the Nigerians, and whose positions might have had something to do with the rich oil deposits in that part of Africa.
Far Away in the Sky: A Memoir of the Biafran Airlift is a wonderfully readable and compelling portrayal of the human catastrophe caused by the Biafran war. It is also an adventure story about the exploits of the aid workers, air crews, and all those involved with the airlift. It was a very dark time and Koren skillfully puts the reader right in the middle of it. A book well worth reading.
Reviewer Don Schlenger was a Peace Corps Volunteer, together with his wife Jackie stationed in Woldai, Ethiopia from September 1966 till June 1968.