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Author Topic: Is there a Vonnegut fan in the house?
Pete at Home
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The text is Kurt Vonnegut's Biafra: A People Betrayed

It begins:
THERE is a "Kingdom of Biafra" on some old maps which were made by early white explorers of the west coast of Africa. Nobody is now sure what that kingdom was, what its laws and arts and tools were like. No tales survive of the kings and queens.

As for the "Republic of Biafra" we know a great deal. It was a nation with more citizens than Ireland and Norway combined. It proclaimed itself an independent republic on May 30, 1967. On January 17 of 1970, it surrendered unconditionally to Nigeria, the nation from which it had tried to secede. It had few friends in this world, and among its active enemies were Russia and Great Britain. Its enemies were pleased to call it a "tribe."

Some tribe.

The Biafrans were mainly Christians and they spoke English melodiously, and their economy was this one: small-town free enterprise. The worthless Biafran currency was gravely honored to the end.

The tune of Biafra's national anthem was Finlandia, by Jan Sibelius. The equatorial Biafrans admired the arctic Finns because the Finns won and kept their freedom in spite of ghastly odds.

Biafra lost its freedom, of course, and I was in the middle of it as all its fronts were collapsing. I flew in from Gabon on the night of January 3, with bags of corn, beans, and powdered milk, aboard a blacked out DC6 chartered by Caritas, the Roman Catholic relief organization. I flew out six nights later on an empty DC4 chartered by the French Red Cross. It was the last plane to leave Biafra that was not fired upon.

While in Biafra, I saw a play which expressed the spiritual condition of the Biafrans at the end. It was set in ancient times, in the home of a medicine man. The moon had not been seen for many months, and the crops had failed. There was nothing to eat anymore. A sacrifice was made to a goddess of fertility, and the sacrifice was refused. The goddess gave the reason: The people were not sufficiently unselfish and brave.

Before the drama began, the national anthem was played on an ancient marimba. It seems likely that similar marimbas were heard in the court of the Kingdom of Biafra. The black man who played the marimba was naked to the waist. He squatted on the stage. He was a composer. He also held a doctor's degree from the London School of Economics.

Some tribe.

I went to Biafra with another novelist, my old friend Vance Bourjaily, and with Miss Miriam Reik, who would be our guide. She was head of a pro-Biafran committee that had already flown several American writers into Biafra. She would pay our way.

I met her for the first time at Kennedy Airport. We were about to take off for Paris together. It was New Year's Day. I bought her a drink, though she protested that her committee should pay, and I learned that she had a doctor's degree in English literature. She was also a pianist and a daughter of Theodor Reik, the famous psychoanalyst.

Her father had died three days before.

I told Miriam how sorry I was about her father, said how much I'd liked the one book of his I had read, which was Listening with the Third Ear.

He was a gentle Jew, who got out of Austria while the getting was good. Another well-known book of his was Masochism in Modern Man.

And I asked her to tell me more about her committee, whose beneficiary I was, and she confessed that she was it: It was a committee of one. She is a tall, good-looking woman, by the way, thirty-two years old. She said she founded her own committee because she grew sick of other American organizations that were helping Biafra. Those organizations teemed with people 'who were kinky with guilt', she said. They were trying to dump some of that guilt by being maudlinly charitable. As for herself; she said, it was the greatness of the Biafran people, not their pitifulness that turned her on.

She hoped the Biafrans would get more weapons from somebody, the very latest in killing machines. She was going into Biafra for the third time in a year. She wasn't afraid of anything. Some committee.

I admire Miriam, though I am not grateful for the trip she gave me. It was like a free trip to Auschwitz when the ovens were still going full blast. I now feel lousy all the time.

I will follow Miriam's example as best I can. My main aim will not be to move readers to voluptuous tears with tales about innocent black children dying like flies, about rape and looting and murder and all that. I will tell instead about an admirable nation that lived for less than three years.

My question is Vonnegut's title: by whom does Vonnegut consider the Biafrans to have been "betrayed"?

Miriam Reik and I picked up Vance Bouijaily in Paris, and we flew down to Gabon and then into Biafra. The only way to get into Biafra was at night by air. There were only eight passenger seats at the rear of the cabin. The rest of the cabin was heaped with bags of food. The food was from America.

We flew over water, there were Russian trawlers below. They were monitoring every plane that came into Biafra. The Russians were helpful in a lot of ways: They gave the Nigerians Ilyushin bombers and MIGs and heavy artillery. And the British gave the Nigerians artillery too and advisers, and tanks and armored cars, and machine guns and mortars and all that, and endless ammunition.

America was neutral.

and yet Vonnegut concludes:

I have written all this quickly. I find that I have betrayed my promise to speak of the greatness rather than the pitifulness of the Biafran people. I have mourned the children copiously. I have told of a woman who was drenched in gasoline.

As for national greatness: It is probably true that all nations are great and even holy at the time of death.

The Biafrans had never fought before. They fought well this time. They will never fight again.

They will never play Finlandia on an ancient marimba again.


My neighbors ask me what they can do for Biafra at this late date, or what they should have done for Biafra at some earlier date.

I tell them this: "Nothing. It was and is an internal Nigerian matter, which you can merely deplore."

Is Vonnegut ambivalent/inconsistent about what we should have done, and as to whether the Biafra incident was international (between the nation of biafra and the nation of Nigeria? or is Vonnnegut's conclusion ironic? or is there some interpretation which is consistent with everything he says in the article?

Am I the only one to notice that what Nigeria did to the Biafrans makes ISIS and Boku Haram look like child's play?

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