Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

June 18, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
1 Comment

Day Two of African Literature Association Conference

Never Look an American in the Eye

Panel members for African Literature Association Conference Day 2, with Kalu Ogaa right, Ndibe center, Masterson behind.

Panel members with Chair Kalu Ogbaa on right, Okey in center, John Masterson behind.

I went back to New Haven on Thursday for Day 2 of the African Literature Association Conference. I was part of a panel with the title “Okey Ndibe and Life-Writing: Looking Igbos in the Eye with Okey Ndibe.”

The title is a reference to Okey Ndibe’s memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye.

I got to the room a few minutes before the starting time. Okey was there with his wife Sheri.

The room was in disarray with desks every which way! Sheri and I apparently had the same thought – we began moving the desks into rows. Then I thought, why? I’m not in charge. She and I didn’t discuss it, but we both stopped moving things around. I took one desk for myself, put it next to Okey at the front of the room, and was done!

The chair was an Igbo man, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University. He began his remarks by telling the audience that “Igbo” is both singular and plural, so no “s” on Igbos (as in the panel title). Then he said he had only received his copy of Okey’s memoir from the publisher the day before. He had only read a little. Not too impressive.

The Panel Discussion

Okey Ndibe, featured panelist at African Literature Association Conference

Okey Ndibe, featured panelist at African Literature Association Conference

He asked Okey to speak first. “How did you arrive at your title?” he asked. Of course, if he’d read the memoir, he would have known! But maybe audience members didn’t.

Do you know the answer?

Okey said his uncle in Nigeria had watched many old Westerns. He couldn’t understand the words, but saw two men facing off, staring at each other, then drawing guns. His conclusion? If you look someone in the eye, you will be shot. So when Okey was leaving for America, he warned his nephew, “Don’t look an American in the eye, or he will shoot you!”

Circularity in Story Structure

John Masterson, panelist with me on Day Two of African Literature Association Conference

John Masterson, panelist with me on Day Two of African Literature Association Conference, and chair of another panel

John Masterson, professor at University of Sussex, was also one of the panel presenters. He asked Okey about the non-linear structure of the memoir. I loved Okey’s answer, which I’m paraphrasing. “Our Igbo elders tell stories in a circuitous manner. You wonder where they are going as they seem to meander, relating one recent experience and one ancient tale. Then they tie it all together to reach their conclusion.”

He also pointed out that the Igbo world contains the present, but also the ancestors and those yet to be born. So it is less constrained than our Western concept of time.

I posted my review of Okey’s memoir on Goodreads. “Lots of fun to read. And so true – the way an African first experiences race in America is completely different from the way American Blacks experience it. Okey shares his own experiences on race and other issues with humor and insight,” I said.

For my part of the panel, I read the section from my memoir about visiting the Dibia. The audience of about 15 people seemed to appreciate it. But I was unhappy that I forgot to hand out bookmarks. We got too busy taking photos at the end!

Refugee Experience

After lunch I attended a panel called, “African Texts in American Contexts.” The same John Masterson was chair of this panel. I was interested in Joya Uraizee’s comments on Dave Eggers’ What is the What? as a refugee narrative.

Joya Uraizee spoke about Eggers' novel at African Literature Association Conference Day Two

Joya Uraizee spoke about Eggers’ novel at African Literature Association Conference Day Two

Dave Eggers' novel What is the What

Dave Eggers’ novel What is the What

I was not familiar with Eggers’ 2006 novel. It is, Wikipedia tells me, “based on a Sudanese child refugee who immigrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.”

The presenter said the novel showed how the boy was isolated in the U.S. He was completely without a sense of community. Despite the horrific experience he’d had in Sudan, he longed to return.

My second book talks about this longing for community. I’d like to read Eggers’ novel for that perspective. Have you read it?

I’ll tell you about the rest of the conference next time, including my presentation about Nigerwives which was part of “Inter-Racial Encounters in Life and Fiction.”

Response to Threat Against Igbo People

Recently a group of people in northern Nigeria, the Arewa Youth, issued a threat to all Igbo people living in the north. “Leave by October 1,” they said. In response, southerners told northerners living in the southeast to leave.

At last the State Security Service has spoken out against the initial threat and those who made it. Sunday’s Premium Times had the news.

Quoting from the SSS’s public statement, the article says, “[The SSS] warns, in very clear terms, all those who are charting the course of disunity among Nigerians to desist from their divisive actions. The Service is also not oblivious of the efforts of some miscreants to ignite fear and cause ethnic tensions across the country. It strongly condemns in its entirety the call for relocation of anyone to places against their wishes.”

They conclude that such an order is illegal and against the spirit of the Constitution. I’m so happy to see the constitution held up as the framework to measure actions.

They end their statement with, “The Service wants to reassure the entire populace that it will not leave any stone unturned to ensure that those who are bent on causing a breakdown of law and order are not spared.”

Firm statement. Let’s hope the action is equally firm, and also fair.

June 14, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
0 comments

Education in Nigeria

So many children, mixed ages, no books

So many children, mixed ages, no books

Education Aid for Sub-Sahara Africa

Education in Nigeria is a mixture of very good and very bad, with not a lot in between. Teachers are not eager to be in rural areas. Teachers’ pay is often late and incomplete. Supplies are never enough, and sometimes non-existent. The universities’ faculty go on strike. So do students.

There are some excellent private schools. But the majority of the children and young people in Nigeria do not attend these. An overhaul of the whole system of education in Nigeria is needed. But the aid that could support education is dropping.

UNESCO flays drop in education aid to Africa

BBC has a similar story to the one from The Guardian. The lack of good education for so many affects the future of the country. When will Nigeria put its own money behind the education it needs?

African Literature Association Conference

First day at the African Literature Association Conference at Yale was challenging. Not the conference itself, but the parking!

My GPS told me I was near the African-American Center where I had to register. It directed me to take the next left. My destination would be there. But I found a parking spot just before the turn. An easy walk, I thought. Safer to take the spot I found than risk turning and not finding another.

My two quarters gave me 20 minutes. I walked to the corner and turned left. 211 Park was nowhere to be found. After asking several people who were carrying the ALA Conference Bag for directions, I found it. It was right across the street from where I had parked!

After registering I asked for the location of the panel I wanted to attend. Nearby, they said. So I went back to my parking spot to use ParkMobile to pay for more time. I had the app, but it was not user-friendly, at least not for this user.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

After 25 minutes of wrestling with the app, retrieving missing passwords, and searching again for the app, I finally had 5 hours of parking time! I was late for the session. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and her writing was the topic.

I arrived as the first speaker concluded. The second, “Stereotypes and the African Writer: Adichie’s Literatures of Immigration,” was too academic for me – ethnoscape and technoscape left me cold. The third, “Deterritorialized Hair,” was a little clearer. But both speakers used PowerPoint to put on the screen much of the same info they read to us. Why?

The final speaker’s topic, “Portrait of the Artist as a Global Fashion Icon: How Postcolonial is Adichie’s ‘Lip Gloss Friendly’ Feminism?” was interesting and fun. She spoke about the Boots marketing campaign for makeup. Was Adichie selling out? The speaker did not think so! Nor do I.

After all, Adichie herself says about being the face for the make-up brand, “I wanted to be part of the message that women who like makeup also have important and serious things that they’re doing in their lives. And that those can co-exist, that women are a multiplicity of things. I think it’s time to really stop that ridiculous idea that somehow if you’re a serious woman you can’t and should not care about how you look.”

I enjoyed the reception after the panel. Ainehi Edoro spotted me and promised to come to my session Thursday morning. Marjolijn de Jager whom I know from church translates French-African literature into English. When I saw her, I thought, of course she would be there.

Looking Igbos in the Eye

Thursday morning I’m on a panel called, “Okey Ndibe and Life-Writing: Looking Igbos in the Eye with Okey Ndibe.”

I haven’t been told, but my guess is that I will be asked to speak for 12 minutes. I’m going to read the section from my memoir about visiting the Dibia, the Igbo shaman.

You may remember I went with Clem’s uncle to consult the Dibia. We wanted him to prevent rain during my father-in-law’s wake and funeral. He gave us instructions. I won’t tell you the outcome now! Ask, if you haven’t read the memoir or don’t remember.

Friday morning I’ll deliver my paper “Nigerwives: Transnational Connections and a New Tribe.”

Wish me luck with parking!

Ready for the parade at Reunion 2017

Ready for the parade at Reunion 2017

One More Picture from Mount Holyoke Reunion

I was pleased to see this picture on the front of the newsletter from the college.

I’m in the middle.

June 10, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
4 Comments

Granddaughter Graduates from Radnor High School

Granddaughter Graduates

Proud parents and Kenechi as our granddaughter graduates.

Proud parents and Kenechi as our granddaughter graduates.

Our granddaughter Nkiru graduated from Radnor High School on Wednesday afternoon. Of course we were there!

Four years ago when Kenechi graduated from Radnor, the ceremony was at Villa Nova, in their Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr. But apparently there was construction underway, so the event was at Temple University, downtown Philadelphia.

The high school band was excellent, despite lacking their seniors. Daughter Beth and I both had tears in our eyes at the beginning of the graduation march. Music can call forth such powerful emotions!

Both grandmothers were present to see our granddaughter graduate. Elouise and I were thrilled that Nkiru’s whole name, Nkiruka Catherine Elouise Garner, was printed in the program and read from the podium when she was given her diploma.

I took a Selfie with Elouise, the other Grandma as our granddaughter graduates

I took a Selfie with Elouise, the other Grandma as our granddaughter graduate

Nkiruka means “The best is still to come.” I love the name and its shortened version Nkiru.
As the graduates filed out at the end and the band was playing the same martial music over and over again, three different students were given a chance to conduct!

Nkiru looked superb. Her mom tried to pull her white graduation robe closed when we snapped the photos. “No, I want my dress to show,” Nkiru said. It was a lovely lacy white!

Nkiru wanted to show her dress - you can see why!

Nkiru wanted to show her dress – you can see why!

Lots of other students greeted her while we were taking pictures outside.

Brazilian Steakhouse Dinner

We had the celebratory dinner after graduation at Fogo de Chao, a Brazilian steakhouse.

Fogo de Chao, Brazilian Steakhouse, for graduation dinner.

Fogo de Chao, Brazilian Steakhouse, for graduation dinner.

First we helped ourselves to a buffet for the hors d’oeuvres. The waiter explained what to do when we were ready for the main course. “See the cardboard circle at your place, red on one side, green on the other. When you want the meats to come, turn the green side up.”

That’s the signal for waiters to offer meats from the lengthy skewers they carry around. Several side dishes of mashed potatoes and fried bananas were placed on the table for us.

“Fogo de Chão is an authentic Brazilian Steakhouse (Churrascaria) that has been setting the standard in Brazil for the past 36 years,” I read on their website. “Today, our gaucho chefs . . .carve tableside each of our cuts of meat like Picanha (signature sirloin), Filet Mignon, Ribeye, Fraldinha (Brazilian sirloin) Cordeiro (lamb) and more.”

I couldn’t resist flan for dessert. I only wish the restaurant did not provide the calorie count on the menu – I didn’t need to know. But it was worth every calorie!

My sister says she’s been to a similar restaurant, but I never had. It was delicious, just right for the occasion.

Another Interesting Title for My To-Read List

My teacher and editor Marcelle sent me the link to this book. I nearly didn’t open her email, wondering if she’d been hacked. There was just a subject and a link, nothing else. But then the link showed enough of the title so I knew it was legit.

Another book for my to-read list, growing almost daily, and diminishing only every two weeks or so as I complete a book – something is wrong there! Still, thanks, Marcelle!

I’m especially interested since the piece says the novel includes a critique of the political structure of Nigeria.

Resistance Blooms in Nigeria

New Boko Haram Attack

Lorri was my classmate in my recent memoir and essay writing workshop. She sent an email two days ago asking if family members in Nigeria were safe. I was puzzled. Then I found this sad story.

Although Boko Haram has been weakened over the past year by concerted military efforts, they are still around and still able to cause major harm.

But it’s Ramadan, the month which commemorates the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, Wikipedia tells me. Muslims are not supposed to engage in sinful behavior during Ramadan. So how could they attack?

Still, they did! “. . .late Wednesday in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, as evening prayers were ending, targeting four locations around the city. Thirteen people were killed, including four attackers, Police Commissioner Damian Chukwu said.”

This was the “deadliest attack in months,” the article said. Most likely more individuals will end up in camps for internally displaced people where food is scarce. When will it ever end?

But in response to Lorri, our sons are in Lagos, about as far as you can get from Maiduguri. They are not threatened. Clem’s village is in south-eastern Nigeria, so again relatives there are safe from Boko Haram.

Are Igbos Under Threat? 

UN reacts to Arewa group’s threat against Igbos

Apart from Boko Haram, there is another threat in the north of Nigeria. A group of youths in northern Nigeria have declared that the Igbo people in the north should leave by October 1. A few Igbo leaders of a movement campaigning for a referendum have agreed.

The Biafran War, 50 years ago, was caused in part by massacres of Igbo people in the north. So of course this brings memories.

Emir of Katsina, photo from Nigerianmonitor.com

Emir of Katsina, photo from Nigerianmonitor.com

The Emir of Katsina, religious leader of a major northern city, spoke out. “Here in Katsina, I am ready to sacrifice my last drop of blood to ensure peace and protect all Nigerians residing in the state,’’ he said. He promised “all necessary measures to ensure peaceful coexistence.”

He said, “You are my sons and daughters. Katsina is your home, so, feel free to go anywhere.’’ Other religious and political leaders also said the Igbos should not be frightened. They are asked to remain and continue to live peacefully with their neighbors.

If you visit the website with the article, notice on the right there is a chart of sunrise, sunset and other significant times for cities in Nigeria and nearby during Ramadan.

June 6, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

High School Graduation

High School Graduation for Two Chibok Girls

High school graduation

High school graduation cap and diploma

I was reminded again of the 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from their school in Chibok, northern Nigeria. Their abduction led to the hashtag campaign “#BringBackOurGirls.”

I thought just a few had escaped early on. According to an article in Newsweek, fifty-seven escaped soon after they were taken. Ten of these girls were brought to the U.S. by a group called “Education Must Continue Initiative.”

Emmanuel Ogebe is a Nigerian human rights lawyer based in the U.S. He was instrumental in forming the organization. But last year the federal government of Nigeria announced that it was taking over guardianship of the girls. Parents had complained, feeling the girls were being exploited.

Apparently Ogebe is still involved with at least a couple of the girls. He has announced that two, called Debbie and Grace, have graduated from an American high school in Washington, DC.

I have seen nothing about the others. It is possible they are also taking part in high school graduation, but being kept from the media.

Nkiru with her performing friends at Baccalaureate

Our High School Graduation

Nkiru, our granddaughter, has her own high school graduation on June 7. We are driving to Philadelphia to witness the event.

I’ll have pictures of her graduation next time.

But I can’t resist sharing one picture here. She performed with friends at Baccalaureate on Friday evening last week. She’s been reluctant to sing in public, so this was a big deal!

Cornell Graduation Final Note

The Gellerts were proud to advertise their legacy of family members who had graduated from Cornell.

The Gellerts were proud to advertise their legacy of family members who had graduated from Cornell.

Daughter Beth and her husband Kelvin got to the Cornell graduation early. They got seats in the eighth row up, right behind reserved seats for legacy families.

We sat right behind the Gellerts. At least 30 people were in the group. They all wore red T-shirts. On the back were the names, years, and in most cases the degrees, of all the Gellerts who had graduated from Cornell.

The earliest was 1927. The list ended with Jason, TBD.

It was fun to see. They were having a lovely time.

But it also reminded me of the privilege that can get passed down through generations to some of us.

At the end of the U.S. civil war freed slaves were promised 40 acres and a mule. The promise went unfulfilled. Starting with nothing, former slaves who had been denied an education had to make a living.

Very few Black people were even admitted to Ivy League colleges and universities in the 1920’s. There has been little or no opportunity to develop legacies like the Gellerts.

Is it fair?

Mount Holyoke Reunion and My New Role

Mount Holyoke does not have legacies like the Gellerts, though there are some families with several generations that attended the college. The college, like Cornell and most Ivy League schools and others too, is making a serious effort to encourage greater diversity in its student body.

I told you after the reunion that I was on the slate to be co-vice president with two classmates. Our role is to chair the reunion in five years. I assume we got elected; no one has told me otherwise.

And I’m happy to be sharing the task with Susan Higginbotham Holcombe and Anne Wadsworth Pardo. Some of my readers know Anne. I spoke at her class a couple of years ago.

Both women are in Boston. I imagine I’ll travel there for planning once or twice.

We were amused and sobered when we learned that the alumnae office asks us to have at least two people, preferably three, in each class officer position from now on!

Nigeria’s Gentleman’s Agreement on Power Sharing

The mysterious Max Siollun says the “gentleman’s agreement” among Nigeria’s leaders to share power between the north and south may be out of date.

“The unwritten power-sharing agreement . . . was consolidated during Nigeria’s first two democratic transfers of power — in 1999 and 2007 — and it alleviated the southern secessionist pressures that had festered under decades of military rule by dictators from the north,” he says.

It did help the country to move forward. He continues, “For a time, this mechanism for alternating power helped keep the peace in a country with hundreds of different ethnic groups and more than 500 different languages.”

(That’s the largest number of languages I have ever seen for Nigeria. More often it’s said to be 200 or even 300.)

President Goodluck Jonathan photo by Amanda V UN

President Goodluck Jonathan photo by Amanda V UN

Siollun believes that the agreement, “was never intended to be permanent.” It worked when Yar A’dua, a northerner, was elected in 2007. But when he became ill and eventually died in office, his vice-president, a southerner, succeeded him.

That vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, was elected on his own in 2011.

The 2015 election went to Buhari, a northerner, as it should have, according to the agreement. But now President Buhari is ill.

Siollun says, “If Buhari . . . doesn’t finish his term of office, and power passes to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, a Christian from the south, it will be the second time in seven years that the north’s ‘turn’ in the presidency has been cut short.”

Vice-president Osinbajo, currently in charge

Vice-president Osinbajo, currently in charge

Whatever happens, Siollun thinks it’s time to abandon the agreement. He suggests a way out.

“Nigeria should abandon the convention of north-south presidential power rotation . . . [and] deepen power sharing in state and local governments.” He says many of these governments already, “practice some form of power rotation among politicians from different ethnic, religious, and geographic groups.”

He suggests the country strengthen the local and state governments. That’s where most people experience government anyway, he says. Would people be willing to give up taking turns between north and south for the presidency, even if it doesn’t work as expected?

Maybe this could help develop a feeling of “one Nigeria.”

June 2, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

The Kola Reaches Home

When the Kola Reaches Home

Kola nuts are often served with alligator pepper. The nuts are pink, the pepper brown.

Kola nuts are often served with alligator pepper. The nuts are pink, the pepper brown.

We had the final class of the eight weeks on advanced essay and memoir writing this week. I’m sad it’s over.

I read my introduction. The critique from the other class members was extremely helpful, as always. So were the comments from Marcelle, the teacher.

They all agreed. The introduction gave important information, but it was too academic. “Who is your audience?” Bonnie said. “Talk to them.”

Write the Book Proposal

Marcelle suggested I work on the book proposal. She said it would guide me in finalizing the book, even if I don’t plan to send to agents or publishers.

I agree. I wrote an elaborate, carefully-thought-out book proposal for the memoir. And it was extremely helpful.

One reason is that writing the book proposal forces me to think carefully about the audience for the book.  To do that, I have to put together the section on the competition.

Other Books to Review

What other books are similar? How is mine different? I asked two friends who are anthropologists for suggestions of competing or similar works. I got some ideas. I requested two books they suggested through the interlibrary loan. But it may take up to 4 weeks, they say, with budget cuts for library staff.

Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad, is at the Westport Library. Kola proverb is at beginning.

Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad, is at the Westport Library. Kola proverb is at beginning.

Yesterday I went to the Westport Library. I asked the reference librarian’s help in finding similar books. I told her I was looking for works on social customs, traditions, and cultural information about Africa.

“I can only find children’s books,” she said. “I don’t see anything for adults. Can you be more specific about country?”

“Sure. Look for Nigeria,” I said.

She looked at her screen. “I see one book. Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad, by Onyemelukwe.”

As she wrote down the locating number and handed it to me, I said, “That’s my book!”

The book proposal also needs a section about the author. I must explain why I am the most qualified person to write this book. How did I become an authority?

So I’m working on all these pieces now. Even if I publish again with Peace Corps Writers, this sort of analysis is critical. It will be important in whatever I say on the back cover, in social media, and here on my blog.

My publicist will use the information in finding places for me to promote the book. It will guide her in what she will say about me and about the book.

And before that, it will help as I seek people to write the “Aclaims” for me. For my memoir I sometimes suggested the content for these, and this work I’m doing now gives me the language to use.

I do not yet have the title. Have I shared with you one of my favorite proverbs, spoken when a guest is given a kola nut to take home with him? The host or the guest says, “Oji luo uno okwuo ebe osi a bia, When the Kola reaches home, it will tell where it came from.”

I used this at the front on my memoir. What do you think about When the Kola Reaches Home for a title?

I have the chapter summaries sort of written. They are also part of the book proposal. One chapter I still need to finish is about Nigerwives. That has to get written in the next two weeks, because . . .

Nigerwives a Major Transnational Connection

In mid-June I will participate in the African Literature Association Annual Conference at Yale University. I will present my paper on Nigerwives, a Major Transnational Connection. I was one of the founders of the organization. I told you a few months ago about attending the January meeting when I was in Lagos.

In my abstract submission, I said,

“Nigerwives was founded in 1979 by three women. I was one. Nigerwives has become a fixture of life in Nigeria with branches in the major cities. There are also branches In the UK and the US. It continues to serve its mission of helping foreign wives integrate in Nigerian society.

“Nigerwives is a clear source of transnational connections for Nigerians. The wives of Nigerian men come from England and the rest of UK, the US, Jamaica, Iceland, Russia, Japan, Sierra Leone and many other countries.

“Although the custom of marriage being between two families is less dominant in the home countries and societies of most Nigerwives, nevertheless the families of these wives are affected by the marriages of their daughters, sisters, cousins, and aunts.

Betty O is the only white woman in this group of Nigerian designers.

Betty O is the only white woman in this group of Nigerian designers. She died a few years ago.

“Nigerwives have played a role in Nigerian society and continue to do so. Betty Okuboyejo (quoted in a 1988 NYTimes article) changed the fashion scene for Nigerian and expatriate women. Jean Obi created the Braille project that first provided the opportunity for blind students to take the Nigerian standard exams. Today it supports a Braille center where books are translated.

“I will describe the founding and spread of Nigerwives, the influence it has had and continues to have today in Nigeria and its other locations.

I will also be on a panel with Okey Ndibe to discuss his memoir, Never Look at American in the Eye. I’m halfway through. It’s very amusing, yet serious on how perplexing customs can be.

He wrote a piece recently about Nigeria’s obsession with consumption. Sad commentary!

Nigeria and Biafra’s Wasted Memory, By Okey Ndibe

May 29, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
4 Comments

Frightened Fawn in the Doorway

Deer in the Doorway

Frightened deer in the doorway, waiting for mom

Frightened fawn in the doorway, waiting for mom

A little while ago I heard a cat’s loud meow just outside the door. I looked out and saw a black and white cat, looking comfortable and eager, as if hoping to come in. I said through the closed door, “You’re not ours. We don’t have a cat. Why are you here?”

Then I realized the cat was not looking at me, but at something else. I looked down and saw a frightened fawn between the side of the chimney and the stone wall.

He was not much larger than the cat. I thought the cat had cornered the fawn and was not letting him run away.

I looked again a few minutes later. The cat was gone, the frightened fawn still there. “Maybe its foot is caught in the corner of the chimney,” I said to Clem. I opened the door. When I reached out to check, he squawked like a parrot.

And his foot is not caught. I think he’s just scared.

I imagine the mother must be very worried. I’ve seen deer in the past on the patio nibbling on the plants. Why doesn’t she come to find him? Just checked again. He’s sleeping.

Cornell Graduation on Sunday

We were thrilled to attend our grandson Kenechi’s graduation from Cornell.

Kenechi's parents Beth and Kelvin and sister Nkiru waiting for the ceremony to begin

Kenechi’s parents Beth and Kelvin and sister Nkiru waiting for the ceremony to begin

When I told friends I was going, they asked, “What did he major in?” Then, “What’s he planning to do now?”

He majored in Biology. He was hoping to stay on for a few months to finish research he began last summer as a paid lab assistant. During his senior year he continued the research project for academic credit. He showed us what he was doing when we visited in October last year.

But the professor’s grant funding did not come through. So he could not pay a lab assistant.

Kenechi just learned this a month ago. He had not made alternate plans. He does hope to attend graduate school, but hadn’t applied for this coming year.

Kenechi and girlfriend Mary

Kenechi and girlfriend Mary

In the last few months he has become friends with Mary, now officially his girlfriend. She already has a job lined up in New York and wants him to come. He says he’s started looking for a job and will continue the search in New York.

Great for us! It’s only an 75-minute train ride away. He’ll be close enough to visit occasionally.

The graduation ceremony was impressive, to say the least. There were over 5,000 degrees awarded!

The graduating seniors had their names called and their walk across the stage at their own Commencement the day before. Joe Biden was the speaker.

On Sunday all the graduates were presented by the Deans of their colleges as a group. The President of Cornell, a woman who has been in office for just six weeks, presented the degrees to the group.

After the graduation ceremony, with proud parents

After the graduation ceremony, with our daughter Beth and her husband Kelvin, happy parents.

We met Kenechi’s girlfriend and her family at her apartment on Saturday evening. I loved the way she ordered Kenechi around gently as they prepared refreshments for guests coming to play BeerPong.

I had never heard of this game. Have you?

British Airways

Our older son Chinaku tried to come to Kenechi’s graduation. But he was on British Airways on Saturday. He had called Beth to tell her he was stuck in London. This morning I learned the details from him.

He said, “We arrived at 2:30 pm at Heathrow as expected. Then we sat on the runway, not even near a gate, for 3 and 1/2 hours. The crew did not know what was going on. At last someone on the flight found out that there was a computer failure caused by a power outage and all flights were cancelled.

“Around 6 pm we pulled into Terminal 4, not 5 as scheduled. Luckily I had no luggage. The poor people who did were stuck, not knowing where their luggage was. No one from British Airways was in the terminal when we arrived. It was complete chaos.

“By then it was too late to get another flight to the U.S. so I just went to a hotel. I’m going back to Nigeria tonight.”

I trust he’ll at least get a refund! When will we really know what happened to British Airways computers?

Mount Holyoke Reunion

With classmates at Reunion. Can you find me in the middle?

With classmates at Reunion. Can you find me in the middle?

I started this intense Memorial Day weekend with my 55th reunion at Mount Holyoke College. I arrived late on Friday, miscalculating the time it took to drive to South Hadley, Massachusetts, from our home in Westport, Connecticut.

I walked into our dorm just in time to turn around and go to the President’s reception with a few friends. We returned to the dorm for our class conversation about Ta-Nehisi’s book Between the World and Me. My friend Judy was in charge.

She had brought in two young faculty members to facilitate. I’ll tell you more next time.

We always carry signs in the parade.

We always carry signs in the parade.

The alumnae parade is a key feature of Saturday morning at reunions.

I loved seeing classmates and catching up on the five years since our last gathering.

I was on the slate to be one of three co-vice presidents who are the reunion chairs for five years from now.

I had to leave to drive to Cornell before the class meeting with the vote. I assume I got elected!

May 25, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
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Free Trade Zone Not Used?

Free Trade Zone Unused?

Zainab Usman posted on Facebook about a free trade zone in Nigeria that is now gone to waste. The Guardian News online calls it “Nigeria’s 450 million naira ‘White Elephant’.”

More than a decade ago, the free trade zone seemed like a brilliant idea. Bassey Ndem, the original head, hoped the free trade zone could revitalize the area around Calabar, in Nigeria’s southeast. Those who conceived of the plan thought it could bring tourists and prosperity.

Nigeria’s wealthy who traveled to Dubai or London to shop could purchase their luxury goods at home. The zone features a hotel, shops, a pool, and even a movie studio.

Tinapa Lakeside Hotel, Calabar

It opened in 2007. The first two years showed some success. But too few came to shop or make movies. Nor did others invest.

Ndem says the customs people did not like the idea of a free trade zone. They blocked containers from coming in.

Blame is also leveled at the government for poor infrastructure. The deep-sea port was not built, and the roads are poor.

“In the end, no big name jeweller or pret-a-porter line wanted to invest in the paradise promised by its promoters and the hotel remains desperately empty,” the article says.

But at Hotels.com, you can find Tinapa Lakeside Hotel with pictures and a phone number for booking. It even says you can book online. The picture above is from that site.

TripAdvisor also has it listed. Many amenities, including the pool and water slide are highlighted. Now I’m curious. Has anyone been there?

And After Many Days

And After Many Days, prize winner

And After Many Days, prize winner

Nigerian author Jowhor Ile’s debut novel And After Many Days, published in 2016, just won the Etisalat Prize. His website calls it, “An unforgettable debut novel about a boy who goes missing, a family that is torn apart, and a nation on the brink.” 

Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, praises it highly. She says, “At once calm, collected, lyrical and heartbreaking, Ile’s debut is many things: an achingly tender portrait of family life, a brilliantly executed whodunnit, a searing critique of Nigerian politics, a meditation on love. I couldn’t put it down and was forever changed when I did.”

I asked on Twitter whether anyone had read it. Several people recommended it. I’ve added it to my Goodreads list of “To Read.”

First I have to finish Okey Ndibe’s latest, his memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye. I’ll be on a panel to discuss it with the author and others in June at the Yale Conference on African Literature.

Jowhor Ile, author, photo credit Zina Saro-Wiwa

Jowhor Ile, author, photo credit Zina Saro-Wiwa, from his website

Etisalat and the Prize

And I was curious about the prize. I find that, “The Etisalat Prize for Literature celebrates new writers of African citizenship whose first fiction book (over 30,000 words) was published in the last twenty four (24) months.

“Authors and their publishers can be based anywhere in the world. The winner of the Etisalat Prize for Literature receives £15,000.”

Etisalat sponsors a book tour for the winner to three African cities. Perhaps most important, the company “aims to promote the publishing industry at large and will therefore purchase 1000 copies of all shortlisted books which will be donated to various schools, book clubs and libraries across the African continent.”

Never heard of Etisalat? The company is a major player in the African telecoms industry. You can read about the prize and the company.

Another Coup? Not Possible, Right?

I taught the final session of “400 Years of Nigerian History” at the Bigelow Center for Senior Activities in Fairfield on Monday. After treating the class to reports of repeated Nigerian coups between 1966 and 1999, I told the participants that another coup in Nigeria was unlikely.

That’s what my husband said. And I concurred, with a little less certainty than he had expressed.

Recently a container of weapons was intercepted at a Nigerian port. And this was not the first.

Coup rumors, an absent president, and a stagnant economy are putting Nigeria on edge

The article in Quartz says, “While covered by Nigeria’s newspapers as an ordinary daily event, the timing of the weapon finds is particularly unnerving. Nigeria’s political and military circles have been swirling with rumors that some unknown people are discussing a military coup. How do we know? Because the military has come out to refute such allegations.”

Could it happen again? Is Buhari’s absence leading credence to this idea? By all accounts I’ve read, he was careful to delegate power to his Vice President Osinbajo. Buhari has also been reported to be working while he is on medical leave in London.

Nigeria's Vice President Osinbajo, in charge while Buhari is on medical leave

Nigeria’s Vice President Osinbajo, in charge while Buhari is on medical leave

The military has been dedicated to defeating Boko Haram. That task is enough to keep them occupied and out of trouble.

But as the article says, “Nigeria’s current political uncertainty has more to do with whether: a) Buhari is healthy enough to continue in office; b) If not, should Osinbajo stay on as president till 2019 when the next elections are due; and, most crucially of all, c) Whether Osinbajo, who hails from Ogun state in Nigeria’s southwest, would be allowed to run for president in 2019 given the unwritten political agreement not to have a southerner running then.”

Finally, the writer says, is the economy. Still mostly dependent on oil revenue, the goal of diversification has barely taken hold. The population growth rate is 2.9%. So even if the goal of growing the economy at 3% is reached, can that bring the improvement people are longing for?

Memorial Daymemorial day

If you are in the U.S. you’ll be celebrating Memorial Day on Monday.

Clem and I will return from grandson Kenechi’s Cornell graduation on Sunday, so we’ll be home for Westport’s Memorial Day parade.

Perhaps he’ll go without me.

I’ll be blogging again!

May 22, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
3 Comments

Singing City with Noted Musicians and African Quilts

Singing City

Clem and I went to Philadelphia for a delayed Mother’s Day celebration with our daughter Beth and her family. She sang yesterday with Singing City, an old and revered Philadelphia chorus. Before the concert she introduced me to “I was Glad,” their first number, by playing this YouTube video for me.

It’s pretty amazing. You can watch just a minute or two to get a sense of the grandeur of the music and the procession. Or watch until the couple reaches the altar!

Beth between 2 women from the church choir, part of performance with Singing Cities.

Beth between 2 women from the church choir, part of performance with Singing City!

Of course I took pictures of Beth in the chorus. We sat above and close. I even got a video, posted on Facebook.

I had never heard of Anton Armstrong & Andre Thomas, featured at the concert. Armstrong is conductor of the famed St. Olaf Choir and conducts internationally. Thomas is head of choral music at The Florida State University and a composer. Apparently they are well-known among musicologists and often travel together to conduct and perform.

Anton Armstrong conducted first half and more at Singing Cities concert.

Anton Armstrong conducted first half and more at Singing City concert.

The first half of the program was a variety of unusual, mostly modern religious texts and poems. The second half was spirituals and songs arranged or composed by Thomas. The two men took turns conducting.

The singing was stunning, as Beth had said, with clear enunciation, brilliant phrasing, and a variety of dynamic textures.

Andre Thomas composed or arranged all the pieces in 2nd half of Singing Cities concert.

Andre Thomas composed or arranged all the pieces in 2nd half of Singing City concert.

I will give the program to our Music Director at The Unitarian Church in Westport Ed Thompson. He composes a lot of music himself and stays up to date on the choral music world.

New Instagram Account to Check Out

I like fashion and I like Chimamanda Adichie’s writing. If you do too, you may want to check her new Instagram account. You can find it here.

A display of small quilts accompanied Singing Cities concert

A display of small quilts accompanied Singing City concert

If you have followed her over the last few years, you know she loves fashion. She is devoting this account, run by two nieces, to Nigerian fashion.

Like much of my news about Nigerian writing, I found this on Ainehi Edoro’s blog Brittle Paper.

She said, “the Instagram account was set up to document [Adichie’s] ‘Wear Nigerian’ project. She’d decided to “wear mostly Nigerian brands for…public appearances.”

I wonder if there will be increased interest in the U.S. and elsewhere in Nigerian fashion. As Ainehi says, “Adichie is always on the road and makes appearances at lots of high-profile events, so her commitment to wearing mostly Nigerian brands to these events is no small gesture.”

Who will bring these fashion items to the U.S.?

400 Years of Nigerian History

Today I taught the last of six classes on “400 Years of Nigerian History” at The Bigelow Center for Senior Activities in Fairfield, CT. I had a good time. The people in the class said they enjoyed it too.

Over the six weeks, several participants told me why they chose this class. Two women said it was their granddaughters who got them interested in Africa. One granddaughter is in South Africa on a Fulbright Scholarship, teaching English; the other in Uganda for a visit. One man said his brother taught in Uganda in the 1960’s.

I loved this small quilt that was displayed with Singing Cities concert.

I loved this small quilt that was displayed with Singing City concert.

A woman said, “I’m a life-long Episcopalian. I’ve met many Nigerian priests from the Anglican Church who’ve come to the U.S.” Another lived on a kibbutz in the late 1960’s. A Nigerian refugee from the Biafran War came to stay for a few months.

Three class members who are on the curriculum committee asked if I would come back to teach something else about Nigeria. I would love to. Probably a class on the traditions and customs of Nigeria with a focus on the Igbo practices which I know best.

Chibok Girls Freed From Boko Haram

Several months ago 21 of the kidnapped Chibok girls were retaken from Boko Haram. Two weeks ago The New York Times and others reported on another 82 released in a prisoner exchange.

Until a few days ago, they were kept from their families. On Saturday I read that they were reunited with their families. The article did not say if they went home with the families.

The article concluded, “Both groups of freed girls have been in government care in the capital as part of a nine-month reintegration program that President Muhammadu Buhari has said he will oversee personally. Human rights groups have criticized the government for keeping the young women so long in the capital, far from their homes.”

Several people had questions about Boko Haram during my class this morning. The group supports a conservative view of Islam, with strict adherence to Koranic law. They became active after 2009 when they were attacked by the army. Several leaders were imprisoned. A few escaped the next year, more radical than before.

Boko Haram had been driven out of many towns and villages in the northeast where they had taken control. But many places are still not completely safe. The fight is ongoing.

I also told the class that Boko Haram’s presence is hardly felt in the south of Nigeria, including Lagos where both our sons live. People are aware, but there has been no attempt at an attack that I have ever heard about.

President Buhari did promise action against Boko Haram as part of his platform. I believe this helped him get elected. He has made progress. But more is needed.

May 17, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
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Ogbanje, The Repeating Children

Ogbanje, the Repeating Children, or Changlings

My second book with the current trial title, When the Kola Nut Reaches Home, describes ogbanje, the “repeating or returning children,” in Igbo traditional belief. Sometimes ogbanje is translated as “changlings.”

I first read about ogbanje in Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart during Peace Corps training at the University of California Los Angeles in the summer of 1962. Ogbanje are children who die, usually very young, and return to be born and die again. They cause huge grief and sometimes anger in their parents.

It is said they have a connection to the spirit world of the ogbanje. Because of the tie, they are called back to that world. Usually they cannot resist. But they leave a charm or totem buried near their birthplace. That gives them the power to be born again to the same family.

To stop the cycle of an ogbanje, it is necessary to find the charm, called iyi-uwa, he or she has hidden. Once that is found and destroyed, the child will live.

Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart

Ogbanje in Things Fall Apart

In Achebe’s novel, Ezinma is the tenth child of her mother. All the others died before the age of 3. As the novel says, “Ekwefi (the mother) believed deep inside her that Ezinma had come to stay. . . And this faith had been strengthened when a year or so ago a medicine man had dug up Ezinma’s iyi-uwa.” (p. 57, The African Trilogy, Everyman’s Library, Knopf, New York)

I don’t recall when I next heard about ogbanje. Probably Fred Hedglin, my colleague at the Federal Emergency Science School, would have said something about the custom. He was well-versed in and fond of Igbo customs.

Ogbanje in the Family

Clem near center in tie between his sister Monica and Papa. Godwin in back on right, Edna seated on floor on right.

Clem near center in tie between his sister Monica and Papa. Godwin in back on right, Edna seated on floor on right.

After I married I learned that Clem’s family had experienced the tragedy of ogbanje. He remembers the time. They were living in Onitsha. There were four children. Clem, the oldest was 8. Then came Godwin, Monica, and Edna, at roughly two-year intervals as was customary at the time. But the next baby, a boy, only lived a few months. Another boy was born but died.

Clem recounts the experience.

“I remember going three times to the maternity clinic in Onitsha where Mama delivered the babies. She would come home with them, but each one began to shake violently when he was just a few months old and was dead within twenty-four hours. It was terrible to see.

“Papa decided he needed to consult a Dibia to end the curse of babies dying. So he took us home to Nanka. An ogbanje oracle, a Dibia with a specialty in dealing with the babies who kept dying and coming back, came. He made us line up in front of the obi, the central hut in the compound. He told us to hold out our hands, palms up. Then he looked closely at each. I think he was looking for any suspicious marks.

“I wasn’t frightened, only a little anxious about whether I might be ogbanje. But I was safe. He declared that Godwin and Edna were ogbanje, and Monica and I were not.

“Then he pointed to two different spots in the compound. He instructed Papa and Ejike to dig at one site, and two other men to dig at the other spot. After a couple of hours, the first pair found a tortoise shell which they said was Edna’s totem. The others continued digging until they finally came upon an item, a bone of some sort, which the Dibia said was Godwin’s. The Dibia destroyed both, breaking them into small pieces and scattering the remnants over the fire. Then he declared Godwin and Edna were healed, and there would be no more ogbanje babies.

“We were all frightened, on pins and needles, when Geoffrey was born. Until he was 3, we didn’t think he was going to survive.”

Today many of the Igbo spiritual practices are fading. I doubt if people still believe in ogbanje.

New Novel Coming Soon

I was intrigued with the announcement of a forthcoming novel that includes the ogbanje experience. Taiye Selasi, author of Ghana Must Go, gave the book a rave review.

The blog Brittle Paper says, “The official Grove Atlantic [the publisher] description of the novel isn’t terribly revealing. It says that Freshwater is an ‘autobiographical novel that explores the metaphysics of identity and mental health, told in boundary-breaking new form and centering on a young Nigerian woman as she struggles to reconcile the proliferation of multiple selves within her.’”

Ainehi Edoro says, “We know from Emezi’s posts on Instagram and Twitter that she relied heavily on the Ogbanje mythology to craft the novel’s principal character who happens to be a woman with ‘multiple selves.’”

Ainehi wonders how a first-time novelist can succeed in her writing. She compares Emezi to another Nigerian writer, Nnedi Okorafor. She says, “We think it has something to do with the fact that they have this uncanny ability to make old, forgotten things appear so present and urgent for our day.”

High praise! Can I make the ogbanje story come alive like this in my book? Other stories from the past? If you have a suggestion, I’d love to hear it.

I will watch for this novel. (Small warning: in the full article there is a supposed link to a spider fable. It didn’t work for me.)

Here is Why Taiye Selasi Loves Akwaeke Emezi’s Forthcoming Novel Freshwater

May 13, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Okey Ndibe’s Memoir and Its Intriguing Title

Okey Ndibe’s Memoir and Its Intriguing Title

Okey Ndibe’s Memoir

Never Look an American in the Eye is the title of Okey Ndibe’s memoir. How did he choose the title? He says, Never Look an American in the Eye, A Memoir of Flying Turtles, Colonial Ghosts, and the Making of a Nigerian American, came from advice his uncle gave him when he first came to America.

The uncle, it turns out, had no experience in America. But he had seen Western movies where two men tried to stare each other down. When neither gave way, one would pull a gun and shoot the other. So he warned his nephew!

I will be with Ndibe next month at the African Literature Association Conference at Yale.

On the first full day of the conference, June 15, I’ll be part of a roundtable with him and three others. The title is, “Okey Ndibe and Life-Writing: Looking Igbos in the Eye with Okey Ndibe.” Clever use of his memoir title to name the roundtable discussion, don’t you think?

Connections Abound

Okey with his wife Sheri Fafunwa, my friend's daughter.

Okey with his wife Sheri Fafunwa, my friend’s daughter.

I first knew Okey Ndibe as the husband of Sheri Fafunwa, daughter of my friend and fellow Nigerwives co-founder Doris. I saw Doris in Nigeria in January. Now of course I also know Okey as a famous author!

On the panel with me is John Masterson from Sussex University in England. Another interesting connection, I thought!

A few days ago I wrote to Matthew Lecznar at Sussex. I had seen they were also doing a conference on Biafra and he was the contact. I wrote just to establish a connection. Matthew wrote back to say he’d enjoyed my presentation in London! Now I’ll write again to tell him I’m sharing a roundtable with a colleague of his, another Sussex African scholar.

Never Look an American in the Eye got excellent reviews. It’s been on my to-read list, but I realized I better read it soon! It’s now waiting on my iPad.

I'm eager to read Ndibe's memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye.

I’m eager to read Ndibe’s memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye.

If it is as enjoyable as his novel Foreign Gods Inc. I should have a good time reading.

I’m also on a panel the next day called, “Inter-Racial Encounters in Life and Fiction.” That’s when I’ll give my paper about Nigerwives. I will mention Doris Fafunwa, Okey Ndibe’s mother-in-law, in that presentation. Small world indeed!

I believe Yale Bookstore is ordering my memoir to have for sale during the conference. I’m sure Ndibe’s memoir will there too so I’ll be in good company!

Girls Rescued from Boko Haram

The news a few days ago about the 82 Chibok girls exchanged for 5 Boko Haram militants was exciting. Today the NYTimes tells us the girls are in Abuja, being treated, but have not yet seen their families.

The government officials have said, “they could not reunite the newly released girls with their families until they verified the girls’ identities and matched them with their relatives. They were circulating photos to family members, many of whom were scattered across the rural countryside of the northeastern part of Nigeria where both internet service and smartphones are rare.”

Can you imagine the frustration of the parents who have seen their daughter’s names on the list but are not yet united? And of course the desperation of the parents who have not.

Boko Haram Captives Now in Camps

There has been news of other women and girls who have escaped or rescued from Boko Haram and are now living in camps for internally displaced persons.

Author Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s essay talks about them. It is a well-told story, but so sad.

Abubakar Adam Ibrahim’s Tender Tale of Women Living with Boko Haram Will Break Your Heart

You can read the beginning of his essay on the Brittle Paper blog, or all of it in Granta online.

Nigerwives

I’ll give you a taste of the chapter about Nigerwives for my second book. I think my paper at the ALA Conference will include this scene.

“You saved my life.” A woman of about forty with short brown hair, wearing a little eye-liner and mascara, was addressing me in her American-accented voice. “I came to Nigeria eighteen years ago. I had no idea what I was getting into. I was going crazy in the first year. I nearly left,” she said. “Then I got pregnant.”

I reached out to touch her arm as she continued. “One day before my first baby was born I met Brenda in the market, and she brought me to Nigerwives.”

“What’s your name?” I said, leaning forward but still unable to read her name tag without my glasses.

“Michelle. I’ve met so many friends here. They’re like family to me. They’ve even helped me understand my husband. I’m glad I stayed.”

With other Nigerwives at their January meeting in Lagos

With other Nigerwives at their January meeting in Lagos. Doris is in the center.

It was January 7, 2017. I was at the monthly meeting of Nigerwives in Lagos, Nigeria. On Friday the 6th I had returned to Lagos after spending Christmas and New Year’s in my husband’s village in eastern Nigeria. Nigerwives met on Saturdays. Would the meeting be the next day? I called my friend Millicent on Saturday morning.

“Yes, the meeting is the first Saturday of the month, so it’s this afternoon,” she said “Have you forgotten?”

“I’ve been away a long time,” I said. “Where is it? Are you going?”

“It’s at Corona School, Ikoyi. I can’t go today but I’m sure Doris Fafunwa will be there,” Millicent said.

I went, Doris was there, and she introduced me to the group as co-founder.

I thanked her and said she was one of the other founders! I felt so at home in this group of women, my own “tribe” in Nigeria.