Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

February 18, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

International UU Women’s Convo at Asilomar

Asilomar

Candidates's forum with three women running for President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Candidates’s forum with three women running for President of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

I’d heard great things about the beauty, the serenity, and the ocean scenery at Asilomar on the Monterey Peninsula in California. I came yesterday for the International Unitarian Universalist Women’s Convocation.

When I checked in, Jose, the desk clerk, said, “Do you know Sheila? She’s your roommate. And you have an ocean view.” I didn’t know Sheila, but she’s lovely. We do have an ocean view, but we had a day of rain.

The forecast for tomorrow is not much better. Sunday the same, though a little warmer. Maybe there will be a break. I’d at least like to  walk to the ocean a few hundred feet away.

Couldn't resist the music

Couldn’t resist the music

Music for a Rainy Evening

An amazing group of musicians played for this evening’s Happy Hour. They entertained us, making us forget the weather. And they chased away the rain!

Celtic and Irish tunes got several of us up and dancing. One woman was a real expert at Irish or Celtic step dancing. She was a joy to watch.

The dulcimer player was also the percussionist.

The dulcimer player was also the percussionist.

But best of all was watching the dulcimer player! I walked up close to see her and take a picture. Then I sat next to a woman in the front row of the audience and mentioned how much I enjoyed her playing. “That’s my daughter!” she said. She couldn’t have been prouder.

Phoebe Hearst

The mother of the dulcimer player, so proud and happy!

The mother of the dulcimer player, so proud and happy!

I was surprised to find that Asilomar has Phoebe’s Cafe and Hearst Social Hall, both named for Phoebe Hearst. When I spent an academic year in Sacramento for my Master’s in Education degree program, our two older children attended Phoebe Hearst Elementary School.

Asilomar was founded as a YWCA Camp and Conference Center in 1913. Phoebe Hearst was considered the ‘fairy godmother’ to the YWCA Pacific Coast Branch, I read in the Visitor’s Guide. She held a conference at her estate nearby. Then she invited other influential women to hear about the plans. She was instrumental in raising the funds.

After the site was completed she was honored with the spaces named for her.

Too Obtuse on Right Relations

I volunteered for the Right Relations team at the International UU Women’s Convo. The statement of our work: “If any participant feels that they have encountered behavior, structures, or processes that are not respectful of their inherent worth and dignity, that person is encouraged to inform a member of the Right Relations Team.”

So today a woman told us she was offended by a few people’s actions. The woman is of color, the offenders were white. One person touched her hair, and two others asked if it was real.

For women of color hair is a sensitive topic. Images of long blond hair as the ideal of beauty are prevalent in our society.

Many black girls, my mixed-race daughter included, played with towels or other fabric that would drape over their heads so they could “flip back” the pretend straight hair as white girls did. Yes, I know some white girls too pretended to have long hair. But they had a chance of actually growing long straight hair.

The history of slavery and discrimination makes the idea of a white person touching a Black woman’s hair unacceptable. Likewise questioning its authenticity.

When our team gave its report this afternoon, I said, “When I was first in Nigeria in a remote village, a child touched my skin out of curiosity. But today we don’t touch others without permission, or ask if hair is authentic.”

Afterwards my roommate said, “I didn’t know what you were talking about!” Should I have said a Black woman was offended?

My Workshop on Saturday

I’m presenting a workshop, “Living in Community, Lessons from Nigeria,” Saturday afternoon. I hope people will come.

I asked for a projector, but I’m not certain there will be one. If there isn’t, I’ll talk without! Wish me luck!

February 14, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
0 comments

Happy Valentine’s Day

White Privilege – More Conversation

I love all the attention our essay contest is getting. After all, that’s the point – to stimulate conversation!

On Saturday morning TEAM Westport Chair Harold Bailey was interviewed on CNN. The interviewer was Michael Smerconish.

Harold sent an email the night before to alert us. I knew I’d be out, so I recorded it. I watched the program later.

Harold refuted the contention that the topic is an attempt to discredit the town or make us all feel guilty. And he said explicitly that there was not outrage in Westport, as some media had said.

Smerconish said the controversy had led him to think about white privilege, which he hadn’t done before.

He contacted the one black student in his elementary class in a Philadelphia suburb decades earlier. They had been friends but had lost touch.

Darryl Chatman responded. “I would say there was a white privilege. And yes, I was aware. Everything that happened in the lives of everyone else was because of opportunities being more available . . . It was a part of something I had to live through.”

I have found that many people in town now know about the essay contest – many more than would have known if there had been no controversy. They are not outraged. They are glad we’re having the conversation.

Bill Buckley photo from Dan Woog's blog 06880

Bill Buckley photo from Dan Woog’s blog 06880

We have decided to have the public ceremony as scheduled at the Westport Library on April 3. But the judges, not the students, will read the winning essays. We will not release the names of the winners. They will receive their awards and have photos at a private ceremony.

But perhaps the winners’ names will be public. Michael Smerconish said he would like to have them on his program!

Memorial Service for Bill Buckley

On the same Saturday in the afternoon TEAM Westport members gathered with many others at the jazz memorial service for Bill Buckley. He was the husband of our member Judy Hamer who is also my friend.

Three of the amazing jazz musicians at the memorial service at Meadow Ridge

Three of the amazing jazz musicians at the memorial service at Meadow Ridge

“Bill Buckley devoted his life to bettering the lives of others. As a partner of Rediscovery Productions, he produced and directed films on notable African American figures such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Marion Anderson, and Dr. Charles Drew,” the program said.

Bill loved jazz. Six instrumentalists and three vocalists, people Bill knew and followed, performed for the service. There was more jazz than talk!

Hospice Chaplain Marlon Simpkins, M.Div., gave opening and closing remarks. Judy’s daughters, Bill’s daughter and sons, and Judy spoke.

Judy dancing with her daughter

Judy dancing with her daughter

The program had the most wonderful picture of Bill in his signature cap on the front. Inside was a photo of Judy and Bill dancing.

I loved watching Judy and one of her daughters dance to the jazz.

WestportNow had a piece about Bill. The obituary released by the family is at the end of the article.

I wouldn’t call myself a jazz fan. But I’m a bigger fan now than I was before the service!

And I loved seeing people from so many parts of my own life at the service:

  • TEAM Westport, of course
  • Sister Grannies which Judy invited me to
  • Baker’s Dozen Book Group, likewise

    Fay, a friend from Baker's Dozen Book Group, with me at the service

    Fay, a friend from Baker’s Dozen Book Group, with me at the service

  • Westport Library Board where I served years ago
  • Unitarian Church
  • Y’s Men of Westport where I hope to speak
  • Other writers

Living in Community

My next post will be from California. I’m going to the Third Annual International Unitarian Universalist Women’s Convocation at Asilomar. On Saturday I’ll present a workshop, “Living in Community – Lessons from Africa.”

I’m always glad of an opportunity to talk about the customs that make people in an Igbo village know they belong!

Boko Haram News

On Monday evening public television’s NewsHour had a report about Boko Haram. They showed video that was apparently made by Boko Haram.

Audie Cornish interviewed Ibrahim Ahmed. He hosts a weekly VOA broadcast in Nigeria. He said VOA had received 18 hours of video. Audie asked how VOA knew it was authentic.

He said VOA knew the videos were real because the men spoke Kanuri, the language of the region. And they talked about events that were not public knowledge.

One of the more horrifying scenes shows Boko Haram holding a “tribunal” in a captured town. A man is on the ground, being whipped.

Ahmed said that until last year Boko Haram was better equipped than the army. But then the army upgraded. “And that is when they started winning the war and kicking Boko Haram out of these major cities and towns,” he said.

Audie asked Ahmed whether he thought the area could be rebuilt. He said yes, “but it’s going to be really difficult, because the crisis or the carnage that Boko Haram has done in the area is just unbelievable.”

Tiny Chip to Diagnose Disease?

I was intrigued to read about a tiny chip that can perform diagnoses from a drop of liquid. I thought of the tubes of blood drawn for my annual checkup recently. Results took a couple of days.

“Labs-on-a-chip are an attempt to simplify the process, using droplets of liquid . . . passed through a sensor capable of isolating and manipulating single rare cells, screening for drugs, or detecting individual proteins,” the article said.

For a country like Nigeria where centrifuges and other equipment used in lab tests are not available, this could be a life-saver!

You can read their paper describing the discovery in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. But don’t hold your breath. Despite the breakthrough, scientists do not know when the technology will be available.

February 10, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
0 comments

Damage from Boko Haram

Combating Boko Haram’s Influence

About 70 freed Boko Haram captives are nearing the end of a 9-month program to aid their reintegration to Nigerian society. Psychologists and Islamic teachers are helping them.

Adaobi Tricia Uwaubani, from Goodreads

Adaobi Tricia Uwaubani, novelist and reporter, photo from Goodreads

Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, had the report written by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani.

One woman who had been married to a Boko Haram commander still misses her life of leisure. She had slaves serving her. In addition, “. . . some of these women . . . gained respect, influence and standing within Boko Haram,” the report says.

The Neem Foundation which runs the program says, “Seduced by this power, and relieved to escape the domestic drudgery of their everyday lives, these women can prove tougher than men to deradicalize.”

Fatima Akilu is the head of Neem Foundation in Nigeria. She described challenges the women and children face when they return home. She said, “There is still a lot of anger and resentment from communities that have been traumatized for years, and subjected to atrocities by the group.”

Families may find it difficult to accept their daughters who were rape victims. Some think the babies are destined to become Boko Haram terrorists like their fathers.

But there have been major changes in most of the women who now believe that “the actions of their former husbands were wrong.”

I can imagine the homecomings will be joyous yet stressful. UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, was quoted in the article, saying, “Female former Boko Haram captives, and their children born to the militants, often face mistrust and persecution from their communities, who fear they will radicalize others or carry out violence.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation covers women’s rights, property rights, climate, and other critical issues. On the front page for each, there is a statement about the issue. The one where I found this story says, “ABOUT OUR WOMEN’S RIGHTS COVERAGE. We focus on stories that help to empower women and bring lasting change to gender inequality.” Thank you, Thomson Reuters Foundation.

I just signed up to receive their newsletter. So you may see more from them.

Other Devastation Caused by Boko Haram

IDP Camp from My Lecturer's Blog; photo has AFP in corner

IDP Camp from My Lecturer’s Blog; photo from AFP I believe

Reintegrating former Boko Haram captives is hard but the result can be positive. Other harm facing Northern Nigeria from Boko Haram does not have a good ending.

A recent report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says 120,000 people are facing famine. But “11 million are confronting severe food shortages this year,” the report continues.

AP posted the story, picked up by a Philippines online news agency, about the crisis.

There have been warnings for months. I heard about impending danger a year ago when a Nigerian official spoke about the camps for internally displaced persons.

The article says, “UN agencies have reported that children already are dying in the region and some half a million face death if they don’t get help.”

Aid comes from international agencies but it is insufficient and cannot reach everyone. It is delivered through Nigerian intermediaries, including the army. There is ample room for supplies to get ‘lost.’

“Corruption and conflict between the government and aid agencies is compounding the crisis. Officials are investigating reports that local government agencies are stealing food aid,” the Inquirer article said.

Nigeria should be able to provide for all its citizens, even when there is conflict. But the country shifted its attention away from agriculture as a revenue producer when oil provided steady revenue.

While agriculture remains the major occupation in the country, it is based on local production for family use, with small surpluses traded.

The country is “the world’s biggest importer of rice,” the article says. This is disgraceful. Nigeria has plenty of suitable land for growing rice. It could supply its own people and others as well!

And not getting aid to those in critical need is even more disgraceful.

More Media on White Privilege Essay Contest

I just received an email from our TEAM Westport chair Harold Bailey. He said, “I will be interviewed on the Essay Contest by Michael Smerconish on CNN sometime between 9 and 10 am tomorrow (Saturday),” if there is no other breaking news.

I will try to time my visit to the nail salon so I can watch. Or I’ll record it! Will you watch?

Memorial for Husband of TEAM Colleague

Saturday afternoon is the jazz memorial service for Bill Buckley. He was the husband of my friend Judy. She is my colleague in several ways. She invited me to join Baker’s Dozen Book Group and Sister Grannies, both groups I love. We’re both part of TEAM Westport.

Bill loved jazz. I think Judy was already a jazz aficionado when they married, but he certainly deepened her appreciation.

I asked her if I could help by encouraging people to sign the guest book. She accepted, so I’ll go early to stay near the door.

The books in Jen's giveaway

The books in Jen’s giveaway

Valentine’s Day Book Giveaway

My wonderful public relations consultant Aline is amazing at promoting books by clients like me! I’m excited to have my memoir featured in a Valentine’s Day Giveaway by a Westport blogger, Jen. She writes about three books by Connecticut authors.

She says, “To win one of these books as a special Valentine’s Day gift, like this post, write the titles you want to win in the comments, and share it on Facebook or Twitter. A winner for each book will be chosen at random on February 14th! Tell me if you enter, and especially if you win!

February 6, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

More on White Privilege

White Privilege: The Conversation Continues 

Last week I wrote about TEAM Westport’s essay contest on white privilege.

Interest has continued to grow. In fact, TEAM’s “student essay contest about ‘white privilege’ has created an uproar,” according to The New York Times! At the Friday meeting of “Celebrate Westport,” our Second Selectman (Deputy Mayor) Avi Kaner said, “The town has received hundreds of emails, phone calls, and letters opposing the contest.”

(“Celebrate Westport” is held monthly as a forum for town groups to share ideas. One purpose is to learn what each group is doing and whether others could collaborate. Another is to avoid scheduling major fundraisers for different organizations on the same nights.)

A reminder of the contest invitation:

“In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life — whatever your racial or ethnic identity — and in our society more broadly?”

Harold Bailey, Chair of TEAM Westport

Harold Bailey, Chair of TEAM Westport

Our chair, Harold Bailey Jr. said, in an interview with the NYTimes, “the question — devised in September — was not intended to be leading.

“We are not implying anything about our town other than this town has an openness to exploring the topic and discussing it.” he said.

Is the Phrase ‘White Privilege’ Leading?

I disagree a little with Harold. I think we did mean it to be ‘leading,’ but not leading to a conclusion in the way some readers took it. We meant it to lead to thinking, conversation, and writing about white privilege. We certainly got the conversation!

TEAM Westport’s Facebook page has reached more than 2000 people since the contest was announced. Comments have been mixed with more favorable than unfavorable.

My friend Susan said on the Facebook page: “Talking about white privilege is not asking anyone to blame themselves. As an example, one of the posters [on Facebook] here, who is black, talks about being followed in local stores. That has not happened to me. I am white. To look at white privilege is to consider why the other poster was followed and I have not been. Talking about race is hard but necessary. If we all stay calm, how is that divisive? Civil conversation has the possibility to draw us together, I believe.”

But Mark, whom I don’t know, said, “The statement ‘White Privilege’ is reverse racism. First you’re profiling/judging all ;whites’ by their skin, next you claim they’re all privileged. . . Also, I find that people use this term as a crutch on why they didn’t succeed. Further more, these statements divide a nation, not bridge gaps.”

I can’t wait to read the winning essays. So far no entries have been submitted. Judy receives the essays for TEAM and shares them out among the judges. She says, “These are high school students! They’ll write their essays the day before or the day they’re due!”

Hidden Figures Shines a Light on Race

Hidden Figures: book, Actors Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner

Hidden Figures: book, Actors Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner

I saw the movie Hidden Figures last week. It is an amazing story, based on real lives, of three black women who worked for NASA in the early 1960’s. They were called “computers,” they did mathematical computations before computers!

Reader Dick Holmquist had suggested it as a good introduction to talking about race. I agree!

President Buhari in England

President Buhari left Nigeria in January for a ten-day vacation. He was due back yesterday, Feb. 5.

When he sent a letter postponing his return, the powerful Nigerian rumor mill went into action. “He was ill, he had died, he was in the hospital!” His vice-president said he is fine. There he was relaxing in front of the TV in the news article I read.

Igbo People at Risk from Fulani Herdsmen?

Nigeria’s Daily Post online said that Fulani herdsmen are attacking Igbo women. The story came from the recently elected President-General of Ohanaeze Ndigbo, an Igbo social and cultural organization. “Speaking with newsmen during the weekend, [he] called on the federal government to urgently intervene on the ugly incidents.

President-General of Ohanaeze, Nwodo

President-General of Ohanaeze, Nwodo

“The peaceful coexistence between previously peace-loving Fulani herdsmen, who herded their cattle with long canes and our local farmers has been replaced by an era of AK-47 toting and rampaging herdsmen who kill, maim, rape our people and destroy our farms,” the President-General said.

This is not the first I’ve read on the topic. But I suspect that there have not been many incidents involving Fulani men and Igbo women.

The election of the new President-General was opposed by other Igbo groups. I believe he spoke out to illustrate his concern. He wants others to know he has the ability to defend Igbo people.

I read about the controversy over his election in Vanguard, “The choice of Nwodo came at the right time when the marginalisation of the South East [Igbo area]  needs to be addressed. Nwodo is a true Nigerian and a bridge builder and one person that “ GHANA MUST GO BAGS” will not divert from doing what is just and good.”

I had to read that last sentence a couple of times. He says Nwodo is a person that ‘Ghana Must Go Bags’ will not divert. What?

The polypropylene bags are two or three feet deep. (They would hold lots of Naira!) They got their name in 1983. Undocumented Ghanaians were forced out of Nigeria and had to pack quickly – no time to get suitcases, so they used market bags. I lost several Ghanaian tailors from my clothing company then, though they returned a few weeks later.

You can see Ghana Must Go bags at Alibaba.

I have my own theory of what he means, but my husband disagrees! What’s your guess?

February 2, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

What Does White Privilege Mean to You?

Former Westport Resident Talks About White Privilege

TEAM Westport is our town’s committee dedicated to multi-cultural awareness. The acronym TEAM stands for is Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism. I am a member.

This year's contest topic is White Privilege.

Presenting a prize awarded in the 2016 contest with TEAM Chair Harold Bailey, left, and First Selectman Jim Marpe.

We are holding our 4th annual essay contest for high school students. The contest announcement says, “In 1,000 words or less, describe how you understand the term ‘white privilege’. To what extent do you think this privilege exists? What impact do you think it has had in your life—whatever your racial or ethnic identity—and in our society more broadly?”

Quoting Dan Woog in his blog 06880 on Wednesday: “Now it’s received international attention, through an AP story and on a host of TV newscastsThe controversy struck close to home for one Staples High School grad. Elizabeth – who grew up here, and now lives on the West Coast – writes:

I’ve been thinking about my own privileges a lot recently. One thing rings particularly true: Privilege is invisible to those who have it. . . .We assume that all others have these same privileges, because the absence of a privilege is something we do not often have to think about.”

You can read the rest of her post at Dan’s blog. There have been 47 comments at last count! I hope we get an equal or greater number of entrants in the contest.

Susan heads TEAM’s essay contest. She may correct me, but I think I suggested this topic. It has certainly aroused interest.

Another View of Privilege

Two panels from Toby Morris' comic strip on privilege

Two panels from Toby Morris’ comic strip on privilege. Richard’s home is warm; Paula’s is damp and drafty.

My niece Comet posted this on Facebook yesterday. “Toby Morris, an Auckland [New Zealand] based illustrator, has created a comic strip which can teach us an important lesson: that not everyone has the same opportunities in life.”

It is not about race, but rather about the different experiences that lead to different outcomes.

Read all the panels. The last two make the point so well!

Do Our School Buses Need Seat Belts?

On public radio yesterday I heard that our Connecticut State legislature is to consider a bill to require seat belts on school buses. Not just any seat belts, but shoulder and lap straps. Maybe the buses in Westport already have these. Our children were grown when we moved here so we never had school bus riders.

The legislation has come up before. It was defeated because of cost – $12,000 per seat!

I couldn’t help thinking, when I heard this, how much good that money could do in under-funded schools in our cities. I was imagining children in Bridgeport riding with their seat belts on. Then they get to school. The teachers are underpaid. Resources are scarce or non-existent.

A mother is promoting another try. Maybe if I had lost a child or feared for my child’s safety on the school bus, I would feel differently. But we can’t be safe from every possibility of harm. Otherwise one would just stay in one’s house all the time, not drive, fly, or venture far from home. What do you think?

My Gymnast Granddaughter 

Nkiru at recent meet

Nkiru at recent meet

I’m so proud when I see my granddaughter Nkiru performing her gymnastics routines. She’s amazing.

She started gymnastics when she seven. The practices are long and hard.

She has been dedicated. She’s persevered through changes in coaches and gyms.

Of course her parents’ dedication has also been amazing. Driving her to the gym, waiting or returning to pick her up, going to meets on weekends, all have required commitment.

She landed successfully on the beam!

She landed successfully on the beam!

Her dad has been a hero. His work allows him a greater flexibility than my daughter has.

I haven’t been to a meet recently. But I’ve seen pictures. She posted a few on Facebook recently. I asked her to send me her favorites!

Now I’m sharing two of them with you.

Update on Boko Haram

The Nigerian online media Daily Post had a story by . He reported on an update by Theatre Commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, Major General Leo Irabor.

“He said in spite of the regrettable occurrence of January 17 which saw accidental bombing of civilians and medical workers, troops had continued to gain traction by recording successes in operational engagements.”

According to the piece, over 3000 Nigerian Boko Haram militants and twenty six foreigners from Chad and Niger were captured. The major general recounted eight specific actions with more details than you’ll probably want to read. But still no news on the 200 still-missing girls from Chibok.

Buchi Emecheta from British Council Literature

Buchi Emecheta from British Council Literature

Buchi Emecheta Honored in Letter from her Son

I’d had the novel The Slave Girl by Buchi Emecheta for ages. I started it once and didn’t finish. I finally read it on the way to Nigeria in December and finished after I arrived. I loved it.

The Slave Girl recounts the story of a girl who was ‘obanje,’ a child who dies repeatedly and is reborn only to die again. Her father endured hardships to get the charms to end her ‘obanje’ status. She is also given facial tattoos so that she will not die or be sold into slavery.

Emecheta's The Slave Girl

Emecheta’s The Slave Girl

But her parents die of the ‘felenza’ epidemic in the early 1900’s when she is seven.

Her brother struggles with his conscience but ultimately sells her to be a slave in Onitsha. He needs the money for his ‘coming of age’ ceremony.

I loved the way Emecheta described life in Onitsha at the time. The market scenes are completely realistic.

I finally figured out the ‘felenza’ was influenza. Other English words too are given in their Igbo ‘interpretation.’

Emecheta died recently. Her son wrote a wonderful tribute.

 

.

 

January 29, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

Beauties and Beasts in Igbo Art

Igbo Art: Beauties and Beasts

Thank you to my friend and fellow Mount Holyoke book group member Joan! She told me about the lecture, “The Astonishing Richness of Igbo Art: Beauties, Beasts, and Others.”

One of Cole's books on Igbo masks, Beauties and Beasts

One of Cole’s books on Igbo masks, Beauties and Beasts

I went on Thursday evening to the recently renovated Yale University Art Gallery. The speaker was Herbert M. Cole.

I missed the introduction; I got there just as Cole was beginning.

I've ordered his book on Igbo Arts with Beasts and Beauties.

I’ve ordered his book on Igbo Arts with Beasts and Beauties.

(Why was I late? I’d gone to Posh Nails for my regular manicure and pedicure. The manicure was finished in time but I knew I had to move quickly. I went home and changed. I was ready at just the time I’d planned.

Then the phone rang. I nearly didn’t answer. It was Posh Nails. “What?” I thought. Good thing I picked up – I’d left my wallet on the counter, so I had to race back, out of my way! And I was grateful they’d phoned.)

Cole spoke about Igbo art with a focus on Igbo masks. The event no longer appears on their front page. Good for them for keeping up to date! If the link doesn’t take you to the event, you can read about it and see the photo of the speaker if you click on the calendar for Jan. 26.

He is an emeritus professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. He lectures and consults on African art. He also carves miniatures of African figures, masks, spoons, stools, and power images. I should send him a picture of the Igbo door we have hanging on our wall.

His early slides showed the contrast between the ‘beasts,’ as he called them, and the ‘beauties.’ The beasts, masks depicting men, were large and often tough-looking. Some had horns; Many were decorated with leopards, pythons, elephants, and monkeys. The men who wore the masks sometimes carried a stick or spear.

The ‘beauties’ on the other hand are the masks depicting females. They are always white, have narrow noses, and usually sport an elaborate hair style. Both the male and female masks are worn by men.

The huge creation, carried by one man, we saw in Amawbia

The huge creation, carried by one man, we saw in Amawbia

His final slide had a picture of an ijele, as he called it, a huge creation more than ten feet tall. Though it’s called a mask because it’s worn by a masquerade, it is actually a gigantic headdress carried by one person. An ijele is only seen rarely, and only to celebrate a really major event.

We happened on an event in Amawbia seven years ago when an ijele was on show. It was amazing! I sent the picture to Professor Cole.

U.S. National Committee for UN Women

Saturday was the semi-annual in-person board meeting of the United States National Committee for UN Women, or USNC UN Women. I took the Amtrak train from Stamford, Connecticut on Friday to Washington DC. Two board members, Mary and Terry, had been in DC for the march last week and stayed on. Two others arrived in the evening.

We gathered for dinner at the Mayflower Hotel where three of us were staying. I was glad for the opportunity to talk informally to the others. They have known each other for several years. I joined the board in June 2015 and missed the face-to-face meeting last June, so haven’t spent as much time as I would like with the others.

We had a full agenda. Even with a lunch break – several of us went to Nando’s for Portuguese-Brazilian inspired salads – we still completed all our tasks. I reminded the others that the UN Women Executive Director Phumzile is in Africa right now. In fact in Ethiopia, where several hotel staff and a taxi driver were from.

Indique dessert with mustard chili ice cream

Indique dessert with mustard chili ice cream

To celebrate a successful meeting we had dinner at Indique.

The Mayflower Hotel is old and lovely. Staff were friendly and helpful.

Mayflower Hotel lobby

Mayflower Hotel’s lovely lobby

Only this morning did I catch the “DC” reference on the hang tag for the room door. If you are inside and don’t want your room cleaned, you hang the tag that says, “In Session.”

Immigration Ban  

Before going to All Souls’ Church Unitarian this morning in Washington, I watched CNN. Fareed Zakaria was hosting the program GPS.

The conversation was about the immigration ban. One of his panelists was Rula Jebreal, foreign policy analyst and Visiting Professor, American University of Rome. She said, “It’s not about national security, it’s about white supremacy. He’s using refugees as a distraction.” She continued, “We’re handing a victory to . . . extremist groups.”

Other panelists were Anthony Romero, Executive Director of ACLU, David Milliband, President, International Rescue Committee and former British foreign secretary, and Jonathan Turley, Professor, George Washington University School of Law.

We’re seeing a “massive outpouring of support for refugees at airports and around the country,” Romero said. “It’s showing how people feel about this executive order banning immigrants.”

Jazz musicians at All Souls Church Unitarian DC

Jazz musicians at All Souls Church Unitarian DC

Then I went to church for a rousing sermon and jazz!

As I returned to the hotel I saw the outpouring! As my Uber driver was still a few blocks away from the Mayflower Hotel, we saw people carrying signs. Then the traffic got heavy, barely moving. Still a couple of blocks away, I got out. I photographed one of the marchers!

Woman on her way to the march. I followed her.

Woman on her way to the march. I followed her.

I went with them to the point where I could see the White House and the masses of people.

Then I turned around and went back to the hotel. Just made it in time for my train back to Connecticut! The traffic was a mess because of the protest, and I didn’t mind!

January 25, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
3 Comments

Talking About Race

Talking About Race

Sunday’s presentation “Talking to Children About Race” at the Westport Library, co-sponsored by TEAM Westport, was excellent. Catherine Lewis, LCSW and Zoe Tarrant, MA, MFT were the presenters. Their PowerPoint “What Do White Children See?” led them to why it is imperative to talk with children about race. They also offered valuable suggestions.

Catherine Lewis, one of the presenters Talking About Race

Catherine Lewis, one of the presenters Talking About Race

The PowerPoint shows scenes of Westport and beyond that children see. These can lead to stereotypes about race. For me, the scenes showing white teachers, administrators, and sports teams, and a Black cafeteria worker and janitor at the schools were most powerful.

An audience member said, “Seeing white people in leadership and everyday scenes, and Black people in jail and in menial roles was what struck me.”

Zoe and Catherine said, “It’s hard, but don’t be afraid to talk to your children about race. Be willing to open conversations. Ask them about what they’ve seen at school or in their sports activities.”

Zoe Tarrant, the other presenter Talking About Race

Zoe Tarrant, the other presenter Talking About Race

Another audience member said, “Isn’t it racist to bring up race?”

“No,” they assured us. “It will show them that it’s a reasonable conversation to have. If you don’t bring it up, they’ll think you don’t care or don’t notice racist comments or actions.”

Slavery in Connecticut

They described a textbook used in classrooms today that says, “Connecticut did have some slaves. Their owners treated them well and taught them religion and English.” It mentions nothing about the wealth built on slavery in Connecticut.

The truth is that slaves were critical to creating Connecticut’s wealth. Not just the slave owners, but the merchants, textile mills, and bankers all built their empires on the products from and even the trade of slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The legacy of slavery continued in the 20th century with red-lining and bank policies that limited Blacks’ ability to own homes and build their businesses. It continues today with hiring practices, under-funded schools in minority communities, and our social institutions.

At a high school sports event in a nearby town, the all-white town team heckled the visiting Black and Hispanic team with shouts of “Build the Wall.” Parents could ask their children how the visitors would have felt.

Writing and Talking About Race

Yesterday afternoon at the Westport Writers Workshop, one of the participants read a lovely piece about her daughter. She described the difficult situation when her daughter was cut from a team and then from the social connections related to being part of the team.

She suggested her daughter consider volunteering as a mentor to help younger children with their school work. When they arrived for the orientation, the woman said, “The others all looked different from my daughter.” I asked her what she meant. “The others were Black,” she said. “My daughter is white. I don’t know how to say that without being offensive.”

“Say the other young people were Black,” I said. She seemed a little surprised. “Just say the truth,” I said. “It’s not racist to point out racial differences. It’s offensive when you use race to make assumptions about someone’s character.”

The Women’s March

When I saw the Men’s Choir singing at the second service at our Unitarian Church in Westport on Sunday, I assumed I had missed singing with the Women’s Choir at the first service. But our Choir Director Ed said, “The men stepped up to sing for both services so we could give women who marched a much-needed rest.”

Betsy (left) and Cheryl at church on Sunday

Betsy (left) and Cheryl at church on Sunday

At least eight women in the congregation raised their hands when Rev. John asked who had marched. Several women who had been in Washington, New York, or Stamford CT wore their pussy hats. I snapped a photo of Cheryl Dixon Paul and Betsy Wacker.

Anne Khanna sent me the photo of her in the New York March carrying a church banner.

Kristen (left), Anne, and Lorna in New York

Kristen (left), Anne, and Lorna in New York

I was pleased to see Facebook pictures of Dick Foot, Mike Briggs, Patti Nolan, Marilyn Mehr, and other friends who participated.

And I loved the picture Dan Woog sent in his blog 06880. The Minuteman statue, in Dan’s blog wearing a pussy hat, is along the road to the Westport beach. People drive by it often.

Ainehi’s Post- More Talking About Race 

Ainehi Edoro’s recent post talked about book covers and the artists who design them. She especially noted the artist Greg Ruth. She says, “[he] uses a cover design as occasion to reflect on the intersection of race and the artistic process of creating a cover art.”

She says, Ruth wrote “a thoughtful piece on how to avoid common pitfalls when translating the realities and lives of people who are different from us. He speaks candidly from his position as an artist who happens to be white.”

Nigeria Revisited My Life andn Loves Abroad, my memoir front cover

Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad, my memoir front cover

“My origins and personal experiences with race, my nearly all white childhood and the reversal of that in NYC and coming into the adult world at a time where white cultural dominance was ebbing and we were seeing much more diverse and colorful faces in our culture, made [Okorafor’s cover] an interesting issue to take on,” Ruth said.

She shares one comment from his piece. I really like this.

“We’re all racial, we’re all tribal. We come from different regions and different places and we see the world informed by those inherent locales. It is our job as artists to both be aware of that reality and to look beyond it when we can, not just when the job requires. It grows us from ourselves and makes of us better at what we do both as artists in our art and as people walking down the street.”

Her post reminds me that I love the cover of my memoir.

January 21, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

Finding My Way in Nigeria

Finding My Way in Nigeria

From my first days in Nigeria, I knew I had to depend on others for help in finding my way.

My school’s headmaster gave me the address of the apartment where I would live. It was 25 Glover Road.

Honda 50 like the one Roger had in Lagos

Honda 50 like the one Roger had in Lagos

Roger, my friend and Peace Corps colleague, drove me up and down Glover Road on his Honda 50 motorbike. It was near the Peace Corps Rest House where we were staying. We found a few other numbers. But no sign of number 25.

After the headmaster described the location Roger and I went back. We found the building. It was near the entrance of Ikoyi Hotel where the Hausa traders sold their wares. The major road into Ikoyi, Kingsway, was the nearest intersection. I moved into a second floor apartment a couple of weeks later and lived there happily for the duration of my Peace Corps service.

In that apartment I first served palm wine to my future husband Clem. It was my second meeting with him. When he came to the door with a mutual friend I didn’t recognize him.

My first meeting with him had been a near disaster. I had been summoned to the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria’s headquarters. The memo I received said the ECN staff had come to inspect my electricity usage. I hadn’t been home. So I had to report to the Chief Electrical Engineer. I was annoyed.

Wedding photo as it appeared in Life Magazine, Jan. 1965.

Wedding photo as it appeared in Life Magazine, Jan. 1965.

But I liked him when he visited my apartment. I got interested after attending a party at his house. I later learned the party had been organized on my behalf! We were married 14 months later.

Finding the Obi’s House

During our Christmas holidays in Nigeria, we went to Onitsha to meet the Obi, as I wrote about last time. We had an address for his house. We drove up and down the road we thought was the right one. We found numbers close to his, but the one we sought wasn’t there.

We asked several people and got conflicting directions. The final person we asked, when we were getting late and desperate, pointed us to a side street. With no street signs, we had been on the wrong road. There we found the house!

Driving to Nnewi

On January 1st we visited Clem’s friend from secondary school days, Dr. Dozie Ikedife. He lives in Nnewi, about an hour and a half from our town of Nanka. Our driver Hyacinth kind of knew the way, as did Clem.

Driving through the town of Nnew

Driving through the town of Nnewi

But at an intersection in a town along the way neither was sure of the road. There was no sign to indicate the way. So Hyacinth got into the intersection, leaned out of the window of our car, and shouted to a passing driver, “O uzo Nnewi? Is this the road to Nnewi?” He pointed to the left, which he thought was our road.

The driver shouted back, “O nya. It’s the way.” So he continued his turn and we reached Nnewi half an hour later.

Two Conference Proposals Accepted

I am thrilled that two proposals I submitted for upcoming conferences have been accepted.

SOAS Legacies of Biafra 

Flag of Biafra - The Rising Sun

Flag of Biafra – The Rising Sun

The first is for a conference, Legacies of Biafra, honoring the creation of Biafra 50 years ago. It is at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, in London in April. I will talk about my husband’s role in the break-away republic. Here is part of what I wrote in the abstract.

Powering Biafra, One Key Actor

The dream of Biafra was built on the hard work of many individuals. The war heroes and political leaders are known; their stories have been written. The technical people who worked behind the scenes are not known and their stories haven’t been told. I relate the story of one key actor.

Clement Onyemelukwe was Chief Electrical Engineer of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN, in 1967. We lived in Lagos. In May he received call to say he was needed in the Eastern Region, as it was then called. Though secession wasn’t directly mentioned, it was clear that this was part of preparation for an independent country.

We left Lagos for Enugu where he led the Fuel and Energy Commission overseeing the Coal Corporation and the electricity sector. He was responsible for the power that kept Biafra alive. The capital, Enugu, depended on the energy from Oji Power Station, run with the Coal Corporation’s output.

When Enugu was about to fall, he oversaw the move of workshops to safe locations. He sourced power from a different generating station. He also installed new generation to supply the needs of war.

Yale African Literature Conference

The second is for the 2017 African Literature Association annual conference at Yale in June. The theme is Transnational Connections.

Nigerwives: A Major Transnational Connection

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.

2017 Inauguration and Women’s March

Did you watch one or both? Did you go?

January 18, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
1 Comment

Nigeria Tragedy and Traffic

Bomb Falls at Refugee Camp

The New York Times had a story yesterday about a bombing at a Nigerian refugee camp that killed dozens of people, including aid workers. Tragic! Click on the picture to read the story.

President Buhari has apologized. He said it was an error. But how terrible for the families who had already been displaced from their homes, now to lose loved ones in a military event meant to defeat Boko Haram.

Lagos Traffic

You wouldn’t believe the traffic in Nigeria. People insist that their drivers act like they own the road.

Even on the expressways! I remember being excited when the first expressway, between Lagos and Ibadan, opened years ago. It was a joy to drive on the first couple of times. Then many of us drove ourselves, instead of relying on drivers as we do now. It was somewhat orderly.

Benin-Ore-Lagos Road, From Investigative Centre for International Reporting

Benin-Ore-Lagos Road, From Investigative Centre for International Reporting

Today drivers do not stay in lanes. They weave in and out looking for the best way to get ahead. Occasionally cars or buses are stopped, even on expressways, to pick up or discharge passengers.

But the most challenging is on the expressways where the road is damaged with massive potholes. Or the road may be torn up for construction, or there has been an accident that blocks the road. Then the drivers all go to the other side, into oncoming traffic.

Once in a while there will be a sign for a diversion, but often there is no sign. And you often find vehicles coming at you on your own side.

Tanker on Fire

We were returning from Nanka on Jan. 6. We were on the Benin bye-pass to avoid going through the city. Cars were coming at us. A passing driver told us that the road was blocked by an accident and we should divert. So we turned around and followed the traffic through Benin.

Tanker on fire, being directed by self-appointed traffic director

Tanker on fire. We were being directed by self-appointed traffic director

This allowed us to pass the University of Benin, our older son’s Alma Mater, which I always love to see.

We finally got back on the expressway. Twenty minutes later I saw a column of black smoke a couple of miles ahead. There was a dense line of cars, so we went to the other side as others were doing. Again there was a line of traffic stretching in front of us for at least half a mile. Soon we could see a blazing tanker in the southbound lane where we should have been.

Drivers were trying to pass the standing vehicles, so instead of just one lane, we took up all the space. There were at least five lanes in what should be two, although they weren’t actually lanes, just masses of vehicles. Oncoming traffic could not get through.

Fortunately we were a three-car convoy. Chinaku had hired a security firm to give us protection on the road. Clem and I were in their car, driven by Bode and piloted by Emmanuel. Hyacinth and John, Chinaku’s drivers, were in our own car with our nephew Edozie and our cook Nathaniel. We were led by a police vehicle, part of the security detail, with flashing lights.

Our convoy negotiated our way toward the front of the line, cutting in between the other vehicles. A couple of self-appointed traffic directors waved us forward. They cleared a path. Then they told us to get back on our own southbound side where the burning vehicle was. “Don’t stop. Go fast!” they said. We didn’t hesitate!

I searched Google for a report on the tanker fire. But there are so many tanker fires and other accidents that this one didn’t even make the Nigerian news.

To the Airport

Two days later Clem and I went with both drivers, John who was driving, and Hyacinth, to Murtalla Muhammed Airport. We had hoped to leave at 7:15 pm for my midnight flight. But it was nearly 8 when we departed.

Clem told the driver to pick up speed as we were leaving Victoria Island. John wove in and out of lanes on the approach roads and on the expressway to the airport. We turned off onto the airport road. Five minutes later we hit the airport traffic jam.

The two lanes became 3, then 4, then 5. We were driving on the shoulder bumping through gullies and ruts. When we reached an obstacle blocking the shoulder John nosed into lane 4, then back onto the shoulder, even going around other cars also on the shoulder.

Clem on right with our driver Hyacinth at Shoprite Mall in Lagos

Clem on right with our driver Hyacinth at Shoprite Mall in Lagos, before Christmas

From 1/2 mile out, we began seeing the ‘helpers’ who appear with trolleys, ready to help passengers get to their flights. I resisted hiring one. So did Hyacinth, who said it was “too far for Madam to trek.” We kept inching forward with John doing an excellent job of changing lanes for any advantage.

We passed an airport parking lot. A few cars were entering, whether to try and park or to find an exit further ahead, I couldn’t tell. But soon after that the road narrowed. The traffic got into one lane, then quickly expanded again into two. We were 500 yards from the airport entrance and at a standstill. It was nearly 9 pm.

Hyacinth called to a trolley operator who was passing, looking for customers. We got my luggage out and loaded on his trolley. He started off with Hyacinth, Clem and me following. I asked his name. “Frank,” he said. “I will take you in at the Arrivals entrance. Departures is too crowded.”

There was a guard at the Arrivals entrance. His job was to keep people from entering. But he waved us thru after Frank gave him a small gift. Inside Frank led us to the elevator. After another small gift to the elevator guard, we were whisked up to the Departures Hall. I was early for my flight!

January 13, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
8 Comments

New Year and A Traditional Ruler

Happy New Year!

Welcoming the New Year with relatives in Nanka

Welcoming the New Year with relatives in Nanka

I hope you had a joyful New Year’s celebration, or at least a relaxing one! We rejoiced in Clem’s hometown of Nanka with a group of 20 people in our living room. We drank champagne and wine, and toasted the New Year together.

Before going to sleep, I called my sister in Cincinnati to wish her a happy new year, and she said, “You’re too early!” It’s true – we entered 2017 six hours ahead of the eastern U.S.

The Joy of Sons

We stayed with our older son Chinaku in Lagos for several days before travelling to the east, and then for two more days before I departed. Spending time with him was one of the best parts of the trip.

My seat-mate took a pic of him and me, so I did the same. On the plane from Frankfurt before take-off.

On the plane from Frankfurt before take-off. My seat-mate took a pic of him and me, so I did the same.

I arrived back in the US on Monday afternoon. Even this morning, five days later, I still woke up before 5:00 am. But otherwise, I’ve recovered from the time change and travel.

I’ve sorted the mail, bought groceries, and most of all enjoyed the company of our younger son Sam. He is with me for a few days on his way back to Nigeria from California. His wife is there with the children while doing a graduate program in Human Resources Management.

And not to ignore our daughter and her family! Sam and I will see them this weekend if the threatened storm doesn’t hit Philadelphia.

The Obi of Onitsha

The Obi of Onitsha Igwe Nnayelugo Alfred Nnaemeka Achebe is the traditional leader of Onitsha, the largest city in Anambra State, southeastern Nigeria. Igwe is the Igbo word for sky and also the title for a chief.

Clem and I met him briefly at the wedding ceremony for my brother-in-law’s daughter on Dec. 26 in Nanka. I asked him if I could talk with him further about Igbo customs. He agreed.

So on January 2 we went to Onitsha to see him. He was gracious and easy to listen to as he shared his ideas.

Exchange of Gifts

I gave him a copy of my memoir, In return he presented me with a beautiful and massive two-volume work edited by Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu, professor of Africana Studies at Binghampton University, New York.

The first volume is Onitsha at the Millennium. The second is A Ten-Year Milestone of this Obi who ascended the throne in 2002. It is a compilation of his speeches and writings, with a few article by others that reflect his views on the need to raise Onitsha to new heights.

The Obi of Onitsha

The Obi of Onitsha

He is the 21st Obi in a line that stretches back 550 years. He is recognized by the state and federal governments of Nigeria. He is the chairman of the Anambra State Council of Traditional Rulers.

The photo is from the website Nigerian Biography.

The Obi’s undergraduate degree is from Stanford, and his MBA from Columbia. We noted that we are fellow ‘Ivy’ alums since my MBA is from Yale.

Most of his distinguished career was in senior management with Shell in Nigeria and overseas.

Need for Progress While Respecting Tradition

Since the civil war, the Biafran War, 1967 to 1970, the city has suffered.

The Obi said during his coronation, “[Onitsha is] at a crossroads, faced with the dual challenge of being a relevant part of a rapidly changing and more competitive world, and of preserving and promoting those qualities, norms and practices (our culture and traditions) that have earned us respect and distinction as a people.”  (page 7, A Ten-Year Milestone)

A Ten-Year Milestone for Obi Achebe.

A Ten-Year Milestone for Obi Achebe.

He created a strategic plan for change and improvement. After ten years, the city is now thriving, according to the book.

The Onitsha market, the largest in West Africa, wasn’t open. January 2nd was a national holiday in Nigeria since New Year’s Day was on Sunday.

So we were able to drive by it. The traffic would have been impossible if it were open. I admit it looked in a sorry state without the bustle of activity.

Several years ago the home where Clem grew up, at 5 St. John’s Cross, burned. Clem had a block of six apartments  built on the site. Our building is in good shape, but the area now looks disgraceful, with trash everywhere and older buildings in disrepair.

The Obi said in our conversation, “We try to drive our own development with an emphasis on youth.” He talked about programs he has for young people, like training in business.

I loved hearing the Obi speak about the importance of upholding traditional values while checking messages on his cell phone. He was following the election of a new chief taking place that day in Nanka.

He said, “It’s important that every community is properly organized with its own town union and traditional leadership. That’s why I’m watching Nanka.”

He also interacts with other traditional rulers in the country, not just among the Igbo people. And he promotes the development of science and technology.

Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu, editor of A Ten-Year Milestone and the Onitsha history

Nkiru Uwechia Nzegwu, editor of A Ten-Year Milestone and the Onitsha history

In 2007 he traveled to Paris for a meeting at UNESCO. According to A Ten-Year Milestone, he informed the Director-General of UNESCO that “modern African traditional rulers are strong proponents of change.”

Interest in Art

We met him in his home rather than the palace. As we waited, we had the chance to look at the works of art surrounding us, an amazing collection of contemporary Nigerian art.

Many of the works of Onitsha artists are reproduced in A Ten-Year Milestone.

More to Come

There is much more to share about my time in Nigeria. Meanwhile, tell me in the ‘Comments’ how you spent your holidays and how you welcomed the new year. And a huge thank you to those who sent cards and notes. This year, I just didn’t make it! Maybe for Valentine’s Day? Or next year!