Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

March 26, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Denied Visas

Africans Denied Visas

Former Ambassador John Campbell, now at Council on Foreign Relations

Former Ambassador John Campbell, now at Council on Foreign Relations

Former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell is part of the Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs about Africa.

He wrote about the African Global Economic and Development Summit that just concluded at the University of Southern California. It’s a conference to promote U.S.-African trade and investment.

Usually, the organizer said, about 40% of the Africans invited are denied visas. That’s bad enough, but this year, “All Africans that had been invited or applied to attend were denied visas, including speakers and African government officials. This included citizens of U.S. partners such as Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, and South Africa.”

Hard to have a conference on African-U.S. trade and investment without Africans!

The proposed cut in State Department funding, Campbell says, will make the problem worse. Consular funding which includes handling visas is already “chronically underfunded,” which may mean even fewer people to deal with applications.

His final sentence is really sad. “Many Africans have long believed that the United States discriminates against Africans, as it did against African-Americans for most of its history. Episodes such as the University of South California conference can only re-enforce that view.”

You can sign up to receive his blog posts if you look at the article.

Beloved Conversations

I mentioned the “Beloved Conversation” sessions in a recent post. Today was our 4th of eight. Last week and today we talked about micro-aggression. Are you familiar with the term?

At the International UU Women’s Convocation, as part of the Right Relations team, I spoke about acts of micro-aggression. One white woman touched a black woman’s hair. These women did not know each other. Two other white women asked the black woman if her hair was real.

It seemed that the first white woman thought the black woman’s hair looked interesting; therefore she had a right to touch and ask about it. Who knows what the other two were thinking?

Today our discussion focused on how or whether to intervene when any minority person is confronted by racially offensive comments. Members of the group portrayed three characters. One, an Hispanic woman who had presented a service for the congregation, highlighting her culture. The second, a white ally. And the third, an ‘agitator’ who displayed inappropriate behavior.

Dan, the ‘agitator,’ embraced the presenter, not as a friend but as an ardent admirer of her culture. He spoke over-enthusiastically, “Wow! That was just so amazing,” he said. “Your music just made me want to get up and dance.”

He concluded by telling the presenter, “You know I’m part of our Diversity Committee. We’ve wanted something like this for a long time. You’ve just nailed it for us. We’ve got it.”

Rachel Swarns of NY Times Race-Related

Rachel Swarns of NY Times Race-Related

The woman acting the part of the white ally said, “Do you mean we white people have done our work by observing? Don’t we have work to do ourselves?” She was unable to stop him.

Our discussion of possible actions was lively. What could/should she have done? Could she have just said “Stop! You’re being offensive”? Done nothing? Pulled the Hispanic woman away? What do you think?

Then I came home to find the NYTimes Race-Related weekly email. It included a link to their Facebook video with the header, “How should you respond to racially offensive comments in the workplace and in your community?”

Two NYT reporters John Eligon and Rachel Swarns talked with Madeline Vann, a reader from Virginia who reached out to them in search of a strategy.

I recommend the video. Even if you can’t watch all – it’s about half an hour – watch the beginning. You can also sign up for the email:

Photo-Bombed Dad

Robert Kelly and family from YouTube

Robert Kelly and family from YouTube

Did you see the video of the dad whose kids photo-bombed his extremely serious TV interview? Beacon Broadside published a story about it. “White American South Korean expert Robert Kelly [was] interrupted by his two children while he was in the middle of a live interview on the BBC,” the report said. An Asian woman came in and hustled the children out.

The video was very funny. It went viral. Many responses assumed the woman was the nanny. Some thought she would be fired!

But she’s actually Kelly’s wife. The whole family appeared in a video afterwards.

Lori L. Tharps who wrote the article is an associate professor of journalism at Temple University. She has recently published her fourth book, Same Family, Different Colors: Confronting Colorism in American’s Diverse Families.

She says, “One common problem for families that don’t match, as witnessed by this video, is that the public literally cannot see the familial bond.”

Sojourner Truth, for Women’s History Month

Sojourner Truth, from Digital Afro

Sojourner Truth, from Digital Afro

Rev. Margie Allen introduced me to Sojourner Truth. Margie had a huge poster of this African-American activist abolitionist in her office. I had never heard of her. Have you?

From Wikipedia I see that Sojourner Truth was born in slavery around 1797 in New York State. She escaped with her infant daughter in 1826. “After going to court to recover her son, in 1828 she became the first black woman to win such a case against a white man,” I read.

She took the name Sojourner Truth as she began speaking publicly. In 1851 she spoke at a convention in Akron, Ohio, where she gave, “her famous extemporaneous speech on women’s rights, later known as ‘Ain’t I a Woman.’ Her speech demanded equal human rights for all women as well as for all blacks.”

You can watch a brief biography at

Only one more post during Women’s History Month – who will I feature?

March 22, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Conversations About Race

Conversations About Race

"Roots" by Alex Haley

“Roots” by Alex Haley

I was pleased to get an email from my college classmate and friend, Judy. She said, “I’ve just finished reading Roots. I can’t believe I hadn’t read it.  Nor have I seen the series.”

She said, “My daughter remembered that there was controversy about it. . . I wonder if you remember what any fuss was about . . . I’ve thought of you because you span those two continents and I’m sure have thoughts.”

Judy and I talked on Monday. “I do remember reading the book, but I don’t recall the controversy,” I said.

The book came out in 1976. From September 1975 to May ’76 I was in Sacramento working on my Master’s Degree in Education. I’m sure I bought the book to take back to Nigeria with me.

I probably read it that summer as I got resettled. Did controversy come later with the TV series? Do you recall? If so, please tell us.

Between the World and Me

Coates' book, "Between the World and Me"

Coates’ book, “Between the World and Me”

We also talked about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me. It is the ‘class read’ for our reunion in May. Judy is leading the discussion about it. She said that was what led her to other books on Black history and Black issues.

She felt she got a deeper perspective on racial issues from Coates. He conveys so clearly the message that those of us who are white can avoid issues of race if we wish, while people of color cannot.

“Why do we not want to take responsibility for the change, the healing, we need?” Judy said. I wonder that myself. It leads me to conversations about race, including the “Beloved Conversations” we are having at The Unitarian Church in Westport now.

I blogged about Coates’ book in January 2016. Both my book groups read and discussed it.

Kathleen is a member of Baker’s Dozen, one of the groups. She is Black, and an Episcopal priest. She couldn’t come that day but sent a message. She wrote,

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of "Between the World and Me"

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of “Between the World and Me”

“Black Americans are undermined, devalued, dismissed, ridiculed, disrespected, subjected to hardships and limitations that others are not. Most profoundly, this web of evil is virtually invisible to those who are not its victims! And so the title of the book is appropriate.  The chasm between those who see and understand (because we are presented with these systemic barriers and challenges and assaults constantly) and those who don’t understand (because, for them, the barriers actually don’t exist and the system works as it should) is profound.

“It is easier to devolve into questions of intent ( I am not intending to be racist) or denial ( I don’t experience it so it’s not there ) or critique of the messenger ( he’s too angry when he speaks of it) or denial ( just because things are hard doesn’t give people license for special treatment) or dismissiveness ( at least blacks aren’t killed in this country by the thousands as in other countries). . .
“And in 2016 as we watch wave after wave of killings of black citizens, and as we watch our brave and good President suffer the disparagement and disrespect at a level that has never been matched, we have a lot to think about. Most importantly it’s my prayer that we will renew our efforts to unmask this evil in all its forms and unravel the sinful and evil effects.”
Thank you, Kathleen.

Madeira and Technology

I follow the blog Africa In Words. They often issue a Call for Papers, or CfP. This one intrigued me.

CfP: Strategic Narratives of Technology and Africa, 1-2 Sept 2017, Madeira, deadline: 1 May 2017

Funchal, the capital of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal

Funchal, the capital of Madeira, an autonomous region of Portugal, and site of conference

Why? Because I lived in Madeira with my parents and my two children from September 1968 to May 1969. After that, I visited with my family nearly every summer until 1986.

My mother had died there in 1989. My dad came back to the US and died in Chicago in 1998. In 2004 or so my sister and I went to Madeira to bury our father’s ashes beside our mother.

Madeira is beautiful. I hadn’t thought of it as a place for technology. I don’t know what “Strategic Narratives of Tech and Africa” would be. But going to Madeira would be fun.

I sent the notice to our son Sam who runs a media and entertainment company in Nigeria. Our older son Chinaku advises him on financial and structural issues. Maybe they could present a ‘Strategic Narrative’ together!

Women’s History Month

Today I honor Virginia Apgar, a Mount Holyoke alumna. On LinkedIn a couple of days ago, I read about her.

Virginia Apgar, picture from Mount Holyoke Alum Association via LinkedIn

Virginia Apgar, picture from Mount Holyoke Alumnae Association via LinkedIn

“Virginia Apgar, class of 1929, was the first woman to become a full professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. During that time, she also performed clinical and research work at Sloane Hospital for Women, where she developed the Apgar Score, an assessment for the health of newborn babies.”

I knew her name from my daughter Beth who learned about her in medical school. And I notice that Apgar graduated from Mount Holyoke the same year my mother graduated from Vassar.

Wikipedia tells me that the Apgar score ranges from zero to 10. “The five criteria are summarized using words chosen to form a backronym (Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, Respiration).”

I learned about the test, and I got a new word to boot! A backronym is the opposite of an acronym – an ‘acronym’ created to fit an existing word.

Any nominees for women to honor in the next two posts during Women’s History Month?

March 18, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Emily Dickinson and Hope

Honoring Emily Dickinson for Women’s History Month

Poet Emily Dickinson

Poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886, was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Mount Holyoke College, then called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, is ten miles away in South Hadley.

Emily attended Mount Holyoke for just one year. Then she returned to Amherst and barely ever left again.

She was a prolific correspondent though. She often sent poems to friends and acquaintances. But very few of her poems were published while she was alive.

After she died in 1886 her family discovered forty hand-bound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems. The first publication of her poetry was in 1890.

The poem I know best is a lovely description of hope. We sang it in one of the choirs at The Unitarian Church in Westport. I looked online and found several versions, but not the one we sang. Maybe the music was by Rev. Dr. Ed Thompson, our Director of Music.

The first verse is

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

The poem makes me think of a young Mount Holyoke friend. She had a stroke recently. She is in rehab. Like her family and friends, I am hopeful.

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

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

President Buhari Back Home

President Buhari is now safely back in Nigeria. He has resumed official duties. The nature of the illness that made him remain in London for six weeks has not been disclosed.

Is his return helpful? Or should he have stayed away a little longer? Before he returned, The Economist, in the March 4, issue, said, “If Mr Buhari remains in London much longer, his absence could provide a window for Nigeria’s technocratic vice-president Yemi Osinbajo to push through a proper devaluation.”

So what will happen now? Buhari appears reluctant to let the Naira find its true level. The central bank is apparently unable to act without his consent.

He had originally said he would let his vice-president handle economic matters. Why doesn’t he do that now? He certainly has enough to do to fight corruption and confront Boko Haram.

Nigerwives Newsletters

I have been reading through Nigerwives’ newsletters from the 1990’s and 2000. I’m writing a chapter for my new book about Nigerwives, the organization for foreign women married to Nigerians that I co-founded in 1979.

With other Nigerwives at their January meeting in Lagos

With other Nigerwives at their January meeting in Lagos

In one newsletter I found a list of donors to the Nigerwives Bazaar in 1992. One donor was a law firm. Osinbajo was the first name listed. I wonder if it’s the same person as Nigeria’s current vice-president? Probably; I know he is a lawyer. Is there a Nigerwife connection?

Among other papers from Nigerwives, I found a small booklet printed in 1983. I must have been active in the organization then, but I don’t remember it.

Near the beginning, they list the early members. They didn’t include me at all! Did I pull away after I lost the election for president in 1981 or ’82? I didn’t think so.

This will require some sleuthing. I feel compelled to correct the record. I’d like to know my name stays associated with the beginning of this useful and important organization.

Three panelists. Iyabo in center. President of USNC Lalita 2nd from left. ED Susan 2nd from right.

Three panelists. Iyabo in center. President of USNC Lalita 2nd from left. ED Susan 2nd from right.

From Equity to Equality

On Monday this past week I attended the panel presented by the US National Committee for UN Women. My friend and board colleague Dr. Iyabo Obasanjo helped set it up and was one of the panelists.

Iyabo is the Thomas Bahnson and Anne Basset Stanley Professor of Ethics and Integrity at Virginia Military Institute. She teaches Global Health and Contemporary African Politics. Her PhD in Epidemiology is from Cornell.

All four panelists presented fascinating stories about Strategies for Women’s Economic Empowerment, to match the theme of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, CSW.

Azadeh Kahlili is Executive Director of the Commission on Gender Equity for New York City. She came to the U.S. as a political refugee from Iran. She was undocumented for 10 years, she said. Her commission has an initiative they call “Level the Paying Field.” You can imagine the goal – getting equal pay for women for equal work.

With the two Igbo Sisters at the panel presentation

With the two Igbo Sisters at the panel presentation

Iyabo said that in her years in politics in Nigeria and in research on women holding political office, she has seen that as gender equity improves, so does economic growth. It’s a fact, she said.

Dr. Josefin Wiklund is from Sweden. She is the Advisor to the Director for UNAIDS New York. She spoke about the importance of keeping girls in school and delaying marriage. A frightening statistic she shared: twenty eight girls under age 18 are getting married every minute around the world.

Sr. Rosemarie, an Igbo woman I met during CSW last year, had contacted me a few days before. I told her about the USNC event. She came with a friend.

I invited my friend Marilyn. We met for lunch first for wonderful conversation about our writing and our books.

The final question at the panel was, “How do we make sure more girls get a full education? Don’t we need parents involved, so they want it for their daughters?”

Iyabo said, “We do, but especially in Africa, this change will be slow. A mother puts more emphasis on her son. Why? Because her son is her social security.”

March 14, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Pi Day

Math Fun

Do you remember Pi? No, not the book or movie Life of Pi, but from math! Think of today’s date – 3/14. Does that remind you? It would, if you studied geometry or trigonometry in high school or college.

Time Magazine has a story about how Pi got its name! The story explains how people have math fun with today’s date.

Waste Management in Nigerian Cities

Last week Clem and I heard Professor Felix Olorunfemi speak on “Greening the Urban Sustainability Gap in Nigeria: Innovative Approaches to Sustainable Waste Management in Selected Cities.” Apart from a title that was too long, his talk was excellent.

Prof. Felix Olorunfemi, Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research

Prof. Felix Olorunfemi, Nigerian Institute of Social and Economic Research

Felix has a PhD in geography. He is at NISER, the Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research. My husband Clem was on their board for three or four years in the 1970’s.

Urbanization of Poverty

Before speaking about cities’ programs of waste management, Felix talked about urbanization in Nigeria. “Urbanization has produced its own ‘backlash’ of increasing income inequality,” he said. He called it the “urbanization of poverty.”

Because there are more jobs in cities, younger people leave rural areas and villages to go to the cities. They crowd in with relatives. If they are fortunate to get a decent job, they want better housing. But they are pushed further and further out from the center to find something affordable.

Public transportation is poor or non-existent. They buy a car. The traffic increases. Electricity supply is erratic at best. Everyone who can afford it buys a generator. And pollution increases, making people less healthy.

Felix said, “It is kind of a chaotic situation, and not sustainable!”

Clem’s niece Chioma is a perfect example. She has a good job in Lagos. She and her husband wanted a house. So they bought land to build on. But it is not in Lagos at all, not even in Lagos State. They bought a car for her. It takes her more than two hours to get to work if she leaves really early, like 5 am. If she waits until 7, she will be late. She cannot drop the children at school because it’s so early. So they have a second car which he uses for his own work and to take the children. More traffic, more pollution!

The 'plastic yarn' project in Yola, northern Nigeria

The ‘plastic yarn’ project in Yola, northern Nigeria; man standing beside wall built of ‘plastic yarn’ and rug made of the yarn.

One City’s Solution

However, Felix is not without hope. Students at the American University in Yola, he said, are working with market women. They make ‘plastic yarn’ from recycling plastic bags. The yarn is woven into lightweight ‘bricks’ which are used in building. They are competitively priced and easy to transport.

Steph Newell, who is British, was the organizer of the talk. She invited Clem and me to accompany her and a few students to supper with the speaker. We ate at Caseus.

The waiter introduced the specials. “We have pork butt, layered with sweet potatoes . . .” Before he could finish, Steph was laughing, looking at him in surprise. “How can you say that? That’s too crude.”

The term for that part of the pig was unfamiliar to her. But when he finished describing it, we both ordered it. It was worth every laugh.

Chibok Girls Update

The New York Times had a recent article about the Chibok girls. Actually it was about the #BringBackOurGirls, or #BBOG, campaign.

Thousands of other people have been kidnapped by Boko Haram. But because of the campaign, the Chibok girls are well-known. In October 21 girls were released by Boko Haram. But they are barely allowed to see their families.

“The girls now seem to have exchanged one form of captivity for another,” the article says. “The campaign made them famous and, as a result, precious to the jihadists. The military says it can’t guarantee their safety if they go home, so they remain essentially prisoners of the state.”

If another person who escaped or was released by Boko Haram was recaptured or died in an attack, there would be no media attention. But if one of the Chibok girls is recaptured, Boko Haram will have a major victory, the government fears.

Progress But Boko Haram is Still a Threat

The military has become better able to track down and defeat the insurgents. But many areas are still unsafe. Suicide bombings continue. Millions of people want to return to their homes and some are going.

Another NYTimes article says, “in some camps for displaced people, new arrivals fleeing the militants are moving in even as others are moving back home.”

The camps for displaced persons are overflowing and in dire need of relief, as I wrote recently.

Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani wrote the NYtimes story about the BBOG campaign. She said a few of the Chibok girls who escaped early on are in the U.S. They were brought here to continue their education. But they are also ‘prisoners’ of the desire for publicity for the nonprofit that brought them.

“As someone who has been following this story since the girls were kidnapped, [the writer says] I am happy that the world still cares. . . But sometimes I wonder if we have not made things even more difficult for the girls.”

Poet Emily Dickinson

Poet Emily Dickinson

She warns us about campaigns like this which make captives so famous. She concludes her article, “. . .after the cameras are turned off, Nigeria will be left with a fierce insurgency and the problem the campaign created: What can it do with girls who are too famous to be free?”

Women’s History Month

Next time I’ll tell you about Emily Dickinson. Also the event “From Equity to Equality, Strategies for Women’s Economic Empowerment.” Another long title but an excellent panel discussion.



March 10, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Humanitarian Crisis

Humanitarian Crisis

WFP Marco_Frattini's amazing photo of humanitarian crisis

WFP Marco_Frattini’s amazing photo of humanitarian crisis

The former ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell is at the Council on Foreign Relations. He writes about much of sub-Sahara Africa. He has written before about the humanitarian crisis in Nigeria.

He had two recent posts I want to share.

First, the Oslo Humanitarian Conference was held Friday, February 24 in Norway. It was convened,” to draw global attention to the humanitarian crisis in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Region, mobilize critical resources needed to effectively confront it, and to address the medium-term and long-term development needs of the fourteen million people in the region. Ambitious goals!

I also wrote in November about the humanitarian crisis. It has only become worse. The Oslo Conference is one answer.

Nigeria’s government officials took part. So did representatives from Norway, Germany, and the United Nations. According to the post, “the conference produced pledges totaling $672 million, with more commitments to come.”

Millions have been displaced by Boko Haram. Their stories are sad and they are desperate for support. These commitments will help.

Now Nigeria has the task of using the funds well! I hope John will report on how the commitments come in, and what they fund.

You can listen to a podcast of the blog post.

Former Minister Goes on Trial

Diezani Allison Madueke from Premium Times Nigeria

Diezani Allison Madueke from Premium Times Nigeria

The second post was also sad. President Buhari has made rooting out corruption a major goal, along with defeating Boko Haram.

Both are huge tasks.

One of those targeted in the corruption investigations is the woman who was Minister of Petroleum Resources under former President Goodluck Jonathan.

Diezani Allison Madueke will be tried for money laundering in the United Kingdom in June,” says an article in Sahara Reporters. She has been accused of owning a huge number of properties in Nigeria and abroad, including in Dubai. Soon after the last election which Jonathan lost, she left Nigeria for England. Her enemies say she ‘fled.’

“The NCA [National Crime Agency] found some of the ex minister’s brothers and other business partners complicit in the money laundering allegation. She was arrested with her brothers,” the article said.

I also read about her in Campbell’s blog. “Seemingly arrogant, greedy, and vain, Diezani’s public persona in a poor country evokes disdain,” he said.

I remember feeling proud when she was Nigeria’s Petroleum Minister and became the first woman to head OPEC.

She claims to be innocent.

Woman of Note for Women’s History Month

Maria Mitchell, astronomer and Unitarian, taught astronomy at Vassar in the 19th century. I became familiar with her when I worked at the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, the summer of 1960. We studied variable stars.

Maria Mitchell portrait by Herminia B

Maria Mitchell portrait by Herminia B, Maria Mitchell Association

She was born in Nantucket in 1818. Her parents were Quakers. They assured her of an education equal to that of men.

Her father was the school principal where she attended. He began teaching her to use his telescope. By the time she was 12, “she had already been assisting her father calculate” the time of an eclipse, the article says.

In 1842 she became a Unitarian. “She protested against slavery and to show her efforts, she stopped wearing clothing made of cotton,” according to the article. I wonder what fabric she wore?

“After her discovery of ‘Miss Mitchell’s Comet’ in 1847, she gained popularity worldwide. . . Today, the designation of this comet is C/1847 T1.”

“Maria Mitchell was the first ever American woman who worked as a professional astronomer,” I find in this article about famous scientists.

She was hired by Vassar as their first professor in 1865. She was also the director of the Vassar College Observatory. With other noted women she formed the American Association for the Advancement of Women and was its president.

In addition to the observatory on Nantucket, there was a World War II Liberty ship, the SS Maria Mitchell, named for her. The original Vassar Observatory and a crater on the moon were also named for her.

She died at the age of 70 on June 28, 1889, a year after retiring from Vassar.

Speaker for Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich

I will speak on Wednesday March 15 for the Retired Men’s Association, RMA, of Greenwich. You can read about the talk here.

It is from 10:40 to noon, at the First Presbyterian Church, Lafayette Place, Greenwich, CT. Would love to see you there!

WGCH, 1490 am, a local Greenwich station, does a weekly radio interview on Monday mornings with the speaker who is appearing that week at the RMA. The program is “The News Center with Tony Savino.” I’m told the interview is about five minutes, focusing on my presentation and background.

Listen in if you can! The live broadcast is aired from 8:51 to 8:56.

My program is “Nigeria Past and Present.”

I think I’ll talk about the Nok culture, since Henry Louis Gates spoke about it in Great African Civilizations last week.

Nnami Azikiwe, one of Nigeria's founders

Nnami Azikiwe, one of Nigeria’s founders

Then from the 1500’s on, slavery, colonialism, and independence. Maybe I’ll focus on Zik, whose name some of the retired men may remember.

And since? The Biafran War of course. Coups and counter-coups. Achebe? I certainly have to talk about Boko Haram and the Chibok girls.

And the present? Adichie? Nollywood? Elections, recession? I can’t cover it all, so between now and Monday morning I’ll decide on the most important points to highlight in the talk, and mention them in the radio interview.

What are your suggestions? (If you’ve made comments and I haven’t responded, it’s because I haven’t seen them. Try responding to the email. My sister has made comments several times that I haven’t seen!)

March 6, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Women’s History Month

Women’s History Month

I’m borrowing an idea from blogger Margaret Anderson who mentioned honoring Women’s History Month.

I’ll write about a few women whose history is important to me. And I invite you to suggest women you’d like to honor in Women’s History Month. If you would like to write a profile for publication, let me know!

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, my first honoree for Women's History Month

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, my first honoree for Women’s History Month

My first is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. In 2005 she was elected President of Liberia. She was the first woman to be elected head of an African country. I think she is the only one so far.

In 1992, she was appointed Director of the United Nations Development Programme‘s Regional Bureau for Africa. I called on her at the UN. I can’t remember why. Probably I was seeking to understand how I might work in African development with my Yale Master’s Degree and Peace Corps experience.

I found her impressive and have followed her career ever since.

She returned to Liberia to run for president in 1997. She did not succeed then but a few years later, with determination and support from other women, she did.

As women evaluate Hilary Clinton’s loss in 2016, Helene Cooper wrote a piece about Sirleaf Johnson’s 2005 election in yesterday’s New York Times. Her main opponent was a well-loved Liberian football (soccer to us in the U.S.) star.

“It all started on the morning of May 2, 2005, a week into the voter registration period for the looming presidential elections, when Vabah Gayflor, the minister for gender, woke up to discover that women had not been registering to vote,” Cooper wrote.

The minister enlisted the help of a women’s activist known as Sugars. Together they held rallies. The government minister would encourage women to register. Then her friend would take the stage and urge a vote for Johnson Sirleaf.

The football player had the lead in the first round of elections, but didn’t have the required 50%. Johnson Sirleaf came in second so would compete against Weah in the run-off.

“Mr. Weah, honing a message explaining why he, and not Mrs. Sirleaf, should run Liberia, settled on an “educated people failed” theme,” Cooper said in the article.

“But what the men who endorsed that strategy failed to realize was how much that very idea was angering the market women. Those women may not have been educated themselves, but they worked in the fields and the market stalls to send their children to school. Now the men were telling them that education wasn’t important.”

For the run-off, women supporting Johnson Sirleaf campaigned hard.

They also resorted to a variety of strategies. Some women offered beer money to men in exchange for their voter ID cards. The men were too stupid, and too eager for beer, they said, to realize they needed their cards to vote in the run-off!

In the end Johnson Sirleaf won by a large majority. During the next few years, she negotiated the write-down of Liberia’s crippling external debt. She has kept the country peaceful.

“In 2011, she shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman, awarded ‘for their nonviolent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.'”

She was re-elected that year.

Visiting Son and Missing Sunglasses

We had our Sister Grandmothers meeting this evening. Our hostess always prepares a main dish and the rest of us bring accompaniments. Tonight I took salad.

Our older son Chinaku was here for a quick visit – just 24 hours! It was great to see him. I asked him to accompany my husband for a medical appointment. But he had errands to run, so I drove my husband to the appointment, then rushed home to buy my ingredients and make my salad.

Not my sunglasses, but a little bit similar.

Not my sunglasses, but a little bit similar.

I dashed to Fresh Market in Westport. I wanted fresh kale and pecorino cheese for a Tuscan salad. I had found the recipe in my NYTimes Cooking Recipe Box. Melissa Clark wrote about it in 2007.

In my haste, I apparently dropped my sunglasses. I had walked in and straight to the variety of salad greens, evaluating which would best fit my needs. I thought I stuffed my sunglasses in my coat pocket. But when I got to the car, the sunglasses weren’t there.

I went back inside to the same area in front of the salad greens.

A store employee was putting fruits on display. As soon as I said the word “sunglasses,” he said, “Yes, I gave them to a woman.” He led me to her. I was expecting another store employee. Instead it was a customer. She wore a blue jacket. She had sunglasses stuck in the front.

He pointed at her. “I gave her the sunglasses.”

She looked at me and said, “Oh, yes, they were just like mine,” and dug my pair out of her purse. They were nothing like the ones she sported at the front of her jacket!

“Are these yours?” she said.

“Yes, they are.”

“I’m so glad you found me,” she said, handing me the sunglasses.

Huh? How about “I’m sorry, I was trying to steal your sunglasses!”

What would you do if a store employee approached you with sunglasses and said, “Did you drop these?”

Seems to me if they weren’t yours, you would say, “No, they aren’t mine. Why not take them to Customer Service for Lost and Found?”

When I told the Sister Grannies tonight, Judy said, “Hmm. She was so ready with an answer. Sounds like she’s done this before!”

They loved my salad.

March 2, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Nigeria’s Economic Woes

Nigeria’s Economy in Distress

Naira notes, worth less today than a year ago, because of Nigeria's economic woes.

Naira notes, worth less today than a year ago, because of Nigeria’s economic woes.

The Financial Times in an article on February 28 says that Nigeria saw the first year in a quarter century with a decline in economic growth. It’s a sad end to a difficult year, a year of Nigeria’s economic woes.

“The National Statistics Bureau said on Tuesday that the economy contracted by 1.5 per cent in 2016, which compares to growth of 2.8 per cent the previous year, and underlines the depth of the economic crisis,” the article said.

Two factors have led to the decline. The low price of oil is the most important cause. Vandalism in the Niger Delta has added to the difficulties. Less oil is being produced and exported.

One hundred Naira used to mean something.

One hundred Naira used to be worth something.

Nigeria’s central bank said in June 2016 that it would let Nigeria’s currency, the Naira, float. That way it would trade at its true market value. Yet the Naira is still controlled. The official rate as of Wednesday was 315 Naira to a dollar. On the black market the rate was 450 Naira to one dollar.

Manufacturers are having difficulty getting foreign currency to pay for the materials they need to make their products. They are laying off workers.

The government says the economy will improve in the next few months with higher oil prices. It also forecasts stability in the Delta. “The International Monetary Fund forecasts growth of 0.8 per cent in 2017,” the Financial Times says.

Nigeria’s Economic Woes – A Look of Optimism 

Meanwhile, reports that the Nigerian government seems to be energized with President Buhari on sick leave in London. He turned over power to Vice President Yemi Osinbajo when he departed.

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.

And Osinbajo is, according to Reuters, “getting work done. He has relaxed visa rules to lure foreign investors — a plan drawn up by Buhari but which like others got stuck in his chief of staff’s office, according to diplomats.”

Unlike Buhari, he extends his working hours to 7 pm. So staff at the official residence have to work longer hours. He has visited the Niger Delta and the commercial capital Lagos which Buhari had not done. It appears that militant attacks on pipelines in the Delta have fallen since Osinbajo “promised to drag the region out of poverty in a flurry of speeches.”

Buhari has opposed devaluing the currency, but last week, “policymakers effectively devalued the currency for private individuals . . . With the president absent, last week’s move was seen as testing the waters for a broader weakening.”

Osinbajo, according to the article, is acting with the full knowledge and consent of Buhari. In fact, some of the areas being addressed were already in the works when Buhari left.

Harvard Law Review

Harvard Law Review has elected its first African-American female president. When I read the headline, I thought, it has to be a Nigerian or daughter of Nigerians. And I was right! Call me a Nigerian nationalist if you want!

Imeime Umana, new head of Harvard Law Review

Imeime Umana, new head of Harvard Law Review

“ImeIme (pronounced “Ah-MAY-may”) Umana, 24, the third-oldest of four daughters of Nigerian immigrants, was elected on Jan. 29 by the review’s 92 student editors as the president of its 131st volume,” the NY Times said.

The NY Times article concluded with this. “Ms. Umana said she was keenly aware of the divide between the elite ecosystem in which she was immersed and the lives of the marginalized women she hopes to represent. ‘I can’t help but think of the multitude of young black women who will never be anywhere near such an amount of privilege,’ she said.”

Debate about her ethnicity is raging in one online Nigerian media. Igbo? That’s my guess!. Efik? Akwa-Ibom? I just sent her a Tweet and asked! Will she answer?

Africa’s Great Civilizations

A Nok sculpture now in the Louvre

A Nok sculpture now in the Louvre

PBS has been airing a series on Africa’s Great Civilizations this week. I’ve watched bits and pieces. What I’ve seen is impressive. I look forward to watching the whole series.

Henry Louis Gates, host, talked about the Nok people. I first learned about the Nok culture in Nigeria during Peace Corps training. The anthropologists Simon and Phoebe Ottenberg showed us pictures of the terracotta sculptures, first discovered in 1928.

The Wikipedia article says, “The Nok Culture appeared in northern Nigeria around 1000 BCE and vanished under unknown circumstances around 500 CE, thus having lasted for approximately 1,500 years.”

The area where Nok items have been found

The area where Nok items have been found

The article has fascinating details of not just the heads, but tools, pottery, and “charred plant remains.”

I especially love this description of the presumed farming method used by the Nok people. [They] probably used an agroforestry system which is a plot of land of cultivated crops with useful trees in the same plot of land. These plots are ecologically sustainable.”

What happens today in West Africa? Wikipedia says, “Most West African trees are not domesticated but are part of the wild vegetation which is left after farmers clear their fields of their crops. Because they are left to grow they multiply naturally without needing to be planted.”

In Clem’s town of Nanka, I’ve seen trees in the middle of farming plots. And we have a coconut palm tree growing in our compound. Next door there’s a mango tree. Both have been there forever, it seems, bearing fruit.

Bylaws and Constitutions

When we formed Nigerwives in 1979, I took on the task of drafting bylaws. Today, 38 years later, I’m chair of the bylaws and rules committee of the US National Committee for UN Women. I’ve promised to send the draft of recommended changes to my committee tonight.

I’m also convener of the Constitution Revision Task Force for my Unitarian Church. We’re almost finished with our work. We’ll present recommendations to the board on March 21.

Do you like to work on bylaws and rules?

February 26, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Kitchen Cabinet

The book, The President's Kitchen Cabinet"

The book, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet”

The President’s Kitchen Cabinet

The author Adrian Miller wrote Inside the President’s Kitchen Cabinet, The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas. 

He spoke at the Westport Historical Society this week. His talk was co-sponsored by my own TEAM Westport.

He entertained us with stories of a few of the 150 people he chronicles in the book.

Adrian Miller also wrote Soul Food.

Adrian Miller also wrote Soul Food.

One of his favorites was about Daisy McAfee Bonner, FDR’s cook  at his Warm Springs retreat. She said the president “was struck down just as his lunchtime cheese soufflé emerged from the oven. Sorrowfully, but with a cook’s pride, she recalled, ‘He never ate that soufflé, but it never fell until the minute he died.’”

Miller took orders for Kitchen Cabinet. He will sign and send mine. It will be a birthday gift. It’s for one of my subscribers so I won’t say who.

Soul Food is also by Miller. He said writing that led to his interest in African American cooks, butlers, servers, and others who helped feed the presidents and their families.

Frame By Frame

The US National Committee for UN Women has a chapter in New York City. The New York chapter presented the documentary film Frame by Frame.

It follows four Afghan photojournalists as they capture their country people in pictures. You can watch the trailer.

Mo Scarpelli was co-director of the film. She and the Head of Admissions at the American University of Afghanistan, Tabasum Wolayat, answered questions after the film.

Tabasum on the left, Mo on the right, after the film.

Tabasum on the left, Mo on the right, after the film.

An audience member asked Tabasum, “We hear that so many educated Afghans are leaving because of the danger and difficulties that we saw in the film. How will Afghan life improve?”

Tabasum said, “I was educated at Middlebury College, but I now live in Afghanistan. Many of my friends are also returning home. In fact, life in the U.S. is actually somewhat boring.”

I understood completely what she meant.

Like Afghanistan, Nigeria is never boring. When you live there, as our sons do, you are constantly challenged. You have to figure out how to live despite the occasional craziness. You can never assume things will go as planned, so you have to be creative.

Beloved Conversations

Friday evening and all day Saturday I was at the Unitarian Church in Westport for “Beloved Conversations.”

Dr. Mark Hicks led "Beloved Conversations"

Dr. Mark Hicks led “Beloved Conversations”

Dr. Mark A. Hicks is the Angus MacLean Professor of Religious Education at Meadville Lombard Theological School and Director of The Fahs Collaborative, A Laboratory for Innovation in Faith Formation.

He has developed the program “Beloved Conversations.” He calls these “healing conversations about race and identity.”

Twenty two of us shared our hopes and fears about race questions and our own identity, with his guidance. We will now have another eight sessions led by facilitators from our congregation and the Ending Racism Team.

We will explore what we can do to address difficult issues of race and identity among ourselves and in the wider world. Can we act toward ending systemic racism? Is this possible? Do we have the courage, the will?

My Own Action

I told you that I was part of the Right Relations Team at the International Unitarian Universalist Women’s Convocation at Asilomar.

A woman of color was unhappy that white women had touched her hair without permission. Someone had also asked if her hair – beautiful braids – was authentic.

I offered to address the issue for the assembled women. I said, “When I first got to Nigeria and visited remote villages, children touched my skin out of curiosity. But today, in our society, we don’t touch other people without permission. We don’t question authenticity of hair.” I didn’t say a Black woman had been offended.

My roommate Shari told me afterwards she didn’t know what I meant! I wrote about this on Feb. 18 and asked your advice. Iyabo, a Nigerian woman who has lived in the US for years, is my colleague on the USNC for UN Women board. She wrote, “I do think you should have mentioned that a Black woman was offended.”

She continued, “What you related occurs everyday. . . In the Nigerian village people would probably intrude in your personal space but that is not cultural here. You don’t touch people’s body including hair without permission or some high level of familiarity.”
She ended by saying, “I think it could have been a powerful moment given the issues of race relations in the country. The UU women would be a receptive audience for such a discussion.”
With that encouragement I thought I would speak up. But I wasn’t sure if the timing was off – it was the last morning of the convocation when the Right Relations Team was asked for our final report.
I was sitting with Sherry and told her my hesitation. She said, “Do it!” So I did.
Janice, our chair, spoke first. Then I said, “I need to clarify something I said the other day.”
“Hair is a sensitive topic for Black women. A Black woman here had white women touch her hair without permission. They also asked her if her hair was authentic. These are unacceptable behaviors. We, especially we white women, may not touch a Black woman’s hair or question whether it is real.”

Greenwich Connecticut Presentation

On March 15 I will speak to the Retired Men’s Association of Greenwich. The topic is “Nigeria, Past and Present.” The event is open to the public. Come!

February 22, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
1 Comment

Astronomy and Asilomar

Fascination With the Stars

I’ve loved astronomy for ever. I thought I’d have great views of the night sky in California. Instead we had rain! One night I did see Orion, but clouds covered most of the sky.

Maria Mitchell Observatory where I practiced astronomy.

Maria Mitchell Observatory where I practiced astronomy.

I fell in love with the stars and planets during 6th grade in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. I remember the chart of the planets which covered the left wall of the science classroom.

We rotated between teachers and rooms. Our geography teacher got me outlining. Science got me hooked on the stars and planets. The only other part of the school I remember is the gym where we did square dancing!

Because of my interest in astronomy, I took advanced algebra and chemistry in my junior year of high school. As a senior I took solid geometry, trigonometry, and physics. I loved my slide rule!

Freshman math at Mount Holyoke made me doubt my ability to be an astronomer. But I did spend a summer on Nantucket at the Maria Mitchell Observatory. With two other women, we photographed and studied variable stars.

Eventually I decided to major in German language which led me to Nigeria as a Peace Corps volunteer. But I haven’t given up my fascination with astronomy.

So I was excited to read the news about the seven planets orbiting a dwarf star about 40 light-years away.

“Astronomers always knew other stars must have planets, but until a couple of decades ago, they had not been able to spot them. Now they have confirmed more than 3,400, according to the Open Exoplanet Catalog,” the article says.

I remember maybe two years ago when the number of known exoplanets was under 2,000. It’s so amazing what the astronomers can do with today’s powerful telescopes.

Monterey Pine with its clusters of 3. A strange looking tree!

Monterey Pine with its clusters of 3. A strange looking tree!

The search for life on other planets is a hot field today. Kenneth Chang, author of the article, says, “Because the planets are so close to a cool star, their surfaces could be at the right temperatures to have water flow, considered one of the essential ingredients for life.”

The Pacific, Monterey Pine, and People: More from Asilomar

Finally on the last day at Asilomar the rain and the wind stopped. Even though the temperature was still in the mid-50’s, I ventured to the beach with Sherry. At least 20 people were on the beach, a few even in the water. Brr!

She pointed out the Monterey Pine.

Sherry at beach, me in choir, new friends

Sherry at beach, me in choir, roommate’s friends Florence and Sherry. My roommate was sick on last morning.

Next time I’ll tell you about the Right Relations Team and what I said in our final report, on the advice of Iyabo and with Sherry’s encouragement!

Palomar and Asilomar

I thought of Mount Palomar in Southern California and its 200-inch telescope while I was at Asilomar last week.

The names are similar. So what do they mean?

Asilomar means a refuge by the sea, according to the Asilomar Visitor Guide Issue 13.

Encyclopedia Free Dictionary online tells me, “The word palomar is a Spanish term dating from the time of Spanish California that means pigeon house (in the same sense as henhouse).” Nothing to do with the sea.

Still, I was reminded of seeing Mount Palomar during Peace Corps training.

I wrote about that trip in an early draft of my memoir. When the memoir wa

I asked Krisztina Pap from Romania to take my pic in choir

I asked Krisztina Pap to take my pic in choir. She was one of 13 women from Romania at the conference.

s too long, I removed the brief story. But I’ll share it with you now.

It was the night before our departure for Nigeria. A group of us Peace Corps volunteers had gone to the Peppermint Lounge to dance the Twist.

“I’m too excited to sleep,” I said to the others as we left the nightclub at 1 a.m. “Have you ever ridden the Staten Island Ferry?”

The other two declined and headed back to the hotel, but Bob was ready to go on.

“Isn’t it far?” he said.

“Follow me.” I waved my hand like a tour leader. With my limited knowledge of New York, gained from the trip with my Father five years earlier and a few visits during college, I was able to lead him to a subway stop that took us downtown. “We’ll see the Statue of Liberty from the Ferry.”

“This reminds me of our trip to Tijuana,” Bob said once the subway doors closed behind us.

“Why? This is New York, not Mexico. And we had a rented car, not the subway.”

“No, I don’t mean the circumstances or setting.” He shook his head and said, “It’s the way you make spur of the moment decisions and get others to go along. We thought we were going straight from our training at UCLA to the Mexican border. You saw the Mount Palomar sign and made us drive up a mountain to see it. And then we were all glad we did.”

Are you a thoughtful planner, or a ‘spur-of-the-moment person? Or a combination?

President Buhari Still on Medical Leave

Voice of America reports that Buhari has extended his medical leave. Since January 19 he has been in London.

“He was originally scheduled to return February 5, but his office said that doctors advised him to stay in London to await the results of medical tests,” VOA says. That’s 17 days ago.

Of course speculation about his condition is rampant in Nigeria. But the president’s office says not to worry!

He did leave the vice president in charge, unlike President Yar A’dua in 2009. He was ill but did not say so. He was away for months. He had not turned over power to his vice president. He finally died without ever returning to Nigeria. That’s when Goodluck Jonathan became President.

February 18, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

International UU Women’s Convo at 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 Sherry? She’s your roommate. And you have an ocean view.” I didn’t know Shari, 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!