Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

September 27, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Peace Corps Friends and Family

Walk for Peace with Peace Corps friends

Walk for Peace with Peace Corps friends. Look closely – you’ll see Clem and me.

Peace Corps Friends and Family

We had a wonderful few days in Washington DC with Peace Corps friends.

I loved it all, but my favorite was the final event.

The Walk for Peace started at George Washington University where the conference was held, and ended at the Capitol.

Motorcycle policeman holding back traffic for us

Motorcycle policeman holding back traffic for us

With our Peace Corps friends, we cheered, chatted, and stopped for photos along the way.

Police on motorcycles lined the route, holding back traffic so we could pass.

Memoir Writing Panel

The events started with the memoir writers’ panel on Wednesday afternoon.

Marian Haley Beil runs Peace Corps Writers with John Coyne. She organized five of us Peace Corps friends to talk about our books and writing process. We had an audience of 35 or 40 people, twice.

Peace Corps friends hear about memoir writing

Audience for the memoir writing panel.

Several times later in the conference people came up to tell me how much they enjoyed my presentation on the panel!

Peace Corps Friends from Long Ago

Peace Corps friends

Bob Wynne with his wife Sandy and me

Back at our hotel we ran into Peace Corps friends from my training group. We spent the summer of 1962 together at UCLA learning about each other and about Nigeria.

Seeing Peace Corps friends from that time is always a highlight. Wednesday evening it was Chuck, Bob, Ginny, and me.

Teaching African Literature

We saw Chuck Larson, also from our group, at the all-day program for Friends of Nigeria on Thursday. He spoke about teaching African literature for 50 years.

When he first wanted to teach African literature, he said, he met considerable resistance. He believes his course on that topic at the University of Colorado in the mid 1960’s was the first in the country.

He said the classic Things Fall Apart sells at least a hundred thousand copies a year in the US but only one thousand in Nigeria. How sad!

Amaka Anku, a Nigerian lawyer and emerging market analyst, spoke about President Buhari’s first months in office. She believes that the Delta Insurgency is as much to blame for Nigeria’s current recession as the low oil price.

Liberian Crisis and an Award

On Friday the President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, presented an award and made a speech. She praised Peace Corps volunteers, saying “All of the beneficiary countries’ people regard you so highly!”

I was intrigued by her use of the term “disease” for the crisis Liberia experienced in the last two years. Peace Corps volunteers were withdrawn, but have now returned. She never said the name “Ebola.”

Sirleaf was chosen to present the award because she has been a major proponent of girls’ education. The award was to former volunteer and professor Sara Goodkind.

Ibrahima Sankare of Mali also received an award

Ibrahima Sankare of Mali also received an award for his work on education and health care. My friend peace activist Chic Damback is behind Sankare.

She was the founder of Girls Leading Our World (GLOW) Camps.

She found that girls in Romania where she was teaching did not have many leadership opportunities.

“Obtaining $1,500 from the U.S. Democracy Commission, she and two other volunteers and some Romanian teachers took 81 girls to an eight-day camp in the Transylvania Mountains . . . The Peace Corps liked the idea and has asked her to make presentations . . .so others could replicate it.”

In her acceptance speech she said, “We don’t know the consequences of our actions.”

Her comment made me think of Nigerwives. How has the organization helped women in Nigeria in ways I don’t even know?

The New Museum

We drove by the new National Museum of African American History and Culture a couple of times during the conference.

Every time the museum was mentioned, I said that my friend Judy had donated items, been to the donors’ reception, and had an article in The Washington Post about her!

Then on Monday morning Clem had an appointment at the Department of Commerce. I went with him.

The new Museum of African American History & Culture

The new Museum of African American History & Culture

We were right across the street from the museum. It’s beautiful. I’m eager to see the inside!

Michelle Alexander to be Visiting Professor

My friend and TEAM Westport colleague Dolores sent an email about Michelle Alexander. She is leaving Ohio State University to take up a position at Union Theological Seminary.

Alexander is best known for her book The New Jim Crow, Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindnes.

In the press release we learn her reasons for the change. “A very strong reason I am so attracted to the community at Union,” explained Michelle Alexander, “is that I believe the experience will enable me to clarify my spiritual beliefs, deepen my understanding of systematic theology, and expand my thinking about the possibilities for prophetic advocacy and movement-building across faiths, races, and cultures.”

She continued, “I would like to imagine that a wide range of people of faith and conscience who sing songs from different keys may be able to join in a common chorus that shakes the foundations of our unjust political, legal and economics systems, and ushers in a new America.”

I love her music metaphor as she expresses her dreams.

I read later in the press release that she is writing two books. I’m eager to read the personal reflection, one of the books.

But there’s more! In addition, “. . .she will serve as primary editor of a book planned for Fall 2018, which will be organized as a collection of essays, sermons, speeches, and thought pieces from justice advocates and faith leaders from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Would she take something I write? Will I try to submit? Advice welcome!

September 19, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Igbo Marriage Rites Full of Tradition, Modified!

Chidi’s Igbo Marriage

Igbo marriage rites were in full swing when my husband Clem went to Hemet, California, for the wedding of his nephew Chidi.

Other African customs were in play too. Clem’s younger brother Godwin, Chidi’s dad, died a few years ago. So Clem is the stand-in father. As he said, “I have no choice. I have to go!”

Would that be a requirement, not an option, for the oldest American uncle if his brother had passed on?

Clem and I, with our daughter Beth, had gone to the earlier Igbo marriage event, Iku Aka Na Uzo, or knocking on the door, in June. That’s when the bride ‘accepts’ her groom.

Igbo marriage. Chidi and his bride at traditional ceremony

Igbo marriage. Chidi and his bride dressed for the traditional ceremony Igba Nkwu.

The traditional Igbo marriage itself is called Igba Nkwu – carrying palm wine. Clem traveled Thursday to make sure he wouldn’t miss the September 9 event in Hemet, California on Friday afternoon.

The bride’s father and uncle had given the groom Chidi a list of requirements. It’s called “Inu-mmanya by Onitsha Non-Indegene, Requirements in accordance with marriages and other customary matters in Onitsha.”

This modern manifestation of the traditional bride price filled one and a half pages, with nineteen different recipients, each with specified gifts. Clem says some of the items, and the title, are in “Onitsha Igbo.” It is a different dialect from his own town’s Igbo. We say nkwu for palm wine, though we also use their word mmanya.

Coming into reception as part of Igbo marriage

Coming into reception as part of Igbo marriage

Most of the gifts are bottles of gin or Schnapps, pots of palm wine, kola nuts, Star beer, and cash.

Number 12, “Ekene Idu Nata Uno,” specifies “Four heads of tobacco” along with four pots of palm wine, 120 kola nuts, and 200 Naira. I’m guessing these are gifts to be taken to those who stayed at home. If I’m wrong, maybe one of you can correct me!

The Umunna – the primary unit of an Igbo man’s identity on his father’s side – get specific gifts, as do the Umunne, the mother’s lineage group.

For each gift the Naira cash value is given. Particularly when the Igbo marriage is taking place in the U.S., cash is perfectly acceptable. It would after all be difficult if not impossible to secure palm wine, kola nuts, and Star beer in the vicinity of Hemet, California.

At the event, Clem tells me, the hosts, that is, the bride’s family, served kola and drinks, and then a meal. After that, Chidi presented his gifts, all in cash. It must have been close to 100,000 Naira, or around $400.

Celebrating Igbo marriage at the reception

Daughter Beth on left, with cousin Nonso on right, and Nonso’s daughter

I recall a list nearly as extensive from our son Sam’s in-laws when we held his traditional wedding to Onome.

Our daughter Beth flew from Philadelphia for the ‘white’ wedding on Saturday and the reception that followed. She said, “Daddy and I got there just before 2 pm, the time on the invitation. But no one was around!” Sounds like an Igbo marriage!

The wedding began closer to 3, and the reception followed. Beth said there was lots of dancing but no speeches. Clem didn’t even get a chance to deliver the words of wisdom he’d prepared!

President Buhari at UN

The UN General Assembly opened today September 19 with a focus on refugees and migrants. President Buhari took his place with other heads of state for today’s session.

As planned, the General Assembly approved the declaration which had been prepared over the last many months. It’s called the New York Declaration.

According to Nigeria’s Channels TV, “Highlights of the New York Declaration are commitments to protect the human rights of all refugees and migrants, regardless of status. This includes the rights of women and girls and promoting their full, equal and meaningful participation in finding solutions.”

Ensuring access to education for refugee children and ending xenophobia are major parts of the declaration.

Meanwhile, it seems that President Buhari’s speech writer recently fell into a similar trap as Trump’s!

President Buhari at end of his first year

President Buhari at end of his first year

The occasion was a speech on September 8 when Buhari began a campaign, “Change Begins With Me.”

“The campaign promotes a new way of thinking to rid Nigeria of widespread corruption,” the Associated Press said in a report from NBC News.

“Buhari said, ‘We must resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship, pettiness and immaturity that have poisoned our country for so long. Let us summon a new spirit of responsibility, spirit of service, of patriotism and sacrifice. Let us all resolve to pitch in and work hard and look after, not only ourselves, but one another.'”

And what had Obama said in his victory speech in 2008? “So let us summon a new spirit of patriotism; of service and responsibility where each of us resolves to pitch in and work harder and look after not only ourselves, but each other. … Let us resist the temptation to fall back on the same partisanship and pettiness and immaturity that has poisoned our politics for so long.”

Buhari and Obama will meet in New York on Tuesday for conversation about Boko Haram and the Nigerian economy. On Wednesday Buhari will participate in U.S.-Nigeria trade talks. Let’s hope for success in all his meetings. More trade would be good, as would more assistance with defeating Boko Haram.

Peace Corps Beyond

I think I told you Clem and I are going to Washington DC for Peace Corps Beyond, the gathering of former Peace Corps volunteers. I’m mentioning it again to say it’s quite possible there will be no post, or a very brief one, on Sept. 23, the next Afo.

Meanwhile enjoy the first week of autumn in our northern hemisphere.

September 15, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Refugees and Migrants at the UN

High Level Summit for Refugees and Migrants

Yesterday in beautiful late summer weather, I met my friend Marilyn in New York. After lunch at Le Pain Quotidien we went to a panel on refugees and migrants hosted by the NGO Committee on the Status of Women.

Curry chicken tartine - delicious!

Curry chicken tartine – delicious!

It was held in preparation for the High Level Summit for Refugees and Migrants on Monday at the UN.

“At the General Assembly Heads of State and Governments will come together at the first-ever high-level summit for refugees and migrants to discuss a ‘Global Compact for Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration’ and a ‘Global Compact on Responsibility-Sharing for Refugees’,” as UN Women says.

UN Women’s Deputy Director Lakshmi Puri was invited but couldn’t come. In her place was Meg Jones, Chief of Economic Empowerment at UN Women.

Meg Jones at panel on refugees and migrants

Meg Jones speaking at panel on refugees and migrants

She made a strong case for paying attention to UN speeches. When our own UN Ambassador takes the floor and speaks on upholding the rights of women and girls, we should write to thank her. That thank you, Meg said, may get back to others in government, and can help! Wise advice.

Meg had to leave right after delivering her remarks. She asked Andrea Milan, Programme Analyst – Migration, from her Economic Empowerment Section, to fill in for her to answer questions.

Eva Richter, treasurer of the NGO Committee on Refugees, and a representative of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, gave background. She was part of the group preparing the Outcomes Statement, recently completed.

The UN General Assembly High Level Meeting will use this statement and its appendices. As I understand, they will build their ‘global compact’ on refugees and migrants using these.

Andrea Milan and me after panel on refugees and migrants

Andrea Milan and me after panel on refugees and migrants

For Monday’s General Assembly, the list of speakers includes 65 names! Even if each speaks for four minutes, that’s 260 minutes, or more than 4 hours.

And there must be time for each person to get to the podium.

Long Overdue Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is opening this weekend. Our country is long overdue for this recognition of our collective history!

I knew I would like to visit though I didn’t feel a personal connection. But a few days ago that changed.

My friend Judy who is African-American told our Sister Grandmas that she and her husband have been invited to a donor’s reception on Friday. Her family gave a collection of photos and letters.

Now I am more connected! When I do go, I’ll look for their donation.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Museum’s website says, “The historic significance of the newest and 19th Smithsonian museum – and its importance to all Americans – will make [its opening] an unprecedented local, national and international event unlike any other opening of a cultural institution in America or globally in recent memory.”

I agree – this is the history of our country!

For how long have we white Americans expected African-Americans and Native Americans to look at the history of pilgrims, early political leaders, and 19th century industrialists as ‘our common history’?

I can see myself in representations of white settlers, pioneer women, or early 20th century immigrants. Can a Black woman say that?

I thought we might visit on September 26. We’ll still be in DC after the Peace Corps convention. But the museum website says they are taking timed ticket requests for November and December now.

The New York Times has a wonderful introduction.

Former Slave’s Letter

Another friend, Sonja, sent this link to a letter from a former slave.

It’s exquisite! You can also read what is known of the history of the man who wrote it, Jordan Anderson.

I hope there are more documents like this in the new museum, though I doubt any other will be so well-expressed!

Connecticut Judge Rules on School Funding

The disparity in funding for schools in the state of Connecticut has been an issue for many years.

Sheff vs. O’Neill is the most famous case, decided in 1996 by the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Night heron photographed by my cousin Thomas Thompson

Night heron photographed by my cousin Thomas Thompson

“The  Court ruled that the conditions of segregation and racial isolation in the Hartford schools violated the state’s affirmative obligation to provide Connecticut’s school children with a substantially equal educational opportunity under the Connecticut Constitution,” according to the Sheff Movement.

There have been changes in schools in Hartford, the state capitol, but much of the state remains in dire straits for school funding.

Westport where we live has a strong tax base which funds education. The large city next door, Bridgeport, does not. It was a manufacturing city but no longer has many factories. Unemployment is high. Its schools are poor.

Now there is a new judgement. It came in response to a lawsuit that claimed that the reliance on property taxes unfairly burdens poorer towns and cities.

“Too many American high school graduates are ‘let down by patronizing and illusory degrees,’ Judge Moukawsher wrote,” according to The New York Times. He said the state must have a new plan within 180 days.

And An Appeal

No surprise – State Attorney General George Jepsen has appealed directly to the Supreme Court, bypassing the state Appellate Court. He is challenging only part of the ruling. He says it that takes too much authority away from state and local officials.

At least he recognizes the need. “Nevertheless, the ruling identified profound educational challenges that remain and must continue to receive serious and sustained attention – and action – at every level of government, ” he says.

If you subscribe to the Wall Street Journal you can read more here, though only about the ruling, not the appeal.

September 11, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Build a Caring Community

Where we build caring community

Sanctuary of The Unitarian Church in Westport, CT where we build caring community

Build a Caring Community

At the Unitarian Church in Westport CT we held our annual Homecoming Service on Sunday morning.

Our Director of Lifespan Faith Development, Mary Collins, told a story about caring community. She enlisted Ellie and Bob to help her illustrate.

Bob wore a most fantastic multi-colored clown’s wig. Ellie wore a fanciful bright pink boa. They stood on opposite sides at the front of the sanctuary.

They were members of two different communities with a raging river in between. Each was a caring community.

Bob Perry in his wig, with Mary speaking at the podium, teaching caring community

Bob Perry in his wig, with Mary speaking at the podium, photo by Janet Luongo

Because each community had a brave explorer, they eventually met each other. Over years as the communities became friends, they decided to build a bridge over the river so they could travel back and forth more easily. They also built a meeting house over the bridge and gathered regularly.

They began to care for each other, building a broader caring community with the meeting house as their special place.

But some members of each community didn’t like the change or the fraternizing with members of a different community. Eventually their voices drowned out the others, and they stopped meeting.

Two brave explorers reuniting their communities

Two brave explorers reuniting their communities, photo by Janet Luongo

But – as you can guess – brave souls again ventured out and finally rejoined the communities. Both communities benefitted. And she didn’t say these words, but I will, “lived happily ever after.”

She probably didn’t say them, because that’s not what usually happens. Her message seemed to be that we have to keep working to build a caring community. Building bridges once is never enough!

My Role in Caring Community

We met outside on the lawn for the start of this service. The Senior Minister Rev. Dr. John Morehouse called members of our church, our own caring community, to come forward to take ‘Symbols of our Congregation’s Life’ to carry in a procession into the sanctuary.

offering plate

An offering plate like ours

Since I am the treasurer, I carried an offering plate! I was tempted to pause at the entrance to the sanctuary to remind us all of the need to support our beloved congregation financially, but thought better of it.

Also because I was part of the choir, I wanted to keep moving forward to help with the singing.

The Tragedy of 9/11

After Mary’s story, Rev. Frank Hall, our Minister Emeritus, reflected on the events 15 years ago today, the tragedy of 9/11. He had been on his motorcycle to a meeting when the events happened. So he didn’t learn about until he reached his destination, a meeting of several Unitarian-Universalist ministers, where the others were gathered around a TV.

Rev. Frank Hall, taken by David Emberling

Rev. Frank Hall, taken by David Emberling

He returned immediately to Westport and the church. He found people in the sanctuary, seeking consolation and community.

Diane Farrell, our first select-woman (mayor) at the time, asked all the ministers to gather later that day to discuss their response. He was asked to lead a prayer at the end of the meeting, surprising him. “I opened the prayer with silence so I could collect my thoughts,” he said.

The silence was powerful. “I don’t remember what I said after that,” he told us.

The following Sunday, Sept. 16, the sanctuary was over-flowing, again with people wanting to be with others. All were seeking a caring community in that time of grief and uncertainty.

He closed his reflection by reciting a poem by Pablo Neruda, Keeping Quiet.  You can listen, not to Frank, but to Sylvia Boorstein.

Keeping Quiet: Sylvia Boorstein Reads Pablo Neruda’s Beautiful Ode to Silence

A Revolutionary Movement

In his homily “Promises Yet to Keep,” Rev. John spoke about our calling to work for the unkept promises of the revolution for racial justice.

He called Black Lives Matter a revolutionary movement. He referred to Rev. Dr. Bill Sinkford’s sermon, which I wrote about in late June, (near end of that blog post) at the UU General Assembly. Rev. Sinkford reminded Unitarian-Universalists of our commitment to racial justice 50 years earlier.

We thought we could bring about change, but did we? Today, Black Lives Matter is leading a renewed revolution against racial injustice. He said, “Resistance is what love looks like in the face of hate.”

Rev. John said, “We’re now engaged in the same revolution. We’ve just been asleep for a while!” The Twitter hashtag, #staywoke, for Black Lives Matter, reminds us to pay attention and not fall asleep again.

Rev. Dr. John Morehouse at GA

Rev. Dr. John Morehouse at GA

He quoted Ta-Nehisi Coates on the disparities in wealth and opportunity for people of color. They arise from hundreds of years. Coates said, “We have forgotten the scale of the theft.”

Be Maladusted

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted,” King said. Rev. John borrowed from him to say, “We should all become ‘maladjusted.'”

Can we part of a caring community in our country? Can we care for others who are not like us? Refugees? Victims of police shootings?

Rev. John encouraged us – no, challenged us – to reach beyond our congregation, beyond our towns. We should extend our caring community to embrace all who are on the margins, disenfranchised, or mistreated.

He was on fire! I believe we are in for an exciting time at The Unitarian Church in Westport.

If you are nearby, come join us! If not, watch for more news.

September 7, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

The Sharps’ War

The Sharps’ War

Denny who wrote "The Sharps' War" review.

Winter Convocation – Meadville Lombard Theological School –
Photo by Chris Ocken
Copyright 2015

My friend Denise, more commonly called Denny, Davidoff wrote an excellent review of Ken Burns’ film Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War. I read it online in UU World Weekly, the email from UU World.

The magazine is sent to every member of Unitarian-Universalist – UU – congregations in the U.S.

I try to read the whole quarterly magazine. Every time I find something that makes me say, “I’m so glad I didn’t miss this!” Sometimes I also find an article in the weekly newsletter that catches my interest. This one did.

I love Denny’s introduction. She explains her Jewish family identity. “I learned early on to always be able to identify the people who, were I ever endangered because of being Jewish, could be counted on for unconditional help,” she says.

Now that background helps her understand the Sharps’ war and their dedication to saving lives during the 2nd World War.

The Sharps of the Sharps' War from UUA magazine

The Sharps, from the UUA magazine UU World

She talks about their second mission: “This time the mission is to save children, particularly Jewish children, and boatloads are brought to the safety of New York Harbor. The on-camera testimony of some of them who are still alive is heart-wrenching.”

At this summer’s General Assembly in Columbus Ohio Denny was on stage for a discussion of Palestine and Israel. She and the other panelists were asked to reflect on how their own lives influenced their feelings. She spoke then about her family and growing up Jewish.

She said later that reflecting on her family publicly as she did on the panel was not usual for her. Now I’ve seen her do it a second time! Is a book coming next?

Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War will air on PBS on September 20. I’ll be watching or recording.

Do We Like Diversity?

Vinnie Ferraro in his blog shares a Pew Research poll result that says we do like diversity!

Pew Research Center poll results

Pew Research Center poll results

Professor Ferraro says cultural diversity seems to be a hot-button issue everywhere today. “Immigration concerns are only the tip of the iceberg–questions are being raised about the authenticity of citizens who believe in a specific religion or who speak a different language.”

Here’s the poll question: “Do you think having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in our country makes it a better place to live, a worse place to live or doesn’t make much difference either way?”

The poll results said that 58% of Americans answered “yes, a better place,” the highest of any country. Greece and Italy were among the lowest.

So why so much animosity today about immigrants? Or is it only opposition to immigrants from certain places? Or just immigrants who are undocumented?

How would you answer the question?

Chimamanda Adichie at the UN

Chimamanda Adichie spoke on World Humanitarian Day at the UN. Quoting Ainehi Edoro in her blog, “her words are vintage Adichie.”

She relates the story of her parents with their two small daughters fleeing the Nigerian army early in the Biafran War. They had nowhere to stay until a friend, whose house was already over-crowded with extended family, said, “We’ll make room for you.”

Her story about visiting Mexico some years ago and finding herself succumbing to stereotypes reminded me of my airport experience with my sister.

I wrote about it in July. A young couple were hugging and kissing rather passionately, clearly leading up to a departure. Something about them indicated military.

I could see their upper bodies and related what I was watching to my sister whose back was to them. She said, “He must be leaving for Afghanistan or Iraq.”

I agreed. Then they stood up and I could see the uniform. She was the soldier, not him!

Adichie said she was overwhelmed with shame when she realized that she had forgotten the people she was seeing were not so different from her. They were going to market, telling stories, and going home to spouses and families.

She talks about the Igbo word for ‘love.’ It is ifu n’anya which literally means ‘to see.’ She asks us to see each other as individuals, as people, not just as ‘refugees,’ or ‘immigrants.’

“Making room for people is a moral imperative for our time,” she says.

Peace Corps Beyond

The annual conference of the Peace Corps community will take place in a couple of weeks. Clem and I finally decided today to go!

What made me decide? Marian Beil of Peace Corps Writers sent an email today to invite people who’ve published with the Peace Corps Writers imprint to be on a panel! I did this a year ago in California and would love to do it again, as I told her.

She says, “The authors will be asked to talk about their books and how they went through the process of bringing their stories to print.”

There will also be a table to sell books in the exhibitioni hall.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia, is a featured speaker!

Friends of Nigeria will have its own meeting and a dinner of Nigerian food, usually pounded yam and egusi soup, jollof rice, and plantain. Somehow someone finds Star Beer! It’s usually a lot of fun.

On Sunday there is a Walk for Peace. This year it will “begin at University Yard at George Washington University, travel down Pennsylvania Ave. past the White House, and end on Capitol Hill for a speaker series highlighting the impact of Peace Corps.”

In past years we’ve carried our country-of-service flags. It makes an impressive sight. The walk always brings tears to my eyes at some point as I walk.

If you’re nearby, come!

September 3, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes

Year of Yes

I always have a book on my phone for listening at the gym. While I’m on the treadmill, lifting weights, or doing leg presses, I’m ‘reading.’ Right now, it’s Shonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes and I’m loving it!

Author of Year of Yes

Shonda Rhimes wrote Year of Yes. Picture from Vulture mag

One of the reviews on Amazon says, “Rhimes is, unsurprisingly, a fantastic memoirist: Her writing is conversational and witty and lyrical, inflected with the supple human breathiness you might expect from a person who spends her days writing dialogue. It features lots of great punchlines.”

Nine months ago I first heard her name when her memoir was published. But I had certainly heard of “Grays’ Anatomy” and “Scandal,” two of the three hit TV shows she has created and produced.

If you need to catch up like I did, here is a brief bio from her Amazon author page: “Shonda Rhimes is the prolific writer, executive producer and creator of the hit ABC series ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ and ‘Scandal.’ In addition to creating the ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ spinoff series ‘Private Practice,’ which ran on ABC for six seasons, Rhimes is the executive producer of the ABC series ‘How to Get Away with Murder,’ which premiered in 2014 as the number one new show of the Fall in adults 18-49.”

Through her sister’s chance remark she decides to stop saying “no” and start saying “yes” to invitations and speaking requests. In her memoir Year of Yes she describes her journey as she gradually overcame her fear and learned to enjoy being social.

She also talks about learning to say “no” when necessary, as when she first becomes successful and all sorts of people ask her for money or other help.

Right now I’m debating saying “yes” to an invitation to be on a nonprofit board. I support their work, and they promise the commitment is not large, but can I add one more activity? Is it another way not to work on my writing? Or will it give me more grist for my writing – also possible?

I’ll probably say yes!

Threads of Light

The composer, conductor, and artistic director Ellen Dickinson has created “Threads of Light, A Tapestry of African-American Spirituals.”

Conductor of Threads of Light

Ellen Dickinson who wrote Threads of Light

It will be performed by her Music on the Hill Festival Chorus joined by the Special Projects Choir from my Unitarian Church in Westport. The performance is October 1 in Norwalk CT’s Concert Hall.

That’s Nigeria’s Independence Day.

We had our third rehearsal this morning.

The Cultural Alliance of Fairfield County puts out an online publication called FCBuzz which lists the event and a little background:

Threads of Light weaves together over 30 spirituals in three movements — Hope, Journey, Glory — connected by poetry by African-American poets read by special guests.”

I am familiar with most of the spirituals.

When our choir director Ed introduced the project, I hesitated.

What gives us – a white choir in a white church, and Ellen’s group – also almost all white – the right to sing this music? African-American spirituals grew out of pain, inflicted by white slave owners.

Threads of Light art

Threads of Light by Gerald Grow and Mary Jane Lord; I don’t know if Ellen knows about this art.

A website says, “[Spirituals] are different from hymns and psalms, because they were a way of sharing the hard condition of being a slave.”

Or is it a sign of respect to sing it – a way to acknowledge the past? How will African-American audience members, if there are any who wish to come – feel about our singing?

Couldn’t a gospel choir, especially a black gospel choir, sing these songs so much better?

I look forward to hearing the poetry that will be read as part of the performance.

One institution is taking major steps to acknowledge its past.

Georgetown University

In 1838 Georgetown University was in danger of folding. To stave off creditors, Jesuit priests sold 272 slaves.

Of those slaves, NYTimes writer Rachel L. Swarns wrote in April this year, “Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century.”

She continued, “But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold . . . to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.”

One shipload of 56 slaves held the ancestors of Cheryllyn Branche.

She wrote a very moving piece today about learning of her connection to those slaves. A Georgetown University alum called her in May. He was part of the working group studying how to address Georgetown’s past.

President Degioia

Georgetown U’s President

She says, “My relatives — Hillary Ford, Henny Ford, their infant Basil and others –— were on that ship. Hillary and Henny were my maternal grandmother’s grandparents; their son Basil was my grandmother’s father. They didn’t live that long ago: I knew family members who had known them. They were real people with real names.”

On September 1 Georgetown’s President John J. DeGioia said that it would apologize for its history with slaves and that their descendants would get admissions priority. He named other steps too.

But the New York Times Editorial Board thought they could go further.

They said, “The university’s decision to treat the descendants essentially as legacy applicants for admissions purposes is a welcome move. But it falls short of what’s clearly needed: a scholarship fund specifically for descendants who are poor and generationally disadvantaged by the legacy of slavery from which Georgetown profited.”

I agree. The university could set such an amazing example of one way we with white privilege, with our years of ability to accumulate wealth, education, and connections, could begin to make restitution.

We cannot restore the families that were broken by slavery or heal the wounds of the years of unequal, unjust treatment. But helping young people who don’t have financial advantages get an education at an institution like Georgetown would be a step.

What do you think?

August 30, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

New Yam Festival

New Yam Festival

You know that I love Igbo culture. This article in has five photos that are really lovely examples of Igbo culture. All are related to the New Yam Festival which takes place now, at the end of August.

Three views of the jigida worn by masquerades at the New Yam Festival

Three views of the jigida worn by masquerades

The New Yam Festival is celebrated at different times in different towns and villages. But all will have at least some of the elements pictured in the article.

Masquerades are certainly a major part of the New Yam Festival. Not many people today believe that the masquerades appear from inside the earth. However they are still respected for their traditional role as spirits of the ancestors and enforcers of a town’s customs.

The sound of approaching masquerades is unique. Each masquerade wears one or two raffia ropes, called jigida, tied at his ankles or waist. On the rope are dry pods, attached in pairs, so they hit each other as he runs.


Masquerades are an important part of the New Yam Festival.

I find that jigida now – or always? – also means the waist beads of glass or ceramic that women wear, not just the ‘native’ ones with the pods.

You can even buy Nigerian waist beads on Etsy or eBay! But none  that I saw have the traditional pods. Who knew?

UN Secretary General – a Woman?

Isn’t it time that the UN is headed by a woman?

Sec. General Ban Ki-Moon’s term is up at the end of this year. This year there is a serious attempt to make the selection process more open than it has been in the past. Previous selections were made by the Security Council and then – always – ratified by the General Assembly.

Countries were asked to submit nominations this year. There are ten nominees. Five are women!

There are several considerations among the member countries. Regional representation is one. Eastern Europe has never produced a Secretary General.

But there is a problem. “. . . tension between Russia and Western permanent members over the conflict in Ukraine has raised the possibility of deadlock over an Eastern European nominee, meaning that candidates from other regions (particularly non-European members of the Western European and Others Group and Latin America) are being seriously considered.”

Helen Clark, candidate, and UNDP administrator

Helen Clark, candidate, and UNDP administrator

Personally, I think I’d choose Helen Clark, just because she is better known than the others (meaning I know of her but have barely heard of any others).

But I also really like Irina Bokova because she is Director General of UNESCO and was Acting Foreign Minister of her country Bulgaria. Those roles should give her the experience she’d need heading the fractious UN. But all the women are impressive. Who would you pick?

There have been several straw polls among the member states, the latest was yesterday. You can see the results here.

I haven’t seen the date of the actual election. If you know, please share!

Meanwhile, UNWomen has posted a statement encouraging the selection of a female Secretary General.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Still Amazing

On Sunday afternoon NPR played at least part of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from Aug. 28, 1963. I only caught it near the end.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The voice and the words are so powerful. I had to pause to listen. “In the words of the old Negro spiritual, free at last.. . ”

The reporter said he was in the NPR studio just a few miles away from the site of the speech.

What would Dr. King say of our state of affairs today?

Chibok Girls

President Buhari was in Kenya at the sixth Tokyo International Conference for African Development (TICAD VI) organized by the Japanese government. When he spoke with reporters he said his administration is ready to discuss a swap. They would exchange detained Boko Haram fighters for the Chibok girls.

But he needs to know the people who are negotiating actually have the girls and can guarantee their release.

These would be very delicate negotiations. I wish him and his administration success!

Nigeria as an Investment Destination

The Nigerian President also revealed what the media called a top secret!

The secret? “Speaking at a plenary session on ‘Dialogue with the Private Sector’  President Buhari said his administration is implementing policies and measures to create right and enabling environment for business and investors in Nigeria.”

He said he will make Nigeria into one of the top 100 countries as an investment destination by 2019!

Nigeria has a long way to go in three years! It is “currently ranked 169 out of 189 countries by the World Bank, according to the Bank’s 2016 Ease of Doing Business report.”

Can it happen? Not without a lot of change, one of which is better customer service and quick responses to inquiries!

I’ve been contacting bookstores in Nigeria, trying to find one to carry my memoir. No reply so far!

Groundnut Stew

groundnut stew

My groundnut soup or stew

I’m cooking groundnut stew, also called peanut stew, for a potluck supper tonight. I found two recipes, one called Liberian Peanut Soup, comes via Helene Cooper of the New York Times. The other just called Groundnut Stew.

I’m taking some from each and adding a little of my own creativity. It already tasted good. Now I’ve added the okra and the peanut butter.

I hope my friends like it!

August 26, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Inheritance for Igbo Women

Inheritance for Igbo Women

Inheritance for Igbo Women

Inheritance for Igbo women has been an issue in Nigeria for a long time.

Inheritance for Igbo women has been a long-standing issue.

Igbo Women at time of Aba Riot, 1929.

In 1991 a case was filed by a woman who said she could not be removed from the land that came to her after her father’s death. The Lagos High Court and a Court of Appeal both ruled for the woman.

Eventually the case got to the Supreme Court.

In April 2014 the Nigerian Supreme Court ruled that women have a right to inherit the property of their father. The highest court judgement came after  had also affirmed this right.

Justice Bode Rhodes-Vivour, who read the lead judgment stated, “No matter the circumstances of the birth of a female child, such a child is entitled to an inheritance from her late father’s estate. Consequently, the Igbo customary law, which disentitles a female child from partaking in the sharing of her deceased father’s estate, is a breach of Section 42(1) and (2) of the Constitution, a fundamental rights provision guaranteed to every Nigerian.”

Justice Rhodes-Vivour read the judgement on inheritance rights for Igbo women

Justice Rhodes-Vivour of the Nigerian Supreme Court

Inheritance Rights of an Igbo Widow

There was a second case that started even earlier. That one also concerned inheritance for Igbo women. In this case it was a widow’s right to the land where she had lived with her deceased husband. Her late husband’s family were contesting her right to remain on the property since she had no male child.

The Supreme Court ruled on that as well, giving a widow the right to her husband’s land even if she had no male child.

So I was puzzled by an article a few days ago stating the conclusion again. This time, it was an Igbo Women’s Group celebrating the decision.

They noted that the law had been “domesticated” in Anambra State, one of Nigeria’s 36 states.

I’m no lawyer. As far as I can tell, their jubilation was about the new status being recognized at the level of the state government.

Will the Law Be Enforced?

As one of the articles stated, the law is now clear. Only time will tell if it is implemented.

I gave a talk in London about this issue in April 2015, as part of a conference on Igbo Women. You can read it here.

In my comments I reported that my cousin-in-law Chinedu, who helps me stay informed on village and Igbo affairs, said the same thing. He wasn’t sure the elders, called umunna, in Nanka would respect the law.

Malaria’s Impact Decreasing

Good news – malaria is no longer the leading cause of children’s deaths in Sub-Sahara Africa.

Of course the bad news is that polio is back in Nigeria, and many other preventable diseases are still killing far too many children.

Showing off a bed net

Showing off a bed net. Photo: UNICEF/Adenike Ademuyiwa

The news was reported by WHO – the World Health Organization – in a UN Radio program.

“Since 2000, the number of Africans dying from malaria has dropped by nearly 70 per cent, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

“But despite this progress, WHO said Africa still accounts for nearly 90 per cent of malaria cases worldwide. The disease killed 400,000 Africans last year.”

My Malaria Experience

Have you ever had malaria? It’s like a severe case of flu with chills and high fever. I had it early on in Nigeria, as I recounted in my memoir.

But there are different types. The most severe put me in the hospital for a week many years ago. I had been to Nigeria for Christmas. I was back home in Connecticut. It took a little time for the doctors to diagnose.

Then I was an object of interest for lots of interns and residents!

The photo shows someone trying out a bed net. It’s from the website that has the radio link.

Bassey Etim’s Personal Story

Bassey Etim in NYTimes photo

Bassey Etim in NYTimes photo by Chester Higgins Jr.

Following my piece about race and segregation last time, I want to tell you about a related essay.

The day after reading Affluent and Black, Still . . , I read this, Milwaukee’s Divide Runs Right Through Me. I noticed the author’s name before even taking in the title – Bassey Etim. Clearly a Nigerian.

His experience is like that of some of the children mentioned in the other piece.

“On the North Side that shaped me, there was a resentment, a reflexive skepticism that it took me awhile to understand as a son of Nigerian immigrants. But with experience, I got it. The only white people I saw in my neighborhood staffed the library.”

He says he could picture his own home as a backdrop for a police presence. He was not surprised by what happened in Milwaukee recently – riots after the death of a black man shot by police. Rather, he said, it was to be expected.

In his neighborhood, he said, “Parents tried to teach their children, in the most visceral ways they could imagine, to stay out of trouble.”

For parents of black children, especially boys in their teen and early adult years, today that means, “Be very careful. If a police person addresses you, obey completely. Keep your hands visible.”

Ryan Lochte

Will he be extradited?

Or will his white privilege, his high-priced lawyer, and his fame keep him safe on American soil, even after he damaged Rio’s reputation and embarrassed his country? I love pictures in my blog, but I can’t bear to put his pic here!

Do you think there should be consequences?

August 22, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Will There Be Milk for Nigeria?

Milk for Nigeria?

Moo! There are plans for a dairy industry with milk for Nigeria! The world’s largest dairy cooperative is coming. They’ve signed an MOU, a Memorandum of Understanding, with the Nigerian government.

Arla Foods is a cooperative owned by 12,700 farmers from six European countries and the UK. They have a U.S. office and stores, I see from their website. The MOU says they will, “provide enabling organisational structure and trainings that will facilitate the development of the dairy industry in Nigeria.”

Nigerian cow, ready to give milk for Nigeria?

Nigerian cow, ready for cooperative?

The representative from Arla Foods said, “the partnership . . . will promote and strengthen the emergence of a dairy cooperative system in Nigeria thereby giving farmers a strong voice and ensuring efficient distribution of knowledge.”

Will the Milk for Nigeria Go Sour?

That’s a tall order, given the size of the country and how spread out farmers are.

I wonder if they are too ambitious? Do they understand there are not simply different languages like they have in Europe, but different tribes, including nomads, whose farmers have differing customs?

Maybe Arla Foods does have an idea of the obstacles to providing milk for Nigeria.

The agreement says, “The Ministry is expected to support pasture improvements in grazing reserves within areas of operation, attend necessary meetings to review progress compared to targets and support Arla in removing any administrative and bureaucratic obstacles that prevent Arla from delivering on objectives.”

Early days, but still, I’m hopeful that there will be fresh milk for Nigeria.  I wonder how many years before the first product comes off the assembly line?

Anyone besides Lulu remember Samco?

My Sister Granny’s Poem

You’ve read about my group of friends who meet monthly to share some aspect of our lives. We write on a chosen topic and then read to the group. We’re the Sister Grannies.

We are not looking at the writing but the content. And we often have wonderful discussions, in addition to delicious food and plenty of wine!

This morning I found a pleasant surprise in my inbox. Barbara, one of the Sisters, had a poem published online. I love it. So I want you to have a chance to read it too. (The date is confusing; I don’t know why. But don’t let it stop you from reading.) That’s a stock photo, not Barbara!

Poem: Voices I Hear. August 31, 2015.

Fabulous Book Cover

Ainehi Edoro posted this stunning book cover! It took me a few seconds to realize the right side with the red bus is the front cover, the Welcome to Lagos straight vertical title is the spine, and the street scene is the back.

You can read more about the cover and the novel, the second by Chibundu Onuzo, in Ainehi’s blog Brittle Paper.

The Stunning Cover Art of Welcome to Lagos, Chibundu Onuzo’s New Novel

Race and Where We Live

“What we found was that across all income levels, segregation persists – even for households earning $100,000 or more. We decided to look more closely at black families of means, and what we found is that money doesn’t buy integration. Well-off black families live in disproportionately black neighborhoods that are much poorer than the areas where whites of the same income level live.”

Of course the next question is why.

The answers are complex.

In many suburbs, particularly near large urban centers, white families prefer to have mostly white families around them, sociologists have found. People of color are subtly made to know they’re not welcome.

Decades of more overt actions, like red-lining when banks refused to grant mortgages to blacks, and realtors’ refused to show homes in white neighborhoods to blacks, have reinforced segregation.

The authors say, “Those historic dynamics of race and housing have not disappeared, either. As recently as 2006, a city government report found that affluent, nonwhite Milwaukeeans were 2.7 times likelier to be denied home loans than white people with similar incomes.”

Then there is the feeling of belonging that all of us crave. It sometimes causes blacks to stay or move into neighborhoods where they are the majority.

Where are You Safe if You are Black?

Black boy remembers Tamir Rice, can't play outside with toy gun.

Black boy remembers Tamir Rice, can’t play outside with toy gun.

But the dangers are real. Parents must teach their children, particularly black boys, to be extra careful. They cannot let the children out alone at night as white families in affluent suburbs can.

One family profiled in the article have two children, Taj and Ameera. “[They] go to a Catholic private school in Milwaukee where most of the students are white, but return to a Muslim household in a neighborhood where most people look like them. Both environments present difficulties.

“At school, the Sabir children have heard a teacher play down slavery, and classmates stereotype black neighborhoods as bad and drug infested.”

Most telling for me – and sad – was this: “They often find their worldviews out of sync with those around them. When Taj was visiting a white classmate in Wauwatosa (a white suburb) in May, the friend wanted to go outside to play with Nerf guns. But Taj recalled the police killing another black boy with a toy gun — 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland — and said that he had to be cautious about what he did outside.”

What a burden we place on black children. They must consider how to stay safe from the police!

Next time I’ll tell you about a companion piece written by a Nigerian.

August 18, 2016
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Call for Gender Equality By 2030

Call for Gender Equality By 2030

Gender Equality

At 16, Kehkashan Basu is bold. She is a fearless proponent of gender equality, and the founder and president of a youth organisation called Green Hope in her native Dubai.

Kekashan Basu, speaking out for gender equality

Kehkashan Basu, speaking out for gender equality

At the recent panel discussion on “Investing in Young Women’s Leadership for the Implementation of the SDGs,” Basu was the youngest speaker.

UN Women and the UN Inter-Agency Network on Youth Development sponsored the event as part of International Youth Day at the UN.

Sustainable Development Goals

At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September, 2015, world leaders adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

These goals aim to end poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change by 2030.

Planet 50-50

Facebook photo from my cousin Thomas.

My cousin Thomas posted this lovely photo on Facebook.

But wait, there’s more! In addition to the SDGs, UNWomen has a goal: “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality.” This initiative asks governments to make national commitments to address the challenges that are holding women and girls back from reaching their full potential.

“Ninety world leaders have made concrete commitments to overcome gender equality gaps.” They did this during and after a historic event co-hosted by UN Women and the People’s Republic of China last year.

I was afraid to look at the list! But one of my countries has made a statement, if not a formal commitment. Which one do you think – Nigeria or the U.S.?


Nigeria Germany Match AP Photo Leo Correa

Nigeria Germany Match AP Photo Leo Correa

Nigeria does not win many medals at the Olympics. Their best sport is soccer, known as football in most of the world outside the U.S.

The Nigerian team won the gold medal in 1996. This year they made it to the semi-finals. But then they lost to Germany, 2-0. I was sad.

Who will win the gold this time? The final match is between Germany and Brazil at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon. The loser gets the silver. But Nigeria still has a chance at the bronze – they play Honduras for the third spot at noon on Saturday.

History of Football

As I was looking up the schedule, I found this fascinating bit of history about the sport.

“Modern football has its origins in the streets of medieval England. Neighbouring towns would play each other in games where a heaving mass of players would struggle to drag a pig’s bladder by any means possible to markers at either end of town.”

Did you know? Here’s the rest of the story:


Football became so violent in England it was banned by the king for more than 300 years. English public schools are credited with subsequently establishing the modern football codes, thus turning the mob riot into a sport in the 16th century.


Football first appeared on the programme of the Games of the II Olympiad, Paris 1900. It has been on the programme of each edition of the Games ever since, with the exception of Los Angeles 1932.

Europe dominated the competition until after 1992 in Barcelona, where Spain became the last European team to win a gold medal. Since the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, African and South American teams have won all the gold medals.”

Rilke, Religion, and Peace Corps

Last Sunday morning I turned on the radio to hear On Being, with Krista Tippett. Krista interviewed Joanna Macy, an ecological philosopher. She worked for the CIA in Germany, then went to India with her husband who was heading the new Peace Corps program there.

Today in her 80’s she is known as a Buddhist scholar and Rilke translator. In this video she talks about uncertainty.

I was intrigued by several connections and listened to most of the hour.

I read Rainer Maria Rilke in German in college. The Peace Corps connection drew me in. Her work with Tibetan refugees interested me.

Early on in the interview she told Krista that she had grown up as a liberal Protestant. When she was 16, she had a “conversion” experience where she felt called to dedicate her life to God. But when she was 20, (she’s now in her ’80’s) and learned about exclusion and other unpleasantness in church history, she turned away from her religion.

Rainer Maria Rilke, German poet

Rainer Maria Rilke, German poet

She talked about finding a book of Rilke’s poetry in a bookstore in Germany a few years after that. She opened it and read, “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Kreisen, I live my life in widening circles.

The eight-line poem ends with something like, “I may not complete this last one, but I give myself to it.”

She said the poem led her to reawaken her religious yearnings and eventually to Buddhism.

Her Story and Mine

Her story reminded me of my own. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church. At 16 our minister took us to hear Billy Graham. I remember so clearly feeling called and even going to the front to receive what? his blessing?

Like Macy, I didn’t consider ministry seriously, though I did for a few minutes!

But during college, I turned away from the religion I’d known.

I went back to Christianity because my husband-to-be took me along to his Anglican Church in Lagos. We were married by Rev. Payne, the minister. I started the Sunday School with my friend Jean Obi.

Eventually I could no longer say the Apostles’ Creed. As our children went away to boarding school, we stopped attending.

Back in the U.S. I happened on the Unitarian Church and found my spiritual home. Having no creed works for me. Clem comes often, but misses the Anglican Church. He attends our local Episcopal Church from time to time to feed his spirit and love of ritual.