Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Early challenges

From Chapter 1: Africa Unveiled

“Wake up. We’re in Africa.” I nudged my companion Art and leaned over him to look through the plane’s window. “Wake up. You have to see the sunrise.” The vivid red, yellow, and orange were startling.

I descended the steps onto the tarmac. I felt like I’d walked into a wall of heat and humidity. I pulled off my sweater as I approached the shabby, single-story, cinder-block terminal—the Lagos International Airport.

. . .

Palm trees lined the road leading out of the airport. I could have been in Los Angeles, where I’d completed my Peace Corps training two weeks earlier. But when the bus turned onto a main thoroughfare and the trees were replaced by open gutters, which I saw and smelled at the same moment, I could no longer mistake the scene for Southern California.

Some men were in long white robes and skullcaps; others were in open shirts or dashikis. Women wore wrappers and head ties in bright blues, greens, and reds. Several had babies tied on their backs, a few had bundles on their heads, and some had both. It was just like I’d seen in pictures, but it was real, jubilant, and exciting.

And the noise matched the color, with loud voices in Yoruba, English, and other languages. I forgot my tiredness as I absorbed the shouts and laughter that poured into the bus.

I began noticing the ads, not just huge billboards but smaller signs—many handmade—that hung or stood outside houses and along the street, promoting the services of carpenters, dressmakers, tailors, and electricians. “Sew your wedding dress here,” I saw. I spotted, “Consult the herbalist to solve your problem with gonorrhea!”

Then we were on Carter Bridge, the only link from the mainland to Lagos Island, the heart of the city. We were surrounded by bicycles, many battered and worn. Across the bridge, there were more people, more and larger buildings, and all more closely crowded together. Our Peace Corps handler pointed out the Lagos Central Mosque, an impressive concrete structure that dominated a stretch of the left side of the road, with Arabic designs painted on the reddish-brown walls. Its four minarets, tall spires with onion-shaped crowns, stood out.

In another few minutes, the bus stopped in front of a drab, three-story block of apartments. My training roommate, Mary, and I were given a minimally furnished room to share. The whole building smelled of wet cement.

A few hours later, the other volunteers and I were escorted to dinner at the nearby Federal Palace Hotel. Sitting in the lobby’s plush armchair with a cool drink in my hand, I laughed at the absurdity. “This is Africa?” I said to Art.

We were ushered into the dining room and seated at tables for eight with white linen tablecloths and napkins, silverware, and glassware. The waiters, well-mannered and attentive in their white coats, didn’t seem like real Africans. I could still have been in New York.

But the salad made me hesitate. Peace Corps trainers had stressed that I must not eat untreated vegetables. If not cooked, then all vegetables, including salad greens and tomatoes, should be soaked in Milton or another antiseptic solution to kill the bacteria. I glanced across to the Peace Corps director at the next table. He was eating it—it must be safe.

Then came the main course—steak and potatoes—with nothing African about it. I was disappointed but hungry. I had a few bites left when I paused to speak to Mary. The waiter was clearing others’ plates when he leaned deferentially over me and said, “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking how kind he was to be concerned about my health. He promptly took my plate away.

As I watched my last morsels of dinner disappear, I heard the Peace Corps director laughing. He’d seen my chagrin. “Didn’t your training instructors tell you that ‘Are you all right?’ means ‘Are you finished eating?’” he said.

I fell asleep thinking about the contrast between the boisterous crowds I’d seen on the streets and the sophisticated hotel dining room. I didn’t yet know that this was a realistic foretaste of the two worlds of a developing country.


  1. Remember “Wonderful!” meaning “Terrible!” ? I heard the nurse say “Wonderful!” in the middle of the night in my hospital room after my appendectomy in Enugu when she came in to check on me only to discover that the IV had come out of my hand, and there was blood all over the sheets!

    • I remember that use of ‘wonderful’ well. Somehow I’ve not thought of it as especially Nigerian. Is it not used here in the U.S.?

      • Hello Catherine. I believe the use of the word “wonderful” in this context is similar to the use of the word “great” with consternation and/or chagrin or “give me a break”. I went to Nigeria in 1973 with my family and spent 16 years in Lagos. My stepmom is African American and lived in Lagos for 4 years and rural Bendel/Delta State for 35 years. Found your website through Chimamanda’s facebook piece on your new book. Congratulations on the book and I look forward to reading it as we have shared similar Nigerian experiences.

  2. Pingback: Three Approaches for Social Change | Catherine Onyemelukwe

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