Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

Denny Davidoff, an Influence on My Life


Denise Davidoff’s Memorial Service

Denny speaking at the UUA General Assembly 2017

Denny speaking at the UUA General Assembly 2017, from UU World Magazine.

The Memorial Service for Denise Davidoff was perfectly suited to an amazing woman.

Denny influenced thousands of people through her work at the Unitarian Universalist Association, Meadville Lombard Seminary, the Interfaith Alliance, the Workplace, and many more! She influenced me too. Her obituary is here.

The qualities that people spoke about most were her fierce dedication to social justice, her ability to mentor others, and her perseverance.

Speakers recounted numerous stories that revealed her wit, wisdom, and willingness to throw herself into a fight for what was right and just.

Bill Mitchell described Denny as a mentor and friend.

Bill Mitchell described Denny as a mentor and friend.

True to her character of being well prepared, Denny had planned much of the service months ago with her dear friend Olivia.

Bill Mitchell, of Mitchells clothing stores, was the first to present a eulogy. He knew her decades ago, he said, when she ran her own ad agency. His company hired her to assist with a successful campaign. Eventually she joined their advisory board. “She was my mentor,” he said.

Dr. Leon Spencer, a Black leader in the UUA fight for racial justice, spoke about Denny’s role. “She knew how to be an ally,” he said.

Dr. Leon Spencer called Denny a wise ally.

Dr. Leon Spencer called Denny a wise ally.

Abhimanyu Janamanchi, listed in the order of service as “a dear young friend of Denny’s,” recounted Denny’s encouragement that led him to leadership in UUA youth activities.

Denny’s Influence on Me

I first came to the Unitarian Church because of Denny. It was the summer of 1994. We had moved to Westport nearly a year earlier.

I saw a notice in the local paper that there was to be a talk, “The Liberal Response to the Religious Right.” Not even considering this would be a church service (the Sunday morning timing should have been a clue!) I went! Denny was the speaker.

I was thrilled to find that there was a church where I did not have to say things I did not believe. I became a member that year, joined the choir, and soon became involved in social justice work. That year I was asked to chair the Endowment Committee.

A few years later Denny recommended me to the board of the Unitarian Universalist Women’s Federation. I later joined the board of the Unitarian-Universalist United Nations Office. I have found a spiritual home at the church, where I am now treasurer! All because of her talk in 1994!

Maybe I would have found the church in some other way. But she was the entry point and inspiration.

Palm wine in a glass and in a calabash bowl

Palm wine in a glass and in a calabash bowl

The Palm Wine Tapper

My husband complained about the too-brief mention of the palm wine tapper in my most recent post. “You should have explained more about him,” he said. “You should have told how you first met a palm wine tapper and how you served palm wine to your guests in your Peace Corps flat!”

He has a good point. So here you are with the first part! Serving palm wine to a particular guest comes next time!

I first met a palm wine tapper outside my flat in Ikoyi, Lagos. One afternoon early in my stay I was looking out the window of my second floor apartment. I spotted him near the top of the tree. I ran down immediately to buy palm wine from him, having learned about the drink, but never tasted it, during Peace Corps training.

Palm wine tapper ascending the tree

Palm wine tapper ascending the tree

Palm wine tappers in those days in Lagos always rode battered black bicycles. His bicycle was leaning against the palm tree. It had several calabashes hanging on rubber ties around the bike. “I want to buy palm wine,” I said.

“You have to bring an empty bottle,” he conveyed in words and signs. I raced back upstairs and returned with an empty squash bottle. (Squash? I can see some of you saying. It’s a fruit-flavored drink popular in Nigeria then.)

He filled my bottle with palm wine fresh from the tree. I drank it over the next few days. When fresh, it is non-alcoholic, but once exposed to air, it ferments. The fermentation is slowed if you keep it in the fridge, which I did.

The bottle collects the sap which is the palm wine

The bottle collects the sap which is the palm wine

He had just one tree in our compound. But he had other trees. Occasionally I saw him elsewhere in Ikoyi.

To get the palm wine he has to ascend the tree and place his calabash or bottle to collect the sap. He hooks a heavy rope around the tree, fastens it behind his back, and uses it to balance and pull himself up.

To my surprise when I was looking for pictures for  you and my class at Fairfield Bigelow Center, I found an article from The New York Times in 1976, “Palm Wine Tappers Give Nigeria The Beverage That Cures All Ills.” I included a link last time; here it is again.

I read a little of the article to my class today. I’m including a couple of pictures I showed.

If any of you (former Peace Corps volunteers or others ) have photos of palm wine tappers that you would be willing to share, I’d be very grateful if you would send them to me. I’d like to include one or two in my forthcoming book, with full credit of course!

North East Development Commission

The Council on Foreign Relations had a guest blogger today. He wrote about an agreement to undertake major initiatives in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram has caused the most destruction and disruption.

The writer presented the plans for assistance. He described several groups and how they need to work together. But he did not say if he is hopeful. I would have liked his opinion!

Author: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, blogger, speaker. Born in New York, grew up in mid west United States, lived in Nigeria for 24 years, back in U.S. since 1986. Advocate for racial justice.

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