Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

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.

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!

February 14, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Happy Valentine’s Day

Happy Valentine’s Day

White Privilege – More Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bill Buckley photo from Dan Woog's blog 06880

Bill Buckley photo from Dan Woog’s blog 06880

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

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

Memorial Service for Bill Buckley

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

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

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

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

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

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

Judy dancing with her daughter

Judy dancing with her daughter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living in Community

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

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

Boko Haram News

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tiny Chip to Diagnose Disease?

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

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

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

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

February 10, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Damage from Boko Haram

Damage from Boko Haram

Combating Boko Haram’s Influence

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

Adaobi Tricia Uwaubani, from Goodreads

Adaobi Tricia Uwaubani, novelist and reporter, photo from Goodreads

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Devastation Caused by Boko Haram

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Media on White Privilege Essay Contest

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

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

Memorial for Husband of TEAM Colleague

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

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

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

The books in Jen's giveaway

The books in Jen’s giveaway

Valentine’s Day Book Giveaway

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

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

February 6, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

More on White Privilege

White Privilege: The Conversation Continues 

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

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

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

A reminder of the contest invitation:

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

Harold Bailey, Chair of TEAM Westport

Harold Bailey, Chair of TEAM Westport

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

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

Is the Phrase ‘White Privilege’ Leading?

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

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

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

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

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

Hidden Figures Shines a Light on Race

Hidden Figures: book, Actors Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner

Hidden Figures: book, Actors Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner

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

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

President Buhari in England

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

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

Igbo People at Risk from Fulani Herdsmen?

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

President-General of Ohanaeze, Nwodo

President-General of Ohanaeze, Nwodo

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can see Ghana Must Go bags at Alibaba.

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