Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

July 28, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

UNICEF Broadcasts School Over the Radio

School Over the Radio

Children who are in refugee camps and conflict areas often have no opportunity for education. But for some there is a unique chance for school over the radio! “Tens of thousands of children across the Lake Chad region are instead tuning into lessons broadcast over the radio, the United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) said.”

Photo from a Greek paper. I don't know if they are listening to the radio!

Photo from a Greek paper. I don’t know if they are listening to the radio, but I was struck by their bags.

UNICEF is working with local leaders to share radios and gather the children who take part in school over the radio. Kieran Guilbert who wrote the article says more than 200,000 young people are participating. Although the program is in Cameroon and Niger, there are probably children from Nigeria who are in the camps and able to take part.

The program is designed not only for literacy and numeracy but to help the children stay safe. School over the radio broadcasts are in French and local languages. The Nigerian children may not know French but would know the local tongues.

Thomson Reuters Foundation asks to be credited. They are “the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience.”

Thank you, Thomson Reuters.

Is There a Downside of Aid?

Maiduguri in the far northeastern corner of Nigeria has been in the news. For most of the past decade it was known as the headquarters of Boko Haram. Now most of the Boko Haram fighters have been driven out.

The market is active again. But the appearance of prosperity is deceptive, the author of an article in ArabNews says.

Maiduguri is in the northeastern corner of Nigeria near Lake Chad

Maiduguri is in the northeastern corner of Nigeria near Lake Chad

The city was for centuries the hub of trade between the Sahel to the north and the rest of West and Central Africa to the south and southwest. Today the population has doubled with people from surrounding areas seeking safety. Many of these people are hoping to go back to their farms nearby. They usually do not have money to spend in the market.

The article says, “According to the UN, nearly 2 million people in the northeast region are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition and 5.5 million are in need of food aid.” Since mid-2016 when, “The international community belatedly realized the scale of the humanitarian crisis in northeast Nigeria,” food distribution is one of the major economic activities.

“Huge gleaming white 4×4 vehicles belonging to aid agencies ply the roads,” the writer says.

A few people have prospered. Hotels have raised their prices and are fully booked.

“ ‘I can tell you we make money,’ laughed Ali Garba Bashehu, the head of Dolphin, one of the few estate agents in Maiduguri. Property owners, who fled Maiduguri in their droves, thinking the city would fall to the insurgents, sold their houses for next to nothing. The same properties are now rented out for a fortune.”

My “Duh” Moment

Nkiru at the beach last Saturday

Nkiru at the beach last Saturday

I clearly remember the first time I heard the expression “Duh!” It was several years ago, from our dear granddaughter Nkiru who turns 18 tomorrow!

Nkiru's older brother Kenechi and his girlfriend Mary at the beach

Nkiru’s older brother Kenechi and his girlfriend Mary at the beach

This morning I was glancing at my phone when I saw a quick headline from The Economist saying, “A study suggests that black Americans are unfairly fined by police.”

I was surprised and “duh” just slipped out! I thought by now most people who would read The Economist would already know this. After all, one can find this out just by asking most any person of color.

Still, a study is good. It can provide the basis for legal challenges at some point.

I’ll give you the link, but you probably can’t read the article unless you’re a subscriber. So here’s part of what it said.

After a white policeman shot and killed an unarmed Black teen in Ferguson, there was outrage. But the policeman was not convicted of a crime.

The article says, “better-disguised forms of inequality soon came to light as well. In March 2015 the [Department of Justice] published a report on law enforcement in the city, which found that Ferguson’s criminal-justice system seemed to focus more on generating income for the government than on ensuring public safety. . . Moreover, black residents paid a far greater portion of these expenses than either their share of the population or their share of total crimes committed in Ferguson would indicate. The investigators concluded that the police had displayed ‘unlawful bias’ against blacks.

“Reseachers began to look at other cities and found similar results.

“A new paper by Michael Sances of the University of Memphis and Hye Young You of Vanderbilt University published this month in the Journal of Politics found that Ferguson was indeed more of a rule than an exception. After examining data on 9,000 American cities, they found that those with more black residents consistently collected unusually high amounts of fines and fees—even after controlling for differences in income, education and crime levels.”

I headed right over to the TEAM Westport blog and posted a brief note about the article. You can also find other articles posted by TEAM Westport members and friends at the link.

This was for me a real “Duh” moment. What do you think?

Albino deer in Westport

Albino deer in Westport

Is Westport Too White?

Our town of Westport is predominately white.

Now there are even white deer. “An albino deer and two offspring were spotted Thursday near Westport’s Old Hill Farms Road,” WestportNow said.

The photo is from Anna Diorio for

A humpback from the Maritime Aquarium website

A photo of a humpback from the Maritime Aquarium website

WestportNow also has two videos of a humpback whale spotted off our beach.

And the article I found on the Maritime Aquarium website about humpbacks even has today’s sighting.

Someone is on the job!

July 24, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
1 Comment

Mother of the Bride

Mother of the Bride

My friend and blog reader J. wrote with a question. Her daughter is getting married in Nigeria to a Nigerian man.

J. was also a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria and married a Nigerian. But instead of living in Nigeria as I did, she and her husband lived in the U.S. where their children grew up. We met them a few years ago at a Peace Corps reunion.

She said, “What do I need to know to be mother of the bride?”

My husband says, “Tell her to have fun! She should relax and enjoy herself.”

I agree. And I’m sure she will.

But I want to tell her about two customs she will probably encounter.

First is the sharing of palm wine. And I’ll explain it with my own story. Although Clem and I did this before our wedding, nowadays it is often done at the reception.

My husband's send-off party 1952

My husband’s send-off party 1952, long before we met. Clem near center, next to his father.

The Palm-Wine Ceremony

When Clement and I visited his parents a month before our wedding, his father insisted on my signifying my agreement to marry his son.

Papa, as I already called my future father-in-law, asked me to take a cup of palm wine. He said I should kneel in front of Clement, my husband-to-be, sip the palm wine, and pass the cup to him. I hesitated, not keen to kneel in front of any man!

But I did as asked. I took the cup, rose from my seat and knelt in front of Clem. I took my one sip, held the cup out to him, and observed him while he polished off the remainder of the drink.

He looked a little sheepish. Though he had grown up in Igbo villages and towns, he was not much more familiar with Igbo marriage customs than I was. When he had left for England at the age of 22, his friends had not yet started marrying. He’d returned just a year before I came to Nigeria, and hadn’t been asked to accompany friends to wine-carrying ceremonies or traditional weddings where palm wine is an integral part of sealing the pact between families. We were learning together.

Palm wine in the traditional bowl and a modern glass

Palm wine in the traditional bowl and a modern glass

Acceptance of My Husband

He returned the cup to me. I rose and gave it back to Papa who had the biggest smile on his face that I had ever seen. When I saw how much pleasure my simple act had given him, I was happy that I had obeyed without his noticing my brief reluctance.

It wasn’t difficult to see what it was it was supposed to mean – I was accepting Clem as my husband and master, and I would serve him.

Forget about the master part, I thought, but yes, I was certainly accepting him as my husband. I expected to be in charge of the kitchen and servants, planning meals and supervising their preparation, so I figured that could count as serving him.

I knew Papa was disappointed that he couldn’t meet my parents before the wedding which would take place in Lagos a month later.

An Igbo marriage is between two families, not just two people. Traditionally there is a series of meetings, not just a one day or one afternoon event. Yet Papa had only me and only this day before the formal wedding in Lagos.

He was making do with the palm wine ceremony, a symbol that the families are joined.

I have sees this ceremony twice recently at wedding receptions. I suspect that’s what my friend’s daughter and husband-to-be will choose to do too.

Usually there is an added twist. The bride has to search for her groom among the wedding guests who try to conceal him, leading to lots of shouting and laughter.

This as an Igbo custom, but I know it is practiced in nearby areas too. It was done when our son married an Urhobo woman.

Dancing and Spraying

My friend should also be prepared for dancing. This song was popular at weddings a few years ago. It has a great beat.

There will be the formal bride’s dance with her most senior male relative. But there may also be dancing by the women of the groom’s family.

She herself, the bride’s mother, will certainly be invited to dance with her daughter, with the groom, and with others.

The bride herself and her mother will be honored with gifts of money. The money comes in the form of “spraying.”

Guests and family members will throw money or stick money to their foreheads. Someone will follow them around to collect the money and give it to them when the dance is done!

Recent Wedding in the U.S. 

In the Sunday Style Section of The New York Times there is usually one wedding featured. Two weeks ago it was an American woman who married a Nigerian man.

The story was charming. The couple is working hard to “forge a modern relationship using their own rules,” the writer said.

Australian Woman Shot in Minneapolis

An Australian (white) woman was shot and killed by a police officer in Minneapolis.

An article in VOX online put into words what I had thought. We respond differently when a white woman is killed by police than when a Black man is killed by police.

“The difference in reaction is alarming. But it’s not unexpected,” the article says. “The research suggests much of America really does react differently to tragedies involving white victims than black ones. We are seeing that play out in real time in the response to Damond’s death.”

July 20, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Summertime and Compo Beach is Calling

Summertime and Compo Beach is Calling

Beach Party in Westport 06880

Dan Woog writes a blog called 06880. It’s all about the town and people of Westport. Whatever he writes must have a Westport connection. Compo Beach is a major feature of Westport.

Watching the sunset from Compo Beach

Watching the sunset from Compo Beach

For the past few years Dan has announced a party at Compo Beach for his blog readers, which must be half the people in town. He names a date and invites everyone to come. You bring your own food and drink. It doesn’t require an RSVP; you just show up.

I had put the date and time on my calendar, but wasn’t sure if I’d go.

This afternoon my friend Eileen called to see if I’d like to go to the Compo Beach party with her. I was delighted to say yes. Clem does not particularly enjoy the “meet and greet,” but I do. I know more people than Eileen. So I could introduce her to several friends.

Eileen brought bruschetta and wine. I had made a delicious pasta & zucchini dish with ricotta a couple of nights ago. I took that. We set up our beach chairs, had dinner, caught up with each other’s news, and took pictures.

The weather was perfect. The temperature had cooled to probably 80 degrees. Rain threatened but held off. The sunset at Compo Beach was gorgeous. So glad we went!

Does Africa Have ‘Civilizational’ Problems?

Remi Adekoya is a Polish-Nigerian journalist, commentator, and political analyst. He wrote a great piece in the FP (Foreign Policy) online magazine referring to comments by French President Macron. He asks,

Is It Racist to Say Africa Has ‘Civilizational’ Problems?

At the G20, “Macron pointed to three major challenges facing the [African] continent today: demography, democracy, and failing states,” the writer says. There was an outcry at the term ‘Civilizational,’ but he says Macron is right.

Denying the truth will not solve Africa’s problems. He says even though Macron exaggerated in the numbers of children born to African women, the basic truths are there for all to see. Adekoya says, “the continent’s generally high fertility rates need to be addressed frankly and urgently.”

French President Macron

French President Macron

Macron’s point about “failing states” is also borne out by the facts, the writer says. “According to the 2017 Fragile States Index, 14 of the 20 most fragile countries in the world are in Africa: Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Zimbabwe.”

Decent governance is by no means assured in any of these countries. I believe people who know Africa well will not argue with these conclusions.

Could Macron have used more diplomatic language? Probably. Would it change the reality? Non!

Do We Know Our History?

I get regular emails from Atlanta Black Star. In the email I receive, the online journal declares its point of view: “Atlanta Black Star is a narrative company.  We publish narratives intentionally and specifically to enlighten and transform the world.”

Last week they published a story on America’s history and our lack of knowledge about it. The author of the article, D. Amari Jackson, says, “A 2012 [American Council of Trustees and Alumni] ACTA survey found that less than 20 percent of college graduates could identify the effect of the Emancipation Proclamation. A 2015 survey revealed more than one-third could not place the Civil War within the correct 20-year time frame.

“Such widespread historical ignorance is problematic for a nation currently grappling with deeply entrenched issues of economics, power and race,” she says.

The lack of knowledge is frightening. But there’s so much more that many of us don’t know or don’t think about. She cites Gerald Horne, the John J. and Rebecca Moores Chair of History and African American Studies at the University of Houston, who says, “America began as a slaveholder’s republic.”

According to Horne, the American Revolution was fought because the slaveholders wanted to maintain their slaves, not for some lofty principle of freedom. The colonists also wanted to continue the practice of dispossessing Native Americans of their land. They feared Britain would halt that.

He believes that today, “the exoneration of police officers who kill us [Blacks] on a regular basis tends to show” that the Constitution does not really pertain to everyone. There is a “disconnect between the official stated policy of nondiscrimination and what’s actually happening to Black people in the streets.”

Harsh words! I find truth in the article. What do you think?

Girl Power in Nigeria

Malala with Rebecca. Her daughter Sarah is still missing.

Malala with Rebecca. Her daughter Sarah is still missing.

“Nobel Peace laureate Malala Yousafzai was greeted with cheers by dozens of young women in northeastern Nigeria, where she spoke out for the many girls abducted under Boko Haram’s deadly insurgency.”

USA Today had the story. The report of the visit on BBC had this photo of Malala with Rebecca, the mother of one of the kidnapped girls.

“Yousafzai also met Monday with acting President Yemi Osinbajo, speaking up for the more than 10 million children displaced by Boko Haram and pressing for the declaration of a state of emergency for education in Nigeria.”

Interesting that the report now used her last name instead of the more familiar Malala in references. She’s now 20, so maybe the media decided to upgrade her!

July 16, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Climate Change Effects on Nigeria

The New York Times “Race-Related”

I follow The New York Times “Race-Related” series. The stories provide wonderful and useful reflections on Black life in the U.S.

Award-winning director and producer Stanley Nelson

Award-winning director and producer Stanley Nelson

The most recent said, “Our correspondents Rachel Swarns and John Eligon were joined this week by the Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson. They discussed whether some beach and waterfront communities have become havens for African-Americans, who’ve been excluded from white resorts for generations.” [Watch]

Stanley Nelson says, “Successful Black people in our society spend a good part of their time where they’re the only person of color in a room. You have to put on this armor.”

He says you get used to it. But it’s wonderful to take off the armor and be in the midst of a group where you do not stand out.

To walk into a bar, or onto the beach, and be surrounded by people who look like you, is an experience those of us who are white have all the time. Not so for people of color in the U.S.

Climate Change in Nigeria 

Former Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell participated in a roundtable discussion hosted by the United States House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology recently.

Former Ambassador John Campbell, now at Council on Foreign Relations

Former Ambassador John Campbell, now at Council on Foreign Relations

He said, “Climate change certainly has direct implications for the security of the United States.

“But, we Americans must also be concerned about the security of our close diplomatic partners. If our partners’ security is undermined, so too is our own, even if only indirectly.”

He then turns to the country he knows well. He says, “I would like to look at Nigeria as a case study, where climate change is already having a negative impact on the security of a close partner of the United States.”

First he recounts Nigeria’s importance to the U.S. It has a rapidly growing population, it has oil, and it is the largest economy (by common measures) in Africa. He applauds the country’s 2015 democratic election and its participation in the UN and other peacekeeping missions.

He reminds participants that Nigeria was a founder of the African Union.

Climate Change Impact on Nigeria

Then he discusses two factors, desertification and rising sea levels. Both are already having major impacts.

“Desertification is promoting economic and social instability in northern Nigeria,” he says. It has decreased the amount of arable land. This forces herdsmen and farmers to move south, infringing on the farming areas of others, leading to conflict.

Lake Chad changes, compiled from NASA satellite images. As you can guess, the blue is water.

Lake Chad changes, compiled from NASA satellite images. As you can guess, the blue is water.

Lake Chad was a vital source of fresh water but it has declined dramatically in size. Fishing has lost much of its economic viability. Water for irrigation is scarce.

“Pervasive violence and deepening poverty encourage the rise of radical religious groups,” he says. Boko Haram is the prime example.

There is also the issue of rising sea levels. “Because of global warming, sea levels around the world are likely to rise by more than thirty inches by the end of the century. Africa, the Gulf of Guinea in particular, is expected to be especially hard hit.”

He says 70 million people a year could be affected by 2080.

Flooding has already devastated areas in 32 of Nigeria’s 36 states, he points out. It will become worse. Much of Lagos is near sea-level and will be threatened.

“Consideration of the social and political consequences of climate change are often based on future projections. In the case of Nigeria, however, the effects of climate change are already visible,” he concludes.

I strongly recommend the article. Tell me what you think.

My Husband’s Days as a Cub Scout

I’m getting closer to finishing the second book. Still not sure of a title, or exactly what the final chapters will be. But I have over 60,000 words that I like. Much of that has been edited.

Yesterday I was writing about my husband’s time in the Scouts.

From Pinterest. Similar to Clem's Cub uniform, though later.

From Pinterest. Similar to Clem’s Cub uniform, though later.

Clem has spoken fondly of his days as a Cub Scout. His leader was called Akela. When he says the name, I can hear the pleasure it recalls for him!

He was in his final two years of elementary school in Onitsha. The school sponsored the Cub Scout Pack.

Though he was unaware, he was part of a broad mission. The introduction of the Boy Scout movement in Nigeria, I read, “had close connections to ideas of empire, the civilizing mission, and British nationalism.”

The writer says, “. . . the gradual replacement of indigenous institutions created incentives among Yoruba and Igbo boys to support new social organizations. In addition to British interference in local institutions, African elites quickly realized that close associations with the British administration opened new opportunities, and thus scouting functioned as a means to access benefits from the British colonial government that were otherwise unavailable.”

Not only was the scouting movement an opportunity for advancement along with education. It also appealed because the concepts of obedience, earning rewards, sharing common interests, and belonging to a group with children of one’s own age grade, were familiar.

The references are from Paddock A. (2015) “A World of Good to Our Boys”: Boy Scouts in Southern Nigeria, 1934–1951. In: Aderinto S. (eds) Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

Clem’s fondest memories are wearing the Cub Scout uniform – a green shirt, khaki shorts, beret, and neck scarf – playing games, and parading around the school compound.

Our daughter Beth loved her Brownies experience at St. Saviours School in Lagos just as much!

Were you a Scout? Do you remember the experience as happily?

July 12, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Renewable Energy for Power in Nigeria?

Renewable Energy for Africa

Tom Coogan, a fellow alum of the Yale School of Management and Facebook friend, posted a recent photo that intrigued me. He was in Northern Nigeria at the launching of a renewable energy project.

Tom on right. His wife from East Africa is next to him. Project Director is next to her.

Tom on right. His wife from East Africa is next to him. Project Director is next to her.

I found the story about his project on the website of The project uses waste to generate power.

“Dubbed Waste2Watt, this first of its kind renewable energy project in [Nigeria], is generating 20 kilowatts of power, after converting agricultural and communal organic waste into electricity, by use of a biogas digester. The electric power generated is then distributed via a mini-grid to the villagers.”

Fatima Ademoh is the Project Developer. She says the project is providing electricity for 550 families. She hopes to expand to other towns and villages in Nigeria.

And why was Tom visiting the project and sharing the photo? He is Regional Program Director at the African Development Foundation. Their funding helped get the project off the ground.

“For the project to be implemented the United States African Development Foundation provided $100,000 in funding through the Power Africa Off-grid Energy Challenge.” The money was used to build the biodigester that is required to turn the waste into fuel.

Can you see where they are pointing in the photo?

If you would like to see more fascinating stories about renewable energy go to OffGridNigeria.

The Largest City in 2100?

This is the first image in the interactive chart. You'll see the changes if you click on the link.

This is the first image in the interactive chart. You’ll see the changes if you click on the link to the chart.

Professor Vinnie Ferraro at Mount Holyoke College, in his daily blog for students, sent this.

“The Global Cities Institute at the University of Toronto has published a study of urbanization trends in the 21st century. Given current trends, the Institute predicts that in the year 2100 the four largest cities in the world will be: 1) Lagos, Nigeria; 2) Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo; 3) Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; and 4) Mumbai, India. The projections are a dramatic shift away from the historical patterns of urbanization and suggest that global dynamism will be located in Africa.”

The 119-page study is full of statistics. The chart that Vinnie sent, made from the data, is fascinating.

Will Lagos, if it becomes the largest city in the world, still be as chaotic as it is today? Will our grandchildren or great-grandchildren be able to enjoy the global dynamism?

Preserving and Growing Inequality 

David Brooks says that the educated class which includes him, me, and most of his readers, is harmful to the future of our country. He describes some of the structural ways that the “haves” perpetuate the inequality.

“Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution recently published a book called “Dream Hoarders” detailing some of the structural ways the well educated rig the system.

“The most important is residential zoning restrictions. Well-educated people tend to live in places like Portland, New York and San Francisco that have housing and construction rules that keep the poor and less educated away from places with good schools and good job opportunities.”

Barriers like these do not just preserve the inequality, but widen the divisions.

College admissions is the second huge barrier, Brooks says. Upper-middle class parents are able to spend more time with their children, ensure their schools have everything they need, and provide extra support for getting into the most competitive colleges, not to mention those “legacy” admissions.

But, he says, the “informal social barriers that segregate the lower 80 percent” may be even more important.

“American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, ‘You are not welcome here.’”

What are those signifiers? Clearly reading David Brooks’ column is one! I think just reading The New York Times itself counts. So does having the right taste in wine and Pilates, and knowing about “intersectionality,” he says.

I thought his column was very good. He made me think of two instances. The first is where I believe the cultural signs have made me feel included.

One is what I describe in the introduction to my new book. I talk about being comfortable in Westport CT and contrast it with the sense of belonging in my husband’s village. Here’s what I say:

Now I live happily in Westport Connecticut. Here I’ve found my own “tribe.” The people I know best share my liberal and progressive values. Most people don’t look askance at me, a white woman, with my black husband, children, or grandchildren. I can often go to an event in town and find people I know. It takes just a few sentences even with strangers in the town to establish a connection around mutual acquaintances, shared ideas, or common experiences. But even with this feeling of belonging, it will never be “my place” the way Nanka is for its people. I could move away and belong somewhere else.

The second instance is remembering high school and even to some extent college where I felt I was excluded. I was not part of the “in” group.

Do you know what I mean? If you don’t, it may because you were “in.” I recall my surprise when I said something about feeling left out to two high school classmates, both as “in” as you could get! Both said they had no idea what I was talking about!

As for Brooks’ column, one reader said in a comment, “I think this column, in it’s tone and substance, is about as elitist as anything you reference in the editorial.”

What do you think?

In Support of Brooks’ Statements About Elitism?

Why are Wealthy White Communities Forming Their Own School Districts?

July 8, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Biafra Fifty Years Ago and Nigeria Today

Did Biafra Teach Us Anything?

Flag of Biafra - The Rising Sun

Flag of Biafra – The Rising Sun

The Nigerian army entered Biafra on July 6th, 1967. This was just two weeks after our daughter Beth was born in Enugu, Biafra’s capital.

Two months later the Nigerians were bombing Enugu. We ran to our improvised bomb shelter.

When we emerged later, my baby Beth was covered in dirt. That was a deciding point for me. It was time to flee Enugu and go to Clem’s village where I stayed for another year, leaving halfway through the war with our two children.

Has the Country Learned?

Now on the anniversary of the civil war’s beginning, there are two articles. The first is from the Washington Post.

Political map of Nigeria showing all the states

Political map of Nigeria showing all the states

Eromo Egbejule, a Nigerian writer, stresses the need for education about the war.

“We in Nigeria learn nothing because we have refused to address the past squarely and learn from it,” he says. “Consequently, Nigeria is frequently repeating its mistakes, with tragic consequences for its people.”

He also calls on Nigerians to consider the federal nature of the country. Should the country even remain as a single unit with so many states? he asks. He does not recommend dissolving it, simply talking about it.

The government seems afraid to examine the issues of minorities, whether one group of Muslims or one tribe, he says. The agitation today about Biafra needs to be confronted, not ignored.

He writes, “50 years after the civil war, the case of renewed Biafran agitation is still being treated with kid gloves by Nigeria’s government.”

More Encouragement to Learning About Biafra

You have read about the Igbo Conferences – I’ve now been to two. The most recent was to celebrate fifty years since the beginning of the Biafran War.

Two women are the organizers of the conference. Louisa Egbunike is one. She made a 7-minute prize-winning video about her family’s relationship to Biafra. It’s a lovely story.

She was a winner of “New Generation Thinkers, an annual competition run by BBC Radio 3 and the Arts and Humanities Research Council to select researchers at the start of their careers who can turn their fascinating research into stimulating television and radio programmes.”

Nigerian Writers Oppose Ethnic Hate Speech

This statement of concern by Nigerian writers came from Ainehi Edoro’s blog.

Ethnic Hate Speech: Statement from Concerned Nigerian Writers

Boko Haram and Brexit?

New book about Boko Haram by Andrew Walker

New book about Boko Haram by Andrew Walker

Another article from the Washington Post is by Laura Seay.

She writes about a new book by Andrew Walker, called  Eat the Heart of the Infidel: The Harrowing of Nigeria and the Rise of Boko Haram. She calls it “one of the most innovative and readable accounts of Boko Haram’s rise that I’ve come across.”

She interviews the author. Why the history, she asks him.

He tells her, “Boko Haram began in a form of rebellion and state creation that predates colonialism in Nigeria.” He then describes a Fulani Muslim cleric that I talk about in my classes on Nigerian history.

Usman dan Fodio, Fulani Muslim cleric

Usman dan Fodio, Fulani Muslim cleric

Usman dan Fodio was a charismatic preacher in the early 1800’s in what is today Northern Nigeria. He and his followers believed the rulers had become too much in love with worldly things. They overthrew the Hausa leaders and established their own caliphate.

In my class, I remark on the similarity between his story and Boko Haram.

The author found the same. As he researched his book, he says, “I found Boko Haram’s language and violence, their impulses and strategies, which seemed so arcane to observers today, had deep and powerful roots.”

Boko Haram Attracts People With Grievances

How does the author see a connection between Boko Haram and Brexit?

He says that with the financial crisis in 2008 Western governments have provided less for their citizens. And both governments and individuals have begun to believe the problems are intractable. So people begin to question institutions and the bonds between individuals.

“As the intangible and often unspoken or unwritten assumptions that hold our polity together are questioned, ignored or dropped, satisfactory reform may become more difficult,” he told the author.

He concludes that, “One’s approach to Brexit, for example, is not conditioned by facts, but ideas about who you are and what you deserve from the national cake; that’s the basis of just about every conflict in places like Nigeria today.”

Sam with daughter Teya who is 8, and son Bruche, who is 6.

Sam with daughter Teya who is 8, and son Bruche, who is 6.

He suggests we should not assume we have all passed the “post-colonial” stage that affects countries like Nigeria. Maybe we are all in that stage, he says, thinking about our ethnic identity and what is owed to us, rather than how to advance the common good.

4th of July Celebrations and Family

Our younger son Sam was with us for a week that included the 4th of July. Before that he was with his family in California where Onome is completing a Master’s Degree in Human Resources Management.

We went to Philadelphia to celebrate the holiday.

Birthday cake for the Garners

Birthday cake for the Garners

We also celebrated all five birthdays in our daughter’s family. They run from June 3 to July 29!

Grandson Kenechi’s is the 4th. But he was not even home. As my daughter says, he’s flown from the nest. He moved to New York! We called to wish him a happy birthday.

In Philadelphia with son-in-law Kelvin, husband Clem, son Sam, and daughter Beth

In Philadelphia with son-in-law Kelvin, husband Clem, son Sam, and daughter Beth

Did you watch fireworks?Grill ribs like Kelvin did for us?

Celebrate the 4th in another way?

June 30, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Race, White Privilege, and Debt

Race, White Privilege, and Debt

Race, White Privilege, and Debt

I’ve written several times about my two book groups and my group of “Sister Grandmas.” All three are educational and entertaining, valuable sources of intellectual stimulation and social interaction.

Sometimes a member of a group sends a link to an article she found especially interesting. This time it was Barbara J. She said, “When I told my sister about our White Privilege essay topic, she sent me this article. Worth reading.”

During the next 48 hours Judy, Nancy, Fay, Elizabeth, and Sonja read the article and commented.

  • “Amazing – food for thought and for circulation.”
  • “Thought provoking.”
  • “I’ve never read a more examined treatise on white privilege, very complicated to unpack.”
  • “Worth a second reading.”
  • “I will be sharing this.”
Eula Biss, author of "White Debt"

Eula Biss, author of “White Debt”

I remembered the article, called White Debt, by Eula Biss from two years ago. I wrote about it here. At that time I was just beginning to think about my second book on community.

My book is nearly done. I write about the strong sense of community in an African village where everyone feel a sense of belonging. People face hardships together, support each other, and care for those in need. Through stories of people in my husband’s family I explain how this sense is fostered.

Forgotten White Debt

Biss, who is white, captures the disparity between the races beautifully as she describes her experience of getting a mortgage. “While I was in the bank signing the paperwork that would allow me to spend money I hadn’t yet earned, I thought of Eddie Murphy’s skit in which he goes undercover as a white person and discovers that white people at banks give away money to other white people free.

“It’s true, I thought to myself in awe when I saw the ease with which I was granted a [second] loan.

“After the more than 200 years of using free labor to build wealth, those of us with privilege have continued to benefit. At the same time those who had nothing at the time of emancipation, the freed slaves, have found it more difficult to build any wealth.”

A “forgotten debt” is what she calls this privilege that white people have.

Building community through storytelling by moonlight in the village

Building community through storytelling by moonlight in the village

As I think about her words, I realize how different an Igbo village is. Although there is a hierarchy, it is based on wealth. Anyone can aspire to achieve it. Traditionally wealth was measured by how many cows and wives one had. Today it is based on money.

The advantages the wealthy have are what money can buy. But even then, the ties of community bind the wealthy to the rest of the clan and village.

There is just one group of people who are harmed by historical status. These are the osu who were once slaves. Their descendants carry the stigma for generations.

There are now laws prohibiting discrimination against osu. And many have become successful in business and politics.

Even they do not face the systemic barriers that confront Black people in this country.


I said last time I would tell you about the Igbo tradition of ogbanje.

From Wikimedia, Igbo medicine man, or Dibia

From Wikimedia, Igbo medicine man, or Dibia

An ogbanje is a child who dies and returns in the body of another child, often only to die and return again. The ogbanje is able to come back because he or she is said to have hidden an object, a charm, which allows the return.

My parents-in-law had four children. The fifth, a boy, died as a toddler. My husband remembers that after this death, his father brought a Dibia to examine the children to guard against further deaths.

“Hold out your hands,” the Dibia told the children, lined up in front of their uncle Ejike’s obi. “Show me your palms.”

Clem was the oldest. The Dibia grasped his trembling hands and traced lines with his forefinger. After a minute that felt to the child like a day, he dropped the hands. “You can go,” he said. Clement rushed to his mother’s side.

Clem's mother, perhaps 1950's, after completing her family

Clem’s mother, perhaps 1950’s, after completing her family

The next child was Godwin. The Dibia lifted the child’s hands close to his face. After just a few seconds he shouted, “This child is full of wickedness.”

The Dibia pulled Godwin by the ear. “Tell us where you have hidden your charm,” he said.

“I didn’t hide anything,” Godwin said between tears.

“You must confess. If we don’t find it we will beat you.”

Godwin gestured toward a spot near the yam barn. At the direction of the Dibia, Papa fetched a shovel and handed it to his wife, while he used a machete to loosen the dirt.

After forty-five minutes, Mama held up a crescent-shaped stone. “Godwin played with this when we came to the village for Christmas,” she said. “I asked him where he had put it and he wouldn’t tell me.”

“Do you remember?” she said to her second son. He had stopped sobbing.

He took the stone. “I liked the shape. It reminded me of the biscuits they gave us at church.”

“Give it to me,” the Dibia said. He held it up and prayed to the ancestors to remove the curse, then put it in his tattered leather satchel.

“I will crush the stone. You will not be disturbed again,” he said. Mama cried with relief as she watched him depart.

“We were all frightened, on pins and needles, when Geoffrey was born. Until he was 3, we weren’t sure he was going to survive,” Clem says, concluding the ogbanje tale.

And indeed, Geoffrey and two more healthy children completed the family.

June 26, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

My Own Implicit Bias

Implicit Bias at Work

Mosaic made by my sister-in-law Mary.

I love this mosaic made by my sister-in-law Mary.

I hear people say implicit bias is not real. I disagree. It is real, pervasive, and harmful. It affects the actions of police and juries. The NYTimes had an excellent op-ed on the topic.

I experienced my own implicit bias at work twice in the last few days (and probably more times that I didn’t see).

The first was at the African Literature Association Saturday Event with Nigerian author Okey Ndibe. Before I get to the bias, I’ll tell you about the talk.

Okey came to the U.S. to edit Chinua Achebe’s literary journal. He could not get sufficient funding. The journal folded.

The writer John E. Wideman had been on the board of the journal. He was a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where Okey lived. When Okey was unsure how to proceed after the journal closed, Wideman said, “You’re writing a novel, right?”

Without much thought and because he thought he should, Okey said, “Yes.” Wideman asked to see a draft. “If it’s good, I can get you into the writers’ program at UMass.”

After days of frantic writing, Okey sent a draft. He did get in. And he has become a successful novelist and memoirist.

“The moral of the story?” he said. “Lie!” It worked for him.

I was fascinated when Okey said his next novel will involve “Ogbanje.” I’m writing about this in my second book. Stay tuned. I’ll tell you more next time.

Ikenna Achilihu at ALA Saturday event. He showed me my implicit bias at work!

Ikenna Achilihu at ALA Saturday event. He showed me my implicit bias at work!

And My Implicit Bias?

Sitting near me was a casually dressed tall young Black man. I wondered how he happened to be at the event.

At question time he said, “How are you different today from being in America? I see your ‘Nigerian-ness’ shining through, so what has changed?”

A great question! And a surprise to me. I had assumed the man would not ask a question. I was ashamed of myself!

I spoke to him afterwards. His parents are Igbo, he speaks some, but not our dialect. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone. He is now at the Yale School of Pubic Health.

Implicit Bias, Round Two!

On Sunday afternoon the doorbell rang. I looked out the window and saw a young Black man with a clipboard. I guessed he was from an environmental group, canvassing as my son had done in Westport about 20 years ago! I usually do respond, remembering Sam’s work, but I was getting ready to go out.

As I was leaving the house shortly after, the thought went through my head, unbidden (as implicit bias is) and unwelcome. But it was upon me before I could stop it.

What if he was canvassing the house for thieves who would break in when I left? Would I have thought that if he were white?

These are my confessions. Do you have any to share?

US National Committee for UN Women

I was in Chicago for the board meeting of the US National Committee for UN Women this past weekend. During our Saturday lunch we were treated to a speaker from UN Women.

Pablo Castillo Diaz of UN Women, speaker on gender equality.

Pablo Castillo Diaz of UN Women, speaker on gender equality.

Pablo Castillo Diaz, according to his LinkedIn profile, is “Focused on efforts to prevent and respond to sexual and gender-based violence in conflict, post-conflict, and emergency settings; mainstream gender equality in peacekeeping operations; and engaging with the UN Security Council on women, peace and security.”

He had been introduced with something like that description. Even in writing it’s not easy to understand!

He talked about feminist foreign policy.

What did he mean? He used the example of Jimmy Carter. President Carter, he said, “responded to a push from civil society to add consideration of human rights to military actions and foreign aid.” Now it is often part of international agreements.

Concern for women’s rights should be equally mainstream, the speaker said. Agreements on trade & investment, security work, and foreign aid should include gender equality in their framework.

He spoke about the difficulty of ensuring women’s safety from sexual violence in areas where UN Peacekeepers are at work. Many challenges exist, he said. His office is pushing for solutions, including reparations for women who are victims of sexual violence.

Left to right - brother Peter, nephews Tim and Charlie, Charlie's fiancee Courtney

Left to right – brother Peter, nephews Tim and Charlie, Charlie’s fiancee Courtney

Family in Chicago

I used my visit to Chicago to see my brother Peter, his wife Mary, and two of their three sons.

It’s been a few years, and I was really happy for the chance to catch up.

Mary was at work on a mosaic. I saw several she had made which Peter has placed in their patio.

I’ll see the family again in September for Charlie’s wedding.

Sister-in-law Mary at work on a mosaic.

Sister-in-law Mary at work on a mosaic.

Igbo People to Leave North?

Blog reader Charles Oham sent an email. “Was I aware that the Igbo people had been asked to leave the north?”

I said, “I am. But I am also aware that the federal government has warned those responsible for the call not to implement their threat.

“I am still hopeful that Nigerians can some day believe that they belong to a single country. We cannot change history, we can only learn to make the best of what happened.
“The country was created out of disparate elements. We now have nearly 60 years together. That shared history, if we recognize it, can be a basis for unity. But perhaps I am too optimistic.”
What do you think?

June 24, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Boko Haram’s Devastation

Boko Haram’s Devastation

Boko Haram’s Devastation

The NY Times had two excellent stories about Boko Haram and the devastation in people’s lives it has created.

Trained to Kill: How Four Boy Soldiers Survived Boko Haram,” was the first one I read. It was written by Sarah Topol, with photographs by Glenna Gordon.

Children of War

The writer interviewed twenty-five children over several days who had been held by Boko Haram. She writes primarily about four teen-age boys. Much of her article seems to be a direct transcription of what they told her.

She begins with a description of the boys’ peaceful lives in Baga. They fished, played, rode bikes, and helped their parents. But their lives changed dramatically.

“Over the course of a four-day siege in January 2015, Boko Haram carted away the boys of Baga. No one knows exactly how many were taken, but by the end, it seemed as if almost every family was missing a boy or a girl. Virtually an entire town’s worth of children vanished,” the author says. “Across Borno State in that year, Boko Haram battered villages like Baga, ransacking, burning, looting, establishing control over territory or abducting people and taking them to their bases.”

The boys were packed with hundreds of others into trucks and taken to a traditional ruler’s palace. For days they were left alone in hot over-crowded rooms with little to eat. Then they were ordered to start weapons training.

She reports on their lives during the time with Boko Haram and how they survived it. They watched others being killed. Then they were forced to kill. They occasionally thought of home and family.

The four boys escaped after many months and eventually found their way to Maiduguri.

The article is long, but brilliant and hard to stop reading once you start!

Riding With Soldiers

The other article is “Riding With the Nigerian Soldiers Fighting Boko Haram.” The photographer really did accompany soldiers. What makes someone willing to put her life on the line to report in such a situation?

She describes the city. “Maiduguri is surrounded by a security perimeter and checkpoints. Would-be suicide bombers come from the countryside and try to sneak into the city at night to blow themselves up in a crowded place in the morning,” she tells the reader.

“That night, a soldier at a checkpoint spotted something moving in the brush. The soldier fired at the movement, which turned out to be a suicide bomber who was then blown apart when the gunfire hit the explosives strapped to his torso.”

Her photographs are amazing. Let me know what you think.

First-Hand Account of Maiduguri

I’m sharing a hotel room in Chicago with Iyabo Obasanjo. She and I are board members of the U.S. National Committee for UN Women. We are here for our annual meeting.

Iyabo grew up in Nigeria. She served in the Senate and in other government positions before settling permanently in the U.S.

I told her about the two articles and sent them to her.

She looked up from her reading to say, “Even before Boko Haram Maiduguri was a terrible city.” She was there years ago and was struck by the poverty then. How much worse it must be today.

African Writer Aminatta Forna

Keeping Up With African Writers: Aminatta Forna

I was sorry I could not get to the Auditorium Event where she was featured. The more I read about her, the more I would like to read her books and hear her speak.

I’ll have to tell you about the final day of the conference at Yale soon. Now I have to prepare for the board meeting!

June 18, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe

Day Two of African Literature Association Conference

Never Look an American in the Eye

Panel members for African Literature Association Conference Day 2, with Kalu Ogaa right, Ndibe center, Masterson behind.

Panel members with Chair Kalu Ogbaa on right, Okey in center, John Masterson behind.

I went back to New Haven on Thursday for Day 2 of the African Literature Association Conference. I was part of a panel with the title “Okey Ndibe and Life-Writing: Looking Igbos in the Eye with Okey Ndibe.”

The title is a reference to Okey Ndibe’s memoir, Never Look an American in the Eye.

I got to the room a few minutes before the starting time. Okey was there with his wife Sheri.

The room was in disarray with desks every which way! Sheri and I apparently had the same thought – we began moving the desks into rows. Then I thought, why? I’m not in charge. She and I didn’t discuss it, but we both stopped moving things around. I took one desk for myself, put it next to Okey at the front of the room, and was done!

The chair was an Igbo man, a professor at Southern Connecticut State University. He began his remarks by telling the audience that “Igbo” is both singular and plural, so no “s” on Igbos (as in the panel title). Then he said he had only received his copy of Okey’s memoir from the publisher the day before. He had only read a little. Not too impressive.

The Panel Discussion

Okey Ndibe, featured panelist at African Literature Association Conference

Okey Ndibe, featured panelist at African Literature Association Conference

He asked Okey to speak first. “How did you arrive at your title?” he asked. Of course, if he’d read the memoir, he would have known! But maybe audience members didn’t.

Do you know the answer?

Okey said his uncle in Nigeria had watched many old Westerns. He couldn’t understand the words, but saw two men facing off, staring at each other, then drawing guns. His conclusion? If you look someone in the eye, you will be shot. So when Okey was leaving for America, he warned his nephew, “Don’t look an American in the eye, or he will shoot you!”

Circularity in Story Structure

John Masterson, panelist with me on Day Two of African Literature Association Conference

John Masterson, panelist with me on Day Two of African Literature Association Conference, and chair of another panel

John Masterson, professor at University of Sussex, was also one of the panel presenters. He asked Okey about the non-linear structure of the memoir. I loved Okey’s answer, which I’m paraphrasing. “Our Igbo elders tell stories in a circuitous manner. You wonder where they are going as they seem to meander, relating one recent experience and one ancient tale. Then they tie it all together to reach their conclusion.”

He also pointed out that the Igbo world contains the present, but also the ancestors and those yet to be born. So it is less constrained than our Western concept of time.

I posted my review of Okey’s memoir on Goodreads. “Lots of fun to read. And so true – the way an African first experiences race in America is completely different from the way American Blacks experience it. Okey shares his own experiences on race and other issues with humor and insight,” I said.

For my part of the panel, I read the section from my memoir about visiting the Dibia. The audience of about 15 people seemed to appreciate it. But I was unhappy that I forgot to hand out bookmarks. We got too busy taking photos at the end!

Refugee Experience

After lunch I attended a panel called, “African Texts in American Contexts.” The same John Masterson was chair of this panel. I was interested in Joya Uraizee’s comments on Dave Eggers’ What is the What? as a refugee narrative.

Joya Uraizee spoke about Eggers' novel at African Literature Association Conference Day Two

Joya Uraizee spoke about Eggers’ novel at African Literature Association Conference Day Two

Dave Eggers' novel What is the What

Dave Eggers’ novel What is the What

I was not familiar with Eggers’ 2006 novel. It is, Wikipedia tells me, “based on a Sudanese child refugee who immigrated to the United States under the Lost Boys of Sudan program. It was a finalist for the National Book Award.”

The presenter said the novel showed how the boy was isolated in the U.S. He was completely without a sense of community. Despite the horrific experience he’d had in Sudan, he longed to return.

My second book talks about this longing for community. I’d like to read Eggers’ novel for that perspective. Have you read it?

I’ll tell you about the rest of the conference next time, including my presentation about Nigerwives which was part of “Inter-Racial Encounters in Life and Fiction.”

Response to Threat Against Igbo People

Recently a group of people in northern Nigeria, the Arewa Youth, issued a threat to all Igbo people living in the north. “Leave by October 1,” they said. In response, southerners told northerners living in the southeast to leave.

At last the State Security Service has spoken out against the initial threat and those who made it. Sunday’s Premium Times had the news.

Quoting from the SSS’s public statement, the article says, “[The SSS] warns, in very clear terms, all those who are charting the course of disunity among Nigerians to desist from their divisive actions. The Service is also not oblivious of the efforts of some miscreants to ignite fear and cause ethnic tensions across the country. It strongly condemns in its entirety the call for relocation of anyone to places against their wishes.”

They conclude that such an order is illegal and against the spirit of the Constitution. I’m so happy to see the constitution held up as the framework to measure actions.

They end their statement with, “The Service wants to reassure the entire populace that it will not leave any stone unturned to ensure that those who are bent on causing a breakdown of law and order are not spared.”

Firm statement. Let’s hope the action is equally firm, and also fair.