Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author, Blogger, Speaker

May 9, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
3 Comments

Eighty-two Chibok Girls Released

Eighty-two Chibok Girls Released

A few of the Chibok girls released a few days ago, from CNN Newsource online.

A few of the Chibok girls released a few days ago, from CNN NewSource Online.

You probably already know the exciting news from Nigeria this past weekend. President Buhari had campaigned on promises to defeat Boko Haram and attack the country’s long-standing corruption. He needs victories, the NY Times said.

“Over the weekend he got one: ‘Dozens of the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped three years ago by Boko Haram were released, by far the biggest break in a case that shocked the nation and the world,’ ” the NY Times reported.

Negotiations apparently had gone on since the release of 21 girls a few months ago, I read in the Guardian article. The girls were taken to Abuja where they were greeted by President Buhari.

I’m teaching 400 Years of Nigerian History at Fairfield Bigelow Center for Senior Activities. The class meets once a week for six weeks. I opened class at 10 am on Monday morning with, “Have you heard the news?” Everyone knew what I meant.

They were eager to learn more. I had no new information, but I gave a little history of Boko Haram. I’ll talk about it again at the final class in two weeks.

President Buhari at end of his first year

President Buhari at end of his first year

I did remind the class that thousands of women, men, and children who’ve been kidnapped are still held. And famine is threatening the area.

Buhari’s Health

Soon after greeting the released girls, President Buhari flew back to London for medical reasons, leaving the country wondering. His wife has said people should not worry.

But he has attended few cabinet meetings since he returned from London a few weeks ago. He has hardly been seen in public.

Former President Musa Yar'Adua who died in 2010.

Former President Musa Yar’Adua who died in 2010.

Nigerians remember Musa Yar’Adua. He was elected President in 2006 and inaugurated on May 29, 2007. He became ill during his second year in office. For several months he was out of the country for treatment but did not turn power over to his vice-president, leaving a power vacuum.

Finally the legislature confirmed Goodluck Jonathan as President. Yar’Adua died on February 9, 2010.

President Buhari has behaved differently. He has turned over power to his vice-president, relieving fears over a power vacuum. But I think the people of Nigeria would like to know what health problem he is facing. I would too!

Racism in Westport? In the U.S.?

Let me start with Westport. Dan Woog’s blog 06880 has a story today related by David, a Westport resident.

David was upset by what his nanny told him a few days ago. “Someone she identified as a police officer asked her for her ‘papers’ while waiting at the Westport train station. It happens that she is Latina. It also happens that she is a citizen of these United States of America.”Image result for westport ct train station

He contacted the police to report the incident. “Westport Chief of Police Foti Koskinas and Deputy Chief Vincent Penna strongly believe that whoever harassed our nanny is not a Westport police officer,” David wrote.

Chief Foti also confirmed that he did not support such an act. Given the conversation TEAM Westport had with Chief Foti recently, I agree.

David assumes the person who questioned his nanny acted out of racism, questioning the right of a Latina woman to be at the train station. He encourages us all to be watchful. He says he believes, “the current climate necessitates vigilance toward every incursion on our civil liberties no matter how benign.”

I’m with him!

Sister Grannies on White Privilege

On Monday evening seven of our Sister Grannies met to read and discuss opinions on White Privilege. Out of six of the white women, two were unclear what privilege their whiteness gave them.

The one Black woman answered. “You said your father worked hard to save and buy the house where you grew up. If he had not been white, he  may not have been able to buy in that neighborhood  – realtors or neighbors could have prevented him – or get the mortgage to buy.”

She said, “You had access to better schools because of the move.” She related the story of her grandfather who could pass for white and had to be the buyer for their own house. When her own darker-skinned family moved in, the neighbors burned the house.

I added examples from Peggy McIntosh’s essay on what our whiteness provides us. “Never being followed in a store, not being questioned when using a credit card, and walking without fear anywhere in town, are a few of the privilege I have,” I said.

I went further and spoke about the term “White Supremacy,” which we used at the Unitarian Sunday morning service. We joined over 600 other Unitarian-Universalist churches taking a stand against white supremacy. The service was billed as a “disrupter.”

Rev. John said he was uncomfortable at first with the term white supremacy. But he had come to understand its importance for us. It does not mean we are white supremacists, but that we live in a culture that operates on the premise. To be effective against racism, we must be “disrupters” of the system.

Three Hijabies from CNN and AlJazeera

Three Hijabies from CNN and AlJazeera

I will continue to use my white privilege to combat our white supremacist culture. I don’t always know how. I welcome your suggestions.

Barbie Dolls Wearing Hijab

CNN Style has a wonderful story about a Nigerian medical scientist who has posted picture of Barbie wearing Hijab on Instagram. She said, “I thought it was really important for a doll to be dressed like how I would be.”

Her doll, called “Hijarbie . . . offers Muslim girls a relatable role model.” You can see the story and pictures of the dolls at CNN Style.

 

May 5, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Nigerian Politics in Crisis?

Nigerian Politics in Crisis?

Love Does Not Win Elections

Feyi Fawehinmi, contributor to the Guardian, an online Nigerian publication, writes about Ayisha Osori’s forthcoming book, Love Does Not Win Elections, about Nigerian Politics. He says, “I’ll go out on a limb and say this is the most important book that will be written in and about Nigeria this year.”

Strong words. She writes about her attempt to get on the ticket of the PDP to run for the Federal House of Representatives. Fawehinmi says her story shows, “Nigerian politics is in a serious crisis.”

Love does not win elections

Her gender is against her. She has to pay off many people even to have her candidacy taken half-way seriously. The party that encouraged women to run then turned around and supported all the incumbents, mostly men.

The politicians seem to be in office only for their own gain. Because there is so much graft involved, politicians do not concern themselves with the needs of their constituents, knowing their re-election will depend on the party, not the voters.

The author of the article asks if the effort to run is even worthwhile, given the rigged system. He concludes, “The candour with which she has documented her experience means the book can serve the purpose of shining a light on the deep dysfunction of Nigerian politics.”

Prince Philip to Step Down

Image resultPrince Philip will step down from official duties in the Fall, Buckingham Palace has announced.

I surprised myself by wanting to read the announcement. Why did I care? Because for me the British Royals are a source of endless fascination, at least the older generation.

Perhaps it was the years living in Nigeria. After all, for the first few years after Nigerian Independence, the Queen was still the Monarch. At the Anglican Church I attended with Clem, we prayed for her health every Sunday.

Philip is 95 years old, and the longest-serving consort in British history. I think he deserves a rest. Do you agree?

Queen Elizabeth will continue her official duties, the announcement said. The Duke may accompany her. She’s only 91!

Too Many Appointees from North?

Max Siollun writes about the controversy over appointments to Nigeria’s version of the FBI. He cites statistics of new appointments. Disproportionate numbers of the new hires are from northern states.

Especially prominent are those from the same state as the President and the head of the SSS. Is this an attempt to re-balance after years of greater numbers of recruits coming from the South? Maybe.

Perhaps it is at least positive that he is emphasizing state over tribe.

Last Notes from Legacies of Biafra?

I don’t promise, but this may be the last time I talk about the conference at SOAS in April.

I’ve enjoyed hearing from people I met. Charles asked me to fill out a survey for his PhD dissertation. He was, he said, “Asking people that run their own business however small, a few questions on faith and business.” He added, “Please help me to pass the link to others who are in business too.” Here’s the link in case you want to help him out.

His survey focused on Christianity. So I, a Unitarian Universalist, was not very helpful. It took me less than his estimated 10 minutes to finish.

The presentation I gave, Powering Biafra, One Key Actor, was about my husband Clem’s many important roles during the nearly 3 years of Biafra’s existence. You can read the paper here.

Oil Refining in Nigeria

Another article in the Nigerian press caught my eye. The NNPC, Nigeria’s body charged with overseeing the oil sector, is hoping to attract twenty investors in modular refineries.Image result for modular oil refinery

Olumide Adeosun of PricewaterhouseCoopers Limited says optimistically, “There is an opportunity for potential uptake by neighbouring countries if the market has Nigeria’s refined products readily available.”

Will the NNPC find these investors? Will the projects get built? Let’s hope! Nigeria could use a boost to the economy.

The picture is a “Typical Modular Refineries offered by MGI.”

African Authors in New York Festival

I read about the PEN World Voices Festival in Ainehi Edoro’s blog Brittle Paper. The most exciting event for me would have been the conversation between Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Trevor Noah. But it had already happened. And it was sold out.

I hope Ainehi will post a video or at least a recap.

The 12 African Authors Participating in the 2017 PEN World Voices Festival

May 1, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
3 Comments

Charly Boy and Other Fascinating People

Charly Boy

Charly Boy at Legacies of Biafra Conference

Charly Boy at Legacies of Biafra Conference

Among the many people with fascinating stories and interesting connections at the Legacies of Biafra Conference was Charly Boy. I had never heard of Charly Boy until Friday when people were saying, “Did you know? Charly Boy will be here tomorrow!”

Charly Boy is a Nigerian entertainer, film producer, singer, and activist. He is also an engaging speaker. Encouraging the audience to be activists too, he said he could produce 3 million fans for any candidate who is credible and ready to oppose the current government in the next elections. He gave out his personal phone number. “Just call me,” he said. “I’ll get you the support!”

When he heard me speak Igbo, he was very excited. He happily posed for a photo!

Asaba Massacre and Liz Bird

Another person I met was Elizabeth Bird who is a professor of anthropology in Florida. She introduced the documentary film she directed and produced: Most Vulnerable Nigerians: The Legacy of the Asaba Massacres.

Her book on the Asaba Massacres is coming out in September.

Watching Liz’s piece, The Most Vulnerable Nigerians, I was shocked that we knew nothing about this massacre either during the civil war or after. Yet hundreds of people died in a day.

Liz Bird, anthropologist, produced and directed documentary film on Asaba Massacre.

Liz Bird, anthropologist, produced and directed documentary film on Asaba Massacre.

Her film is powerful. She told me she was in Asaba, across the Niger River from Onitsha, several times doing the interviews.

As the credits were running, I was surprised, and then pleased, to see the name of Simon Ottenberg. Some of the photos came from his collection now at the Smithsonian. Simon Ottenberg and his wife Phoebe were our instructors in anthropology during our Peace Corps training.

Over the intervening 55 years, I have seen his name mentioned occasionally. It’s always fun to remember the connection.

Another name that struck me in the film was Philip Asiodu. I knew there had been an extremely negative incident between him and my husband. I asked Clem to tell me again.

Nigeria’s civil war ended in 1970. Four years later Asiodu was the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. Clem was Assistant General Manager, Operations, at ECN, the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria. Niger Dams had been created a few years earlier and was also generating electricity. The two organizations were about to merge.

Philip Asiodu recently from Vanguard Newspaper

Philip Asiodu recently from Vanguard Newspaper

Clem says, “It was at a board meeting. Asiodu was chairing the meeting. He asked me why ECN had a higher number of people operating and maintaining transmission lines per mile than Niger Dams. I told him that if he looked at the total cost of labor and capital equipment per mile, ECN’s cost was lower.

“I said to him, ‘My strategy has been to adopt a labor intensive approach.’ I said this because he and I were both economists. I thought he would agree with this approach.

“Instead he blew up in anger. He said, ‘As far as I am concerned, capital-intensive operations are superior in any situation.’ He then immediately ordered a major reduction in the labor component I had requested in the budget.

“That was the moment I decided that I would leave the public service. It was a setback for the transmission plans for the whole country, and not only for that time. Failing to pursue my strategy has had a long-term damaging effect on the power industry in Nigeria until today!”

Clem just came from the other room to say I should add a sentence. “My immediate reaction was that he was talking errant nonsense in the context of a developing country!”

Family & Other Connections at the Conference

Two people told me they knew one or more of our children. Ebele Obumselu said his sister Ifi knew Chinaku. Another man said he went to school in Jos with our daughter Beth and son Sam. I was sure I had his name written down, but I can’t find it!

On Friday afternoon I met a young Nigerian man who grew up in Australia and now lives in northern England. The conference only came to his notice the night before. He took a train from Manchester that morning. “I’m trying to connect to my Nigerian roots,” he said. His name was Kelechi, which made me think of our grandson Kenechi.

And Kinkwas – I love his name – reminded me that we had met in New Jersey several years ago at a reunion of alumni of DMGS. Dennis Memorial Grammar School, founded in 1925, is Clem’s beloved alma mater.

Final Meeting of Beloved Conversations 

Donna Thompson-Bennett who greeted us with "Namaste."

Donna Thompson-Bennett who greeted us with “Namaste.”

Sunday afternoon was the final meeting of the nine-week program, Beloved Conversations, at The Unitarian Church. We were treated to a guest speaker, Donna Thompson-Bennett.

I remembered her from my days working at the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition in Bridgeport. She is a Black retired lawyer and a leader of the Parent Leadership Training Institute, a national organization supporting parents’ role in education and advocacy.

She speaks and demonstrates a position of love, and from that position has hope for race relations in this country. In answer to a question near the end, she talked about how offensive it is for white people to think they have a right to touch her hair!

My Fulani earrings - replicas from Metropolitan Museum Gift Shop

My Fulani earrings – replicas from Metropolitan Museum Gift Shop

I wrote about this particular form of micro-aggression in February. In the same post I wrote about the initial meeting of Beloved Conversations.

But for me the best connection with Donna was when she said she’d had her DNA tested. She found her ancestry is Nigerian, Fulani to be specific. She learned about the Fulani women’s love of earrings. I’ll have to show her my Fulani earrings some day!

 

April 27, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Legacies of Biafra Conference

Legacies of Biafra Conference

Legacies of Biafra

I had a wonderful time in London. Legacies of Biafra, Reflections on the Nigeria-Biafra War 50 Years On, was an exciting and well-presented conference.

Yvonne and friend with me outside our hotel.

Yvonne and friend with me outside our hotel.

Louisa Egbunike and Yvonne Mbanefo were the principal organizers. Unu mere nke oma! (You did well!)

I took the Heathrow Express from the airport to Paddington on Thursday evening. I climbed into a taxi by 9 pm. Louisa was just returning from SOAS to the Tavistock Hotel as I got out. She invited me to join her and her friends for a late supper at the Indian Restaurant in the hotel.

SOAS was just two blocks away. On Friday morning I went to the panel, “Writing Biafra.” Dominique Otigbah presented “Remembering and Misremembering.” A frequent assumption is that the Igbo people were the only group involved in Biafra. But she said it’s important to remember the role of minorities. Others made similar comments.

Panel audience

Powering Biafra

My panel, “Real Life Accounts of the Nigeria-Biafra War,” was at 11 am. The audience seemed to appreciate my paper “Powering Biafra, One Key Actor.” I described my husband’s role during the war. During the Q&A, a woman in the front row mentioned her hometown Nanka.

Kate is from Nanka and remembered following me around during the Biafran War.

Kate is from Nanka and remembered following me around during the Biafran War.

After the session she approached the table where I was selling my memoir. “You said you’re from Nanka. My husband is also from Nanka. I was there during the war,” I said.

She looked at the memoir and my name, looked at me again, and exclaimed, “You’re the one!”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“During the war we children followed you around in the market, calling out, ‘See the white woman who speaks Igbo.'” I told her she could read all that in my memoir. She bought it!

In fact I sold all 12 copies. One person even paid for two more which he’ll pick up from us in Westport, CT!

My favorite plenary session was “Tim Modu, in conversation with Philip Effiong II.” They knew each other 50 years ago. Tim’s father was Biafra’s Vice President. Philip’s father was Chief of General Staff of Biafra.

Tim Modu in conversation with Philip Effiong

Tim Modu, left, in conversation with Philip Effiong

Tim has a large stash of letters of his father’s, some of them from Philip’s father. He read from a couple that showed the deliberate and careful planning during the war.

Philip Effiong as Chief of Staff was an example of the important role of minorities. He was not Igbo, but Ibibio, a different tribe, different language.

“Shrine” to Legacies of Biafra

At the center of the stage was a collection, like a shrine. Yvonne Mbanefo explained the elements. There were candles for memories of those lost in the conflict. A bicycle tire with photos attached was in the display. So many people relied on bicycles to get around.

The "shrine" on the stage at the conference

The “shrine” on the stage at the conference

There was a bowl and ladle to remind us that food was used as a weapon of war. I found the short-wave radio the most evocative. Like so many people in Biafra, we huddled around the radio to get the latest news of the war. Even when we suspected that Ojukwu was not completely truthful about Biafran losses, we listened avidly.

At the top of the make-shift shrine was the hat belonging to Philip Effiong, His son assured us it was the real thing!

Surrender

On January 8, 1970, the Head of State of Biafra, Odumegwu Ojukwu, fled the collapsing country, leaving Effiong to become Head of State. After wide consultation, Effiong announced the end of the war. He surrendered to President Gowon a few days later, saying

“I, Major-General Phillip Efiong, Officer Administering the Government of the Republic of Biafra, now wish to make the following declaration: That we affirm that we are loyal Nigerian citizens and accept the authority of the Federal Military Government of Nigeria. That we accept the existing administrative and political structure of the Federation of Nigeria. That any future constitutional arrangement will be worked out by representatives of the people of Nigeria. That the Republic of Biafra hereby ceases to exist.”[1]

I heard the news that night in my apartment in Cincinnati. I had not heard from Clem for many days. You can imagine my relief when I got his letter a few weeks later. He was safely back in Lagos.

“Save Biafra” Buttons

A year ago my friend and Peace Corps colleague Jim sent me several “Save Biafra” buttons. What better place to take them than to the Legacies of Biafra conference!

I wore one on my name tag. A woman sitting next to me in a plenary session admired it. I sold her one for two pounds! I gave one to the organizers for the Legacies of Biafra exhibition in 2018. They are collaborating with the Nigeria Art Society UK.

I gave the final one to Tim Modu.

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie's novel of Biafra

Half of a Yellow Sun, Adichie’s novel of Biafra

A Final Pleasure

On Saturday afternoon I took time off from the conference to meet up with our niece Comet. She’s been living in London since she was a child. She rides her bicycle everywhere!

We found a coffee shop nearby. Afterwards I took her into the conference with me for the expected video greeting from Chimamanda Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun, that takes place during the Biafran War.

They had decided to Skype instead. There were technical problems. In the end Chimamanda was only visible to the person on stage with her laptop. She turned it around for a minute. It was a small screen in a big auditorium!

But we could all hear Chimamanda say she would come to the London conference next year. This year she was the keynote at another Biafra conference in Washington DC.

April 19, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
3 Comments

Combating Boko Haram

Can Boko Haram Be Defeated?

My friend Laura sent me this excellent 2 and 1/2 minute video from the Carter Center. The speaker, Dr. Fatima Akilu, “is a university educator and an advocate for marginalized groups working in the area of psychology and health for more than two decades,” according to Jason Parker at the Carver Center. She speaks about combating Boko Haram.

She has worked with Nigerian government. I read that she uses, “a multi-pronged approach to countering violent extremism (CVE).” There is work in prisons to ‘deradicalize’ prisoners, efforts to build community resilience, and a strategic communications. She designed Nigeria’s CVE program.

My friend Laura with Senator Murphy

My friend Laura with Senator Murphy

The video clip from 2016 relates her conversation with Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy. He serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Dr. Akilu was at the Carver Center as part of the Forum on Women Religion, Violence and Power.

She says the U.S. continues to place an emphasis on the military approach to combating terrorism. But it is not succeeding. Combating Boko Haram, she says, requires engagement on the ground. She says ideological engagement can help young people understand that Boko Haram is anti-Islam.

Educational opportunities, a change for a livelihood, and psycho-social support are all part of her solution.  Her organization has helped 100’s of women and girls. She says, with greater “peace-building efforts, we would save a whole generation.”

Another Powerful African Woman

Yesterday’s Google Doodle also featured an African woman. Esther Afua Ocloo  started “Ghana’s first food processing factory in 1942.” She needed money and began making jam to sell.

NPR has a story about her life and her impact.

From her desire to help other women get into business as she had done, she began making small loans.

“That’s how Women’s World Banking was born,” NPR says. She cofounded the organization in 1976. The loans maybe as small as $50.

You can watch a really quick video here. The video also explains the Google Doodle. Do you look at them?

Legacies of Biafra2017 Legacies of Biafra

I leave very early Thursday morning for London. I’m attending the Legacies of Biafra Conference. There is a film tomorrow evening but I won’t arrive in time. So I’ll go on Friday morning. The panel I’m on Real Life Accounts of the Nigeria-Biafra War is Friday morning at 11 am.

The paper about Clem is ready. It’s long, too long to read all, so on the flight tomorrow I’ll draft a shorter version.

It will be hard to decide what to leave out. But I’ll have to make choices. I’d like to have between 1500 and 1800 words; right now it’s over 3000!

Here are my first few paragraphs.

An Unsung Hero

The dream of Biafra was built on the hard work of many individuals. The war heroes and political leaders are known; their stories have been written. The technical people who worked behind the scenes are not known. Their stories haven’t been told. One of those key actors was my husband, Clement Onyemelukwe. This is his story.

Flag of Biafra - The Rising Sun

Flag of Biafra – The Rising Sun

Like so many people in Biafra, he and I were both changed by the experience. For me, my year of immersion in his village brought me closer to his extended family, improved my Igbo-speaking ability, and gave me deep knowledge of his people’s customs. For him, the two and a half years of struggle to maintain the dream of independence deepened his resiliency and brought him to the belief that determined people could accomplish feats that seemed impossible. He also became convinced of the importance of relying on local resources and local people to achieve success.

When we married in 1964 Clement Onyemelukwe or Clem as I call him, was Chief Electrical Engineer of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN. He had returned to Nigeria from the United Kingdom in 1961 as Deputy and advanced to the Chief Electrical Engineer position in 1962, at the age of 30.

At the beginning of 1967 we knew the political situation was fraught. And we knew that a few Igbo people, colleagues and acquaintances, no longer felt safe in Lagos.  But like many other Igbos comfortable in their positions in the capital we had not thought seriously about going to the East. We soothed his worried parents in Onitsha each time they called.

But in May 1967 two events changed the situation. First my friend Carol’s husband fled to the East while she took their children to Ghana. Her departure made me begin to seriously question the wisdom of remaining in Lagos. Second, Pius Okigbo, retired Economic Adviser to the Federal Government, had returned to the East to be Ojukwu’s right-hand man.

He called Clem to tell him he was needed urgently in the Eastern Region. Though secession wasn’t directly mentioned, it was clear this was part of the preparation for an independent country.

Departure for Enugu

Clem still hesitated, but I insisted. We left for Enugu a week later. The Eastern Region government had already established the Statutory Bodies Council to monitor and control all public corporations in the region. Clem was made the Chairman of the Fuel and Energy Committee of that Council, responsible for the Electricity and Coal Corporations.

Clem had his B.Sc. degree in Electrical Engineering from Leeds University. Mechanical engineering was part of his degree course. He had memberships in The British Institute of Fuel and The British Institute of Management, both achieved through training and examinations. He had experience in power stations in UK’s Central Electricity Generating Board, CEGB. He was probably the best qualified engineer in Nigeria, not only in the East.

As Chairman of the Fuel and Energy Committee he dove immediately into the management of the two Corporations even before Biafra declared its independence.

Next time I’ll tell you more. I’ll probably next post on April 27, skipping one Afo week. On April 23 I’ll be flying home from London.

April 15, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
Comments Off on Missing Girls Three Years Later

Missing Girls Three Years Later

Boko Haram Protest

April 15 marks three years since nearly 300 girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok, northern Nigeria. Most parents are still waiting to hear the fate of their missing girls. They still have hope. On April 14 they protested again in Abuja, the capital.

Boko Haram has been driven back by the military. But suicide bombings and other acts of terrorism continue.

“On Thursday, Nigerian government officials said they were negotiating the release of more of the nearly 200 girls who remain captive. But the government is known for exaggerating its successes against Boko Haram. Officials made the same statement months ago, so the new one generated little optimism among family members,” the NY Times article says.

Will we ever see the missing girls? Can Boko Haram be defeated, or at least rendered less able to inflict harm? Such difficult questions for the Nigerian government and military.

Sustainable Agriculture

My husband Clem was unhappy that I didn’t write more about Kola Masha’s organization and sustainable agriculture. He was concerned that the methods Kola is proposing are capital-intensive, thus driving out the small farmers.

I’ve read several member stories. Half their featured stories are about women. I liked the one about Naomi Michael.

Babban Gona helps the small-scale farmers by supplying low-cost fertilizer and seeds, giving advice, and perhaps most importantly connecting farmers directly to buyers.

They are not advised to change their farming methods to use capital-intensive means. So relax, Clem, they seem to be intent on keeping the small-holders on their farms, just earning more.

Jackie Robinson

I received an email today from Randy, a friend and a member of our Beloved Conversations group that is meeting for eight weeks to address racism.

He said, “If you have a moment today to check in on any baseball game please do. The Mets (this evening) channel 60 and Yankees are on 73 now.

Jackie Robinson and the number 42

Jackie Robinson and the number 42

“For the non-baseball fans all you have to do is watch for a minute or two to note that all the players are wearing #42, Jackie Robinson’s number. It is the only number that has been retired across baseball and only worn every April 15th, today, the day 70 years ago, that Jackie broke into the major league.”

Denny, another friend and member of the other Beloved Conversation group (we have two going on) replied right away. She said, “I was there! Ebbetts Field, Empire Blvd., Brooklyn! With my brother and my Dad!”

I love the history we have in our midst. Denny is in her early 80’s. She has many memories to share. I value every one I hear.

I am definitely in the non-baseball fan category. But I turned on and went straight to Channel 73. I saw all the players with their number 42! The game has just finished with the Yankees winning.

“For the Yankee fans Marino was the last player to be able to wear 42 and when he retired recently no one in the major leagues is allowed to wear 42 except today when everyone does! Homage to Jackie Roosevelt Robinson!”

Thank you, Randy.

Easter and Passover

Do you celebrate Easter or Passover, or both? Our church honors both. On Sunday we’ll celebrate Easter, though we’re not strong on the Resurrection story. Tomorrow morning our choir will sing for both services at the Unitarian Church in Westport. Lots of ‘Alleluia’s.’

My favorite is the Jazz Alleluia by Thomas Benjamin. You can hear it sung by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fayetteville, Arkansas on Easter 2010. The video is pretty jumpy but the sound is great.

Passover

In honor of Passover our hostess for my Mount Holyoke book group on Monday evening says she is making a flourless meringue.

400 Years of Nigerian History

Clem is in Florida with our daughter Beth and her family. He loves lying on the beach. I don’t. And I needed to stay home to prepare for the first session of my class on 400 Years of Nigerian History at the Fairfield Bigelow Center for Senior Activities on Monday.

Olaudah Equiano 1747 to 1797

Olaudah Equiano 1747 to 1797

The slides I used two years ago for the class at Norwalk’s Lifetime Learners needed updating. I also wanted to get a single color theme. No, the history hasn’t changed, but I rearranged the sections to take out most of pre-1600 history and expand the information on the period from 1600 to 1800.

I’m including Olaudah Equiano, a freed slave who came originally from Nigeria. He bought his freedom from a Quaker master. He became active in the abolitionist movement in England in the late 1700’s. I knew his story a little, but had to do some research. I love Wikipedia which has a great article about him.

Mother’s Day Gift

My memoir Nigeria Revisited My Life and Loves Abroad is available at Fairfield University Bookstore on the Post Road in Fairfield CT. It would make a lovely Mother’s Day gift. Of course you can also buy it online at Amazon in print or Kindle edition.

April 11, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

Bridge Building

Bridge Building

Krista Tippet of On Being talked about bridge building.

Krista Tippet of On Being talked about bridge building.

Early Sunday morning I listened to Krista Tippett’s On Being. She was interviewing Matt Kibbe and Heather McGhee who come from opposite ends of the political spectrum but have a commitment to bridge building.

“He’s a libertarian who helped activate the Tea Party. She’s a millennial progressive leader,” Krista says. “They are bridge people for this moment — holding passion and conviction together with an enthusiasm for engaging difference.”

She asks them to talk about how they developed this sensibility to others’ opinions that leads to bridge building.

Heather McGhee, President of Demos

Heather McGhee, President of Demos

Heather McGhee grew up on the South Side of Chicago. Her mother was a holistic healer in a time before that was popular, and Heather was a vegetarian. “Nobody wanted to trade school lunch with me,” she said.

She became part of a family with white people when her father remarried. She says, “expanding the notion of family across race was probably a pretty formative early event.”

Matt Kibbe says, “My dad was constantly being transferred from one dying Rust Belt factory to another. He was pro-Reagan before it was cool. And we had some interesting conversations because . . . I discovered Ayn Rand and libertarian ideas.”

Matt Kibbe, President and Chief Community Organizer of Free the People.

Matt Kibbe, President and Chief Community Organizer of Free the People.

He says it was difficult to find people that he could talk to about ideas. “And one of the reasons I’m such a romantic about technology and social media is I think it’s the great equalizer.”

Heather sums up their outlook well. She says they need to do two things: “. . . to embrace the limitless possibilities of technology and reaffirm the limitless possibilities of another human being that you’re next to in a room. And that is all the more important when the people that you might be next to in a room are different than you. How fascinating and interesting and bottomless that degree of knowledge could be.”

Krista leads them further into conversation about community and their differing views. Matt Kibbe says, “I’ve [made] this really wild discovery that it’s really hard to hate someone that you’re talking to face-to-face!”

I think my favorite line is his. He says, “Because the way we’re safe in society is not by buying more guns. It’s by counting on your neighbor not to hurt you.”

I’m cheering as I write this! You can listen to the podcast or read the transcript at the website.

More Bridge Building

30,000 women held hands around the 6 miles (9.7 km) perimeter of the base, in protest against the decision to site American cruise missiles there, Dec. 1982

30,000 women held hands around the 6 miles (9.7 km) perimeter of the base, in protest against the decision to site American cruise missiles there, December 1982

Then I got to church to sing with the Chamber Choir. We sang “Building Bridges” from the 1982-83 Greenham Common Peace Camp in England.

Our intern minister Lara Fuchs gave the sermon. She was brilliant as she spoke on “Awakenings.”

She had asked her seminary mentor Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed how to relate to racism. He told her to look around her. She was amazed by what she found in her two homes, Canada and Switzerland, the admired icons of “maple syrup and quality watches.”

She found the museum in her home Winnipeg that shows Canada’s horrific treatment of aboriginal people.

She saw the Swiss who refused to let Muslims build mosques because they would disturb the idyllic scenery.

Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg

Canadian Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg

Her ‘awakening’ was her discovery of her own privilege and the insidious nature of racism. With this knowledge she is now more able to commit to bridge building.

Farming in Nigeria

When I was browsing Twitter the other night I saw a post about farming in Nigeria. I noticed its approval of farming as a way to combat extremism. I re-tweeted it.

Then I noticed the person in the photo. I could only see the upper part of his face, but I knew immediately it was Kola Masha!

Kola is the son of our friends. His mom Glenda was American, a musician, and a fellow Nigerwife.

Kola Masha just won the Skoll Award.

Kola Masha just won the Skoll Award.

Kola heads “an agriculture focused, African impact investing firm,” called Doreo Partners.

But the posting in Twitter was about Babban Gona, his other organization, that supports small-scale farmers. He just won “the $1.25 million Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship 2017,” for this work to encourage agriculture.

The award is for business leaders “whose organisations are having social impact.” His award and his organization were the subject of an article in Thomson Reuters Foundation News.

“Low yields and lack of market access trap many smallholder farmers in poverty and drive young people into cities in the hope of finding jobs, putting them at risk of being lured by extremists, said Kola Masha, managing director of Babban Gona.”

“We’re trying to solve this challenge by helping to build thousands of grassroots level farmer cooperatives and supporting each member with services they need to be highly productive commercial farmers,” Masha said.

He believes that millions of people could be attracted to farming if they had the necessary support. This would be good for challenging the attraction of extremism, for the Nigerian economy, and for the farmers themselves.

Igbo Conference Next Week

Next Thursday I will go to London for the 6th Annual Igbo Conference at SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies, at the University of London.

Are you near? Come on Friday to hear my presentation on “A Key Actor in Biafra.”

 

April 7, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
4 Comments

Let There Be Light

Solar Power in Africa

Kieran Guilbert writes for Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kieran Guilbert writes for Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Kieran Guilbert is based in Dakar, Senegal, where he is the West Africa Correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. He wrote about solar power in Africa. As he says, much of Africa is without a regular power supply.

Azuri Technologies has an ‘entry level’ solar system. Customers pay an installation fee. Then they pay by mobile phone or ‘scratch cards’ as they use it. After a period of 18 months to 36 months, they own it.

Nigeria has recently agreed with Azuri to install solar power systems. There is already a pilot program in the north.

Participants in pilot project to use Azuri solar energy in Nigeria

Participants in pilot project to use Azuri solar energy in Nigeria

The system, they say, “can power four LED bulbs, a radio and a USB port with charging cables for mobile phones.

I encourage you to look at the article, if for nothing else than to see the picture of a thatch-roofed dwelling with a solar panel!

“Swapping kerosene for home solar energy can cut African families’ spending on lighting to two percent from nine percent of their household income, according to a 2016 report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a UK-based think-tank,” the author says.

Not to mention getting rid of the smell.

“Renewable energy could therefore be key to helping sub-Saharan Africa meet a global goal of providing universal access to electricity by 2030, experts say.”

Wouldn’t that be wonderful!

Literary Light on Nigeria

My memoir teacher Marcelle sent me an article from the online publication “Signature.” The author Keith Rice says that Nigeria seems to be over the decades of political upheaval. Those years included the Biafran War.

“Comprising the largest population in Africa, Nigeria is home to a wide variety of diverse cultures, although, in terms of religion, the population is mostly split between Christians in the south and Muslims in the north,” he says.

Boko Haram remains a challenge. But there is so much more to the country.

Ben Okri's novel The Famished Road is on the list

Ben Okri’s novel The Famished Road is on the list

He says Nigeria has a rich culture of writing. From my days in training as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1962 to today, I have seen amazing works of literature. He says, “The books. . . most by Nigerian authors, represent a cross-section of Nigeria’s strong literary tradition and will hopefully provide some insight into the nation and its cultures.”

Africa’s Giant: the Best Books to Understand Nigeria, lists eleven. Can you guess which before you look?

I’m familiar with all the authors except one. Okey Ndibe I know personally. He is married to the daughter of my friend and fellow co-founder of Nigerwives. He wrote an acknowledgement for my memoir.

Of course Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is on the list with two books.

I’ve read hers, and only one other of the books on Rice’s list. So now my to-read list has grown! I’ll take this list to my book groups and see if each group might select one of the books.

Shining a Light on History and Slavery’s Legacy

Laura Winnick teaches 11th and 12th grade students at a small charter school in Berkeley, California. Her students are black. She is dedicated to helping them understand the history of race in the U.S.

She is described in the article from Beacon Broadside. “A social justice educator, she cares deeply about bringing culturally relevant curriculum, restorative discipline practices, project-based learning, and technology into her classroom.”

Winnick describes her teaching. She says, “We examine: How do race and gender affect our identities? What are the lingering effects of slavery? How are people impacted by their ancestral histories?”

She has her students read Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I was not familiar with the book. Are you? One more to add to my to-read list!

Kindred by Olivia Butler is a popular choice for high school and college students.

Kindred by Olivia Butler is a popular choice for high school and college students.

I learned that it is a frequent choice for high school students as well as for community-wide reads.

Here’s what Wikipedia says. “Kindred is a bestselling novel by American science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler. Part time-travel tale and part slave narrative, it was first published in 1979 and is still widely popular.”

It tells the story of a black woman author who shuttles back and forth between her modern-day life and the plantation where she meets her ancestors and their owners.

“Written to underscore the courageous endurance of people perceived as chattel, Kindred examines the dynamics and dilemmas of antebellum slavery as well as its legacy in present American society,” Wikipedia concludes.

Winnick says that this year, she had her students read the graphic novel adapted from Kindred in addition to the original. They loved it!

After they read, she gave them a travel-based project.

To do it, “they took on the voice of travel guide writers, and ‘advertised’ nineteenth-century Maryland in order to turn advertisement into warning.” The goal, she said, was for students “to distill the details of nineteenth-century Maryland as described by Octavia Butler and make connections between the contemporary moment and slavery’s legacy.”

You can see a few of the completed projects at the Beacon Broadside blog. They are brilliant and forceful expressions of the horrors of slavery and the challenges faced by black people even if they weren’t slaves.

Could we invite students to do something like this for next year’s TEAM Westport essay contest?

Light at the End of the Tunnel for Nigeria’s Economy?

Literature is a positive aspect of Nigerian life. But the economy is not so positive.

President Buhari just announced a new three-year Economic Growth and Recovery Plan.

My husband Clem is not optimistic. He says, “They’ve talked about this over and over and over again until you’re sick of hearing it.” Do you think this time will be different?

April 4, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
2 Comments

White Privilege: The Winners

White Privilege Essay Winners

Chet Ellis won first prize. Do you think his parents were proud?

Chet Ellis won. He’s standing with Harold Bailey, TEAM Chair, left, Jim Marpe, First Selectman, and Bill Harmer, Library Director, on right.

The three winners of TEAM Westport’s Essay contest on white privilege read their essays to a full house in Westport Library’s McManus Room yesterday evening. They were brilliant!

I was amazed at the sophistication of their writing. I agree with Harold Bailey, our chair, who said at our TEAM Westport meeting this morning, “I was blown away!” And the first prize winner is a high school sophomore!

Chet Ellis’ essay was “The Colors of Privilege.” He wrote about his experience as one of very few African-American students at Westport’s high school.

Chet Ellis won first prize. Do you think his parents were proud?

Chet Ellis won first prize. Do you think his parents were proud?

He was in 5th grade when his family moved to Westport from Manhattan, “where I thought we were upper middle class. I would look up at all the houses bigger than our rental and imagine what life would be like if I were born lighter and richer.”

At that time, he said, “I had no grasp of the deep social issues that had been keeping my people from attaining such heights of prosperity; didn’t yet understand the lack of truly wealthy black residents in my town as indicative of larger social issues. Now as a sophomore in high school, I have a better understanding of the legacy of institutionalized racism. Now I see the history behind the big houses.”

Josiah Tarrant, a Staples junior, won second prize with his essay “White Privilege and Me.” His essay focused on his experience as the white big brother of a black sibling.

Susan Ellis of TEAM chairs the essay contest committee.

Susan Ellis of TEAM chairs the essay contest committee.

He recalled an experience when he was 12 and his brother 6. His mom began searching for an Early Reader book, “featuring a kid that looked like him.”

He said, “I stood next to her and my brother on those visits to libraries and bookstores when we were shown to the ‘slavery section.’ That day marked the beginning of an awareness of how much I had taken my white experience for granted and a realization that things would not be the same for my brother.”

Third prize went to Claire Dinshaw, for “The Privilege of Ignorance.” Clair is a senior at Staples High School.

She began her essay with, “When I was born, I was placed at the top of a predetermined racial hierarchy. . . History textbooks and acclaimed novels told the stories of people like me.”

Judy Hamer of TEAM chairs the panel of judges. She explained the 'rubric' for choosing.

Judy Hamer of TEAM chairs the panel of judges. She explained the ‘rubric’ for choosing.

Near the end of her essay she talked about an issue that TEAM Westport has been addressing for years.

She said, “. . . whereas I have been taught by countless white teachers, non-white Westport residents are forced to contend with the fact that, although research published in The Economics of Education found that test scores increase when a student has a teacher of the same race, Staples High School has only recently hired its first full-time black teacher.”

You can read all three essays at Dan Woog’s blog, 06880, or at Westport Now. You can also see pictures from the ceremony at both, including a gallery of shots of the audience and participants. Thank you, Dan and Gordon.

A Busy April 1

April 1 was my husband’s birthday. Our daughter Beth came with her family to help us celebrate.

Clem with Beth and her husband Kelvin, with one of his presents.

Clem with Beth and her husband Kelvin, with one of his presents.

We had a delightful dinner at Brasitas in Norwalk. Beth had said she wanted plantain. I ran out of time to buy ripe plantain. So the next best was to have it at the restaurant.

We were seated in the room at the back, by ourselves. With a three-year old, that was fine! The staff put a candle on the dessert we ordered. They helped us sing too!

Fairfield University Bookstore Author Event

Earlier in the day I was at the Fairfield University Bookstore for an author event. My publicist Aline was with me. Clem came by for a while. I had just spoken to a woman with a child whose birthday was also April 1.

Aline, left, me, Nancy, right, at Fairfield University Bookstore Author Event

Aline, left, me, Nancy, right, at Fairfield University Bookstore Author Event

I found them so Clem could wish the child a happy ‘twin’ birthday!

Nancy on the bookstore staff was very helpful. She made announcements and encouraged people to come by. I sold a few books.

We had a prize drawing. The winner received a signed copy of my book. I was happy that the winner was someone who had come by earlier. She wasn’t quite ready to part with the money then, though she wanted a copy! So she was really pleased to be the winner.

Museum Exhibit in Berlin

I was intrigued to read about this museum exhibit in Berlin. It’s called German Colonialism Fragments Past and Present. It lies at the intersection of my background in German and my interest in Africa. Indeed, it was teaching German that got me to Nigeria in the first place.

Greeting people at the display table Fairfield University Bookstore

Greeting people at the display table Fairfield University Bookstore

Germany had many colonies in Africa. The division of Africa into parcels ‘given’ to European countries was decided at a conference in Berlin in 1884-5.

But Germany lost its colonies after World War I. So they did not go through the same period of gradually granting independence that others did.

The article in Africa in Words says, “. . . the displays give insight into local dynamics that influenced the course of colonialism: for example, the varied alliances and relationships between local leaders and colonized populations, as well as representatives of colonial administration, military personnel, European explorers, missionaries, and settlers.” The writer says the exhibit is extremely well-documented. It would be interesting, don’t you think?

It will end in May, so there’s no chance I can get there. Maybe it will travel to this country, though I’m not sure who would show it. Is there not a university in the U.S. with serious German scholarship that could host this exhibit?

March 30, 2017
by Catherine Onyemelukwe
1 Comment

Nigerwives and Intersectionality

Nigerwives and Intersectionality

Cornelia Clapp, 1839-1934, Mount Holyoke professor, for Women's History Month

Cornelia Clapp, 1839-1934, Mount Holyoke professor, for Women’s History Month

I read a fascinating interview with a Nigerian writer, Angela Ajayi. Her Yoruba last name interested me. I was also intrigued by the title of the article, “On Cultural Intersectionality and Familial Love.”

Does the word ‘intersectionality’ mean anything to you? I first heard it at the International UU Women’s Convocation. One of the speakers used the term. Is it a new word for connections and meaningful coincidences, or is it more?

The article was on Ainehi Edoro’s blog, Brittle Paper. Ajayi won a prize as an emerging writer.

She won with the story of a Nigerwife who did not stay in Nigeria. The interviewer says,

Your winning story, “Galina,” immerses us in a Ukrainian woman’s relationship with her mother . .  She has ended her marriage to a Nigerian man, has “returned from Nigeria for good,” and has prevented herself from finding love in a second relationship. 

Then she asks,

Galina’s stay in Nigeria is a life of “cultural coagulation that would only result in heartbreak.” Could you tell us more?

The author says,

Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll say Galina experiences physiological and emotional difficulties while in Nigeria that necessitated such a description. Her relationship with her ex-husband Umaru was unsuccessful, mainly because she couldn’t meet some of the obligations of Nigerian culture.

The interviewer asks why she chose this topic. Ajayi says, “I have always wanted to write about European women like my mother, a Ukrainian, who married African men and moved to African countries. The cultural differences they encountered intrigued me; the character Galina grew out of this intrigue and then later a desire to construct a literary portrait out of this meeting of seemingly disparate cultures.”

I must read the story. The end of the article tells me where to find it. “Read “Galina” in Fifth Wednesday Journal‘s Fall 2016 Issue.

Oxford's Bodleian Library houses papers donated by Nigerwife Barbara Akinyemi

Oxford’s Bodleian Library houses papers donated by Nigerwife Barbara Akinyemi

Nigerwives Papers at Oxford

Nigerwives Lagos Branch published monthly newsletters beginning in the 1980’s. I have sixteen, from 1991 to 2001.

I learned there is a large collection at Oxford Bodleian Library. They were donated by Barbara Akinyemi, an early Nigerwife. The collection also has diaries of her time in Nigeria before she married.

My husband is sure I knew her, and I think I did too, but I can’t picture her. Anyone have a photo?

The editors of the May 1998 newsletter introduced a series of “Profiles of Nigerwives.” Barbara, apparently the oldest Nigerwife at the time, was the first. She went to Nigeria as a nurse in the colonial service in 1947!

Nina Mba wrote the article. She says Barbara, “was the first colonial civil servant to become a Nigerwife.” Barbara’s birthday was celebrated by Nigerwives the next month, when she turned 84. She died a few years later in England.

I wish I’d have time to visit Oxford when I go to England in April for the conference on Biafra. But I don’t. So I’ve written to the staff person at Oxford. She can send me copies. I’ll order a few from years I don’t have. I may use the info in the chapter on Nigerwives. I’ve nearly finished, but could add interesting stories.

Women’s History Month

Steve Clapp, Peace Corps volunteer Nigeria, author, friend, Unitarian

Steve Clapp, Peace Corps volunteer Nigeria, author, friend, Unitarian

Last blog post during Women’s History Month. Instead of choosing someone well-known, I decided to tell you about Cornelia Clapp. I’m choosing her to honor Steve Clapp.

Steve was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria. We became acquainted over the last few years by email, blog, and in person. He died on December 5, 2016 of acute leukemia, within weeks of learning he was ill. His second book, Fixing the Food System, was published just before his death.

When he learned that I was an alum of Mount Holyoke, he delighted in telling me about his relative for whom the Clapp Building was named. He was also, we discovered along the way, a fellow Unitarian.

Steve's book Fixing the Food System, November 2016

Steve’s book Fixing the Food System, November 2016

Cornelia Clapp was an alumna, class of 1871, when the college was still a seminary. She began teaching there in 1872. She was an instructor in gymnastics and mathematics. There’s a piece from the yearbook of 1897 about her.

Wikipedia’s entry about Cornelia Clapp says, “When Mount Holyoke made the transition from seminary to college in 1888, Clapp took a three-year leave in order to obtain a doctorate at the University of Chicago. When she returned to Mount Holyoke, she helped organize the department of zoology, and in 1904 she was named professor of zoology.[10]

Wikipedia also tells me, “Although she was primarily known as an educator and did not author many scientific research papers, she was named in 1906 as being among the 150 most prominent zoologists in the U.S. by the journal American Man of Science.[5]

Clapp Hall at Mount Holyoke College

Clapp Hall at Mount Holyoke College

Don’t you love the name of the journal?

You can read more about the Cornelia Clapp Laboratory, dedicated to her. It was completed in 1924.

In addition to teaching at Mount Holyoke, she was involved in the work at Woods Hole Marine Biological Lab. “She carried on research there, primarily in the field of embryology,” I find at Britannica online.

“She retired as professor emeritus from Mount Holyoke in 1916 but continued for several years to summer at Woods Hole,” Britannica says. She didn’t publish a lot as an academic, but her teaching was legendary. She had an important influence, “to extend scientific knowledge and opportunity to women through education.”

She died in 1934.

Is it ‘intersectionality’ that I write about Clapp because of my Peace Corps connection with Steve, another Unitarian, my daughter had many labs in Clapp, and I blog about Women’s History Month? Enlighten me!