Author Interview: Catherine Onyemelukwe, an American in Nigeria
Catherine Onyemelukwe, a white American, went to Nigeria with the Peace Corps in the early 1960s and stayed twenty-four years. Now based in the U.S., Catherine serves on the U.S. Committee for UN Women, She is an activist for racial justice in her community and her Unitarian congregation.
Catherine’s memoir, Nigeria Revisited—My Life and Loves Abroad, kept me turning pages as fast as a good novel. It also showed me a different world. Yet, I found some facets delightfully familiar when Catherine used some of the very persuasion, consensus-building and communication skills I teach, coach and write about.
I wanted to know more, so I asked Catherine for an interview. Her answers to my questions are as interesting as her book.
MEA: In the 1960s, racial tensions in the U. S. were running high. How did you expect your parents to react to the news that you were engaged to a native Nigerian? And how did they react in fact?
CO: I expected my parents to accept my decision without prejudice, though I admit I was a little worried. But they did! I was grateful. I think they had raised me to feel comfortable living in a different culture and with people of another race, so I wasn’t surprised.
My mother said she had one question – was he Christian? She had taken a class about Nigeria at the University of Cincinnati so knew that half the country was Muslim.
After a few other questions, Margaret asked about cultural differences.
MEA: I have observed that we sometimes cut foreigners more slack than those of our own nationality. We may excuse, as cultural differences, things that would offend us if a fellow American said or did them, even if we don’t know exactly what those foreign cultural differences are. But we may not realize that “offenses” committed by someone of our own nationality can stem from unrecognized intra-national cultural differences such as gender, region or generation.
Did knowing that you and Clem had cultural differences make resolving disagreements easier or harder than if you had married an American?
CO: I think it made it easier. We have tried to talk about cultural differences after a disagreement is resolved, but rarely as we’re getting into the disagreement when emotions are high! But I have to say that he sometimes says I should excuse his behavior because “I’m an African!” I usually laugh!
MEA: So are you saying that, during the disagreement, when emotions are high, there is a subconscious realization of cultural differences that helps you reach that resolution? That you do cut each other more slack?
CO: Yes, for sure.
MEA: Putting the shoe on the other foot, have you ever done something, and Clem said, “I’ll excuse that behavior because you’re an American”?
CO: You’re kidding, right?
MEA: You lived in the Igbo territory in east Nigeria, the region that became “Biafra” during the civil war. What was hardest about coping with that war?
CO: The uncertainty was the hardest. When the war started many of us on the Biafran side felt fairly certain that we would succeed. For safety, we moved from Lagos to Clem’s village. But after six or eight months living in the village, refugees came into our town of Nanka. I recognized that Biafra was losing territory more quickly than the government was admitting. That and news on VOA and BBC led me to suspect that the news we were hearing from the Biafran government might be embellished.
You can read the whole interview here.
Margaret and I follow each other’s blogs. She’s told me a little about her background and her books. I’ll soon ask to interview her!
And you may read about her again if our proposal for a workshop at the 2017 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly is accepted. She will be the moderator of a conversation between me and Iyabo Obasanjo about West African Customs.
Re-Connecting with Yale Professor, and Another Interview
In 1986, after 24 years living in Nigeria, I came back to the U.S. I’d been accepted at Yale’s School of Organization and Management for my MPPM (Master’s in Public and Private Management) degree.
The school’s name was later shortened to Yale School of Management. The degree is now the MBA, like everyone else’s.
The first professor I met was Dr. Bena Kallick. She taught the IGB – Interpersonal and Group Behaviour – class that was an important part of the first semester curriculum.
Last year I learned that she lived in Westport. I gathered my courage and got in touch. We finally met for lunch last week! We had a wonderful, warm conversation.
I gave her a copy of my memoir. I told her about my second book on Igbo customs and community. My first chapter, about Yale SOM, features the IGB class.
She spoke about her intriguing work in education consulting.
One of her co-authored books is Habits of Mind. Here’s an interview where she explains the habits. She also speaks about other aspects of teaching and learning.
We agreed to get together again in December near our common Dec. 13th birthday!
Family, Fun, and Food
Thanksgiving with our daughter Beth and her family was splendid!
Beth cooked all day, with occasional ‘help’ from Ikem!
When we drove into their street around 4:30 pm, grandson Kenechi, home from Cornell, had Ikem in his stroller. He said he’d been asked to get him out of the way for a few minutes!
The candied sweet potatoes and collard greens were my favorites, and maybe the pumpkin pie!
Were you with family? Friends?