Excerpt: Nigeria Revisited

Excerpt: Nigeria Revisited

A young woman in the peace corp stays to marry and raise a family in Nigeria.

Nigeria Revisited ARTBy Catherine Onyemelukwe

Chapter 1: Africa Revealed

“Wake up. We’re in Africa.” I nudged my companion Art and leaned over him to look through the plane’s window. “Wake up. You have to see the sunrise.” The vivid red, yellow, and orange were startling.

I descended the steps onto the tarmac. I felt like I’d walked into a wall of heat and humidity. I pulled off my sweater as I approached the shabby, single-story, cinder-block terminal—the Lagos International Airport.

“The American ambassador is here to welcome you,” a man said, guiding me toward a tall, distinguished man standing at a podium on the tarmac.

The ambassador stepped forward, wiping his brow. “One of my proudest occasions as the representative of the United States is to greet Peace Corps volunteers and send you off for service to this great nation.” He concluded with praise for the Peace Corps country director and staff.

I’d had enough of speeches. I wanted to see Africa and Africans.

Palm trees lined the road leading out of the airport. I could have been in Los Angeles, where I’d completed my Peace Corps training two weeks earlier. But when the bus turned onto a main thoroughfare and the trees were replaced by open gutters, which I saw and smelled at the same moment, I could no longer mistake the scene for Southern California.

Some men were in long white robes and skullcaps; others were in open shirts or dashikis. Women wore wrappers and head ties in bright blues, greens, and reds. Several had babies tied on their backs, a few had bundles on their heads, and some had both. It was just like I’d seen in pictures, but it was real, jubilant, and exciting.

And the noise matched the color, with loud voices in Yoruba, English, and other languages. I forgot my tiredness as I absorbed the shouts and laughter that poured into the bus.

I began noticing the ads, not just huge billboards but smaller signs—many handmade—that hung or stood outside houses and along the street, promoting the services of carpenters, dressmakers, tailors, and electricians. “Sew your wedding dress here,” I saw. I spotted, “Consult the herbalist to solve your problem with gonorrhea!”

Then we were on Carter Bridge, the only link from the mainland to Lagos Island, the heart of the city. We were surrounded by bicycles, many battered and worn. Across the bridge, there were more people, more and larger buildings, and all more closely crowded together. Our Peace Corps handler pointed out the Lagos Central Mosque, an impressive concrete structure that dominated a stretch of the left side of the road, with Arabic designs painted on the reddish-brown walls. Its four minarets, tall spires with onion-shaped crowns, stood out.

In another few minutes, the bus stopped in front of a drab, three-story block of apartments. My training roommate, Mary, and I were given a minimally furnished room to share. The whole building smelled of wet cement.

A few hours later, the other volunteers and I were escorted to dinner at the nearby Federal Palace Hotel. Sitting in the lobby’s plush armchair with a cool drink in my hand, I laughed at the absurdity. “This is Africa?” I said to Art.

We were ushered into the dining room and seated at tables for eight with white linen tablecloths and napkins, silverware, and glassware. The waiters, well-mannered and attentive in their white coats, didn’t seem like real Africans. I could still have been in New York.

But the salad made me hesitate. Peace Corps trainers had stressed that I must not eat untreated vegetables. If not cooked, then all vegetables, including salad greens and tomatoes, should be soaked in Milton or another antiseptic solution to kill the bacteria. I glanced across to the Peace Corps director at the next table. He was eating it—it must be safe.

Then came the main course—steak and potatoes—with nothing African about it. I was disappointed but hungry. I had a few bites left when I paused to speak to Mary. The waiter was clearing others’ plates when he leaned deferentially over me and said, “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking how kind he was to be concerned about my health. He promptly took my plate away.

As I watched my last morsels of dinner disappear, I heard the Peace Corps director laughing. He’d seen my chagrin. “Didn’t your training instructors tell you that ‘Are you all right?’ means ‘Are you finished eating?'” he said.

I fell asleep thinking about the contrast between the boisterous crowds I’d seen on the streets and the sophisticated hotel dining room. I didn’t yet know that this was a realistic foretaste of the two worlds of a developing country.

The next morning, we were welcomed again, this time at the American embassy. The Peace Corps doctor took all the men into a separate assembly room while we women waited. Forty-five minutes later, the men came out wearing crooked smiles. They avoided our questioning looks as we went in.

We were warned about engaging in unprotected sex, especially with Nigerian men, which could lead to sexually transmitted diseases. AIDS was not yet on the list, but gonorrhea and syphilis were—the sign I’d seen the day before flashed through my mind. If we were unlucky enough to get pregnant, we should come to him. Given my naiveté, I was sure I wouldn’t need him.

That afternoon, we were entertained at a reception given by Nigeria’s minister of education, Aja Nwachukwu. His home was on Queens Drive, an address that reflected the colonial era that had ended only two years earlier. The reception was outside, with tuxedoed waiters serving drinks and hors d’oeuvres. The minister, elegantly attired in a heavily embroidered turquoise-blue robe and dark-blue felt cap, assured us that we were eagerly awaited in our schools and would be able to influence the direction of education in his country. He had trained in the United States and was very happy to have Peace Corps in Nigeria.

A glimpse of my school, two hours each at the Nigerian Museum and the International Trade Fair, and a reception at the American ambassador’s home filled the next day. In the evening, the Peace Corps country director pulled Roger and me aside. “Your assignments are here in Lagos, but your housing isn’t ready, and your schools don’t start for other week. So you can come with us tomorrow to take the volunteers going to the Eastern Region and the North. The bus will leave at six.”

This was an unexpected treat! I packed eagerly before finding Art, who was posted to the Western Region, to tell him good-bye. He would be leaving on a separate bus the next morning with the other twenty volunteers headed for the same part of the country. With a casual, “See you sometime,” and a quick hug, we parted.

Fifty of us boarded the bus together—Roger and I, the twenty-eight volunteers bound for the East, another eighteen headed for the North, and two Peace Corps staff. I was optimistic about the days ahead and knew I was in good company.

I looked around at my fellow passengers. Most were white, and about half were men and half women. A few already had master’s degrees. The majority had just graduated from college. I was among the youngest at twenty-one.

Peace Corps training at the University of California Los Angeles had been intense. We had classes in the primary language of the region where we were headed and lectures in anthropology, political science, history, and African art. The men learned soccer and rugby, and the women were taught to play netball, similar to basketball. We had psychiatric evaluations, medical exams, and shots against tetanus, yellow fever, diphtheria, and hepatitis, and we were prescribed our malaria prophylactics.

The more I had learned, the more excited I had been to see the country for myself—to experience the political atmosphere of a newly independent country and see the mix of British colonialism and native culture.

Finally I was on my way to hear the languages and see people of different tribes.

Only a few miles from Lagos, we were surrounded by tropical rain forest, dense and lush, just as I’d seen in pictures and from the plane. “At last, here’s the real Africa,” I said to Roger.

“Can you identify the types of palm trees?” he said. I’d forgotten he was a science teacher! He helped me identify coconuts in their greenish-brown husks and oil palms with bunches of red palm fruits. Banana trees had leaves as big as umbrellas.

I was more interested in people than in trees. I stared wide-eyed at the masses of people on the streets of Ibadan, the largest city in Africa south of the Sahara. Two hours later, we pulled into a gas station in the ancient city of Benin. I heard attendants speaking the main language of the Eastern Region. Even though I’d studied Yoruba for my assignment in Lagos, I’d learned to say, “Kedu ka ime, how are you?” in Igbo, and I tried it out, getting big smiles and greetings in return. My language ability was a gift, and I knew it would serve me well for my two years. I didn’t know then that speaking Igbo would help me convince future in-laws that I was a suitable wife.

The sun was dropping below the horizon at seven o’clock when we reached Enugu, the capital of the East. We bade farewell to our friends staying in the East before heading to bed and joined the staff and other volunteers going to the North early in the morning. This time, we went by train, and as we chugged along, I began to understand Nigeria’s size. Almost a thousand miles at the widest section, east to west, and seven hundred miles south to north, it was 357,000 square miles. That’s slightly more than twice the size of California.

I pulled my map out of my bag to see our route. We’d driven almost due east to reach Enugu, crossing the Niger River at Onitsha. Even though the equator wasn’t marked on my map, I knew that Lagos was at about 7 degrees north. Today we would cross the major tributary of the Niger, the Benue River, at Makurdi on our way to Kaduna.

We left the tropical rain forest and dense growth behind as we entered the savannah—fewer trees and more shrubs. Roger pointed out the baobab trees, appearing to grow upside down.

Nigeria’s major cities and rivers (with new capital Abuja)

We saw fewer people. Women were less flamboyant; several had their heads covered.

The city of Kaduna was completely different from the barely controlled chaos of Lagos, with newer buildings and streets laid out in a grid. The volunteers going to assignments in northern towns and cities were happy to use their language skills. Hausa seemed to be easier for Americans; it didn’t have the three different tones or levels of Yoruba and Igbo.

My whirlwind Nigerian tour concluded two days later when Roger and I flew back to Lagos and were taken to the Peace Corps Rest House, or hostel, on the island of Ikoyi, less than half a mile from the ambassador’s residence.

The following day, I met my principal, a tall Nigerian man dressed in an agbada, as I now knew to call the long robe. He greeted me formally in his slightly accented but excellent English. “You will meet the other staff when the session opens in another two days. Meanwhile, let me call someone to show you around.”

An attractive young Nigerian woman in Western dress led me to the classroom block opposite the principal’s office, where I would have my classroom. She was a student and hoped to study German. I was intrigued with her pleasantly accented English. She’d be fun to teach. Was I capable?

The principal gave me the address of the apartment that would be my home for the next two years, Twenty-Five Glover Road. I found Glover Road with no difficulty but couldn’t see any number twenty-five. Since I couldn’t move in for at least another month, I’d have time to find it. For now, I made myself at home at the Peace Corps Rest House. Roger too was waiting for his housing.

With a steward who shopped, cooked, cleaned, and did laundry, we could explore the area when our lesson plans were ready. “We should send our picture to our families and friends,” I said to Roger on our second evening as we sat in our lounge chairs outside, sipping the drinks the steward had brought. I swatted away mosquitoes and said, “We could call this our tropical vacation.” Was this really the Peace Corps?

Read our interview with Catherine Onyemelukwe.

Nigeria Revisited ARTThis is a sponsored excerpt from Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad. Available now.


Author Q&A: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Author Q&A: Catherine Onyemelukwe

Sept 2013 1Catherine Onyemelukwe is the author of Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad, her memoir of her twenty-four years in Nigeria, starting as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1962 and returning to the United States in 1986.

What was your inspiration (or what is the story behind) writing Nigeria Revisited?

Every time I meet someone new and say my last name, Onyemelukwe, I am asked, “Where is that from?” I explain that it’s a Nigerian name, and I married a Nigerian man whom I met when I was in the Peace Corps in his country. If the person is interested I tell a little about the country and its fascinating people.

Sometimes I give talks about Nigeria. I have been asked frequently, “Have you written a book about your experiences?” Nigeria Revisited is my answer.

What was the hardest part to write?

During my memoir writing classes and even earlier, when I told part of my story to a friend to help me get started with writing, I was told, “Reveal more of your feelings. Reflect on situations.” That was hard for me.

What was the greatest challenge in bringing the book to market?

I think the greatest challenge was in knowing what to leave out. When I was writing and having the book edited, I kept the chapters separate. It wasn’t until I put them all together that I discovered it was over 150,000 words. All the advice I read about publishing a memoir from someone not well known was that it had to be less than 100,000 words. I’m sure it is better now after I took out nearly 50,000 words. But I struggled with many of the deletions.

What do you hope the reader will take away from Nigeria Revisited?

I want readers to understand that for all its difficulties, Nigeria is an amazing country. The sense of belonging and being part of a community that I gained from my husband, his family, and his village has been invaluable.

Second, I want readers to know that even when a marriage faces challenges, staying and making it work are worthwhile.

What book(s) had the greatest influence on you?

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart which I first read during Peace Corps training influenced my thinking about Nigeria. Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun which I read while I was working on my own memoir helped me see the Biafran War, which I lived through, in its broader context.

How do you balance writing and motherhood?

Since my children are grown I did not need to do the balancing that mothers of young children have to do. I had thought at first that I could write the memoir while I was working, but in the end it was until I left my last job three years ago that I could actually give enough time to writing.

What is your advice to mother writers?

Keep a journal! It doesn’t have to be by hand – you can keep it on your computer. Whether or not you are writing about your children or your experience of motherhood, make notes about events and your feelings. This will prove vital for whatever type of writing you do. Even if you have to recount the feelings of a fictional character, having your own notes will help you. And find a writing friend or a writing class or group.

And have a space and time to write. An hour after children’s bedtime, at the table which your children and/or husband have cleared, can be enough. Or wake up before others, and give yourself an hour alone.



Excerpt: Who Knows Tomorrow

Excerpt: Who Knows Tomorrow

By Lisa Lovatt-Smith



The complicated thing about living in the African bush is water—or rather the lack of it. Sure there was a stream, but it was in a snake-prone bamboo grove and the local fetish priest had bewitched the water so that it killed dogs (or so everybody in the village believed), and I wasn’t about to chance it. Fortunately we actually had piped, honest-to-goodness government of Ghana water, which was bloody unbelievable considering we lived three miles from the nearest settlement

on the main road. So somehow we got our own tap at home. You turned it on and piped water came out. Sometimes. In the capital city of Accra, three hours’ drive and a whole different lifestyle away, the water flowed once or twice a week. Here it arrived maybe once a week and for some unfathomable reason, usually at midnight. “Because you are up a hill,” the bespectacled water guy confidently informed me. Anyway, you filled your bucket and took it into the outdoor bathhouse, on your head gracefully and as if you were wearing a particularly odd hat if you were my daughters, or huffing and puffing and poking your arm out lopsidedly if you were me. Still, we had never thought it was even a remote possibility to have water coming out the tap in our forest home, however intermittently, so whenever it did flow it was a big deal. Which was why

I came to be standing in the middle of the tropical night holding a hosepipe thinking about my foster father’s death . . . and the flight back from the funeral the day before yesterday… and how the flight attendant wouldn’t let me sleep on the floor of the airplane, which was the only thing I felt like doing after he was gone. I was filling the water tank under the tropical night sky, which because we lived so far from any form of electricity was full of the shiniest stars. I was doing all this in the complete darkness and with no shoes on, wrapped in a scrap of African cloth, because that is how we lived. Tanks were assiduously filled up, no matter what time of day or night the water started to flow. Our tank took a long time to fi ll. My eyes were itching and the dried sweat on my forehead was irritating. So after a while I jammed the hosepipe into the top of the tank and held it down with a biggish rock, checked on my two children, and snuggled down beside my husband, Kweku, for a rest. I fully expected to get up again to turn the tap off, since after many years of water shortages our ears had become finely attuned to the different water gurgles, especially the tank is full and precious water is splashing over the top type of gurgles. Except that night. Worn out from the week and my daughter’s thirteenth birthday party the day before, and the funeral and the flight, I fell sound asleep. With the bedroom door unlocked.

?w? foro ad?b?.

—Akan proverb of the Ashanti people, Ghana

A snake climbs the raffi a palm tree.

(You can achieve the apparently impossible.)


My story starts with Italian tomatoes; apparently they were directly responsible for my conception. My curvy, tiny English mother, who had dyed her blond pixie cut brown to downplay her gorgeousness, was having trouble getting pregnant. The market women in Lerici made her success their own personal quest. “Pomodori, signora, deve mangiare gli pomodori . . . di piu, di piu.” The village of Lerici’s claim to fame is that the British Romantic poet Percy Shelley drowned there in the blue Mediterranean while returning from a visit to Lord Byron. Sunny, beautiful, Italian, and romantic. And it had tomatoes. So that’s where I was conceived while my mum and dad—English like Shelley and his wife Mary, who wrote Frankenstein—lived in a rented house. My parents were temporary visitors, just like they were.

Mum and Dad were both from the North of England, and had married in London, where the bride wore a dark-purple mini (it was the sixties, after all). My father’s family disapproved, since my mum was a grocer’s daughter from Scunthorpe, and thus was considered common. My dad was a lanky blond art student of no fixed ambition who excelled at the Royal College of Art. He was raffish and apparently not common at all.

My mother was determined to see the back of Scunthorpe as soon as she could escape its dreary confines. One can hardly blame her: this was the lackluster industrial North of England. As a child, for six months of the year she had to break the ice in the pail before bathing. She dropped out of school at sixteen and apprenticed to a hairdresser, where she practiced on poodles dying them pink and blue, kick-starting what was to be an illustrious career as a colorist. Not, mind you, before she’d carried off the “Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll” title from the local US Marines. My mum loved dancing—she was really good at it—and rockin’ and rollin’ in the center of an admiring crowd was when she felt most alive.

She bought herself a two-week package tour to Italy, where every good thing she had ever suspected about the south became a certainty. Her tiny waist and lively looks attracted trails of adoring Italian boys. From the day the joyful recipes of Elizabeth David had crossed my mother’s path, the notion of the Mediterranean with its sunlight, fresh figs, dark wine, and bare legs descended upon her like a religious experience. When the tour ended, she promised herself she would live there one day.

In the meantime London would have to do and so she moved there, staying at the YMCA. By 1964, the year that Swinging London was invented, my mother had turned twenty-six, rented a flat, changed her name from Margaret-Ann to Margot, and dyed her hair as blond as could be. She had reached the pinnacle of her profession as celebrity colorist at the famous House of Leonard. The salon was a tiny, bright star in the world’s hippest city, because in the early 1960s, hairdressers and makeup artists changed the world, and London was the epicenter of the funky new universe. My mum could pull off any shade of blond from Twiggy to Bardot. She gloried in her talent, partied, and surrounded herself with a lot of nice gay boys. She was hot, sociable, and fun. London was about to become the swinging belly button of the world, but Mum still aspired to the Mediterranean. Then she met my dad and they made a pact; my mum wanted to get as far away as possible from England, and my dad would tag along for the ride.

So my young soon-to-be parents drove to the South of France in a rented “yogurt pot” of blessed memory, a quintessentially sixties vehicle with three wheels and no balance. Once on the coast, itimmediately overturned (with no damage to my parents) and expired on the spot. My parents wafted around by train until the holiday was over.

The following year my father neglected to come home one night and sent a dozen red roses in his stead. My mother shredded them and danced on the ruins of her marriage in the living room, while downing a bottle of red wine. To cap it all, her husband had run away to Italy (“Italy, my country”) with a girl named Dorothy (“Dorothy, what a common name”). Chain smoking and with only twenty-five British pounds in her pocket, my mum threw in her brilliant career and finally moved, as she had always wanted, to Italy—by bus, and broken-hearted. Soon, Dorothy exited the picture and my father courted my mum all over again, until she relented and they settled in the Bay of Lerici on the Italian Riviera, where pale-pink and yellow houses tumbled into the sea like pastel baby blocks. My mother remembers two main things about their crumbling apricot house: the plumbing (lack of) and the wall geckos (abundance of). It was perched on terraces cut into the steep rugged landscape near the top of a cliff and had a wonderful view of the sea. It was the most impractical choice of location, as it was inaccessible by road. In a gray flannel suit, my father commuted weekly to his job at a top-notch, ultra-trendy advertising agency in Milan. Secretaries in heavy black eyeliner and shiny vinyl miniskirts tripped across the white shag carpet in their platform shoes. Knowing my father’s roving eye, my mum hated every one of them. During this time she stayed home and lived in a bikini, theoretically nesting but in reality dedicating herself to her lifelong religion: sun worship that involved lashings of tanning oil. The one time she was called upon to entertain, the chic Milanese guests had to kill and pluck the chicken themselves, as my “Made in England” mum hadn’t realized it would be delivered from the market alive.

* * *

 By New Year’s Day 1967, with bright hopes for what turned out to be a seriously turbulent year, all those tomatoes my mum had ingested had paid off: they were about to have me. It was the year of the Summer of Love, and in a bout of early onset spring fever, my parents, then six months pregnant, blithely decided to leave their pleasant Italian life by the sea and transport themselves to a repressive military dictatorship: Generalissimo Franco’s fascist Spain. I still fail to understand the logic; compared to other cities, Barcelona had very little going for it. London was booming, Milan’s golden age of design was about to climax, the United States was one big hippie love-in—but Barcelona? Apparently, my parents were once again in search of a blank canvas. This time, though, they were about to get more than they bargained for.

Under dictator Francisco Franco’s regime, the capital of Catalonia had been for decades an oppressed and angry city where the people were barely even allowed to speak their own language. Nothing was happening in Barcelona beyond a few strikes and a lot of resentment. And even if the subtleties of political repression escaped them, my father was soon to discover there was scarcely any advertising industry to speak of.

They leisurely crossed the Mediterranean from Genoa to Barcelona by boat, my mum with her elegant white coat flying in the wind and her big belly peeking out. Boy, she must have trusted him, to prepare to give birth somewhere in a new place where she didn’t even speak a word of the language. Characteristically she hit the ground dancing; so much so that after a particularly energetic night on the tiles and a midnight snack of strawberries and cream, I

popped out a month early. It was the fifteenth of April, the day huge demonstrations were held against the Vietnam War in New York City and San Francisco. I was a worryingly tiny two kilogram, or four-and-a-half-pound, baby. They had been in Spain barely eight weeks.

My parents took the usual vastly impractical decision and moved to Sitges, a tiny quiet coastal village forty minutes drive south of Barcelona. Picturesque scenery, white-washed cobbled alleys ending in sea views, steeples and churches, women dressed completely in black . . . That apartment was on the top floor in an old fisherman’s house beside a café called Gustavo’s, ten feet from the sand. My parents had several cages of singing birds. And they had me, who swam before I could walk. It was the Mediterranean dream incarnate. By the time I was two, my young brilliant father with the easy infectious laugh had become the toast of the elite who dreamed of a newer, more groovy Barcelona. His ad campaigns were light-hearted and airy. At the end of the sixties wave, they spoke of a freer era.

He and my mother threw parties on the beach attended by men with goatees and women whose fringes brushed their eyelashes. These yé-yé boys and girls (the Spanish version of “yeah, yeah!”) were the Gauche Divine, the Catalan intelligentsia who looked to France for inspiration and were waiting for the old dictator to die. They smuggled porn, rock music, and champagne from France, along with magazines that revealed the latest fashions. The foreign sheen still on him, my dad was their darling. He was a breath of fresh air, and Barcelona loved him.

Our family fortunes picked up. We moved to a splendid art deco apartment overlooking Turó Park in uptown Barcelona. A Portuguese contessa lived next door, and she fed me perunilla cookies flavored with cinnamon and lemon, and weak milky tea. Afterward, a governess wheeled me through the park in a navy-blue pushchair. I had white-blond hair and blue, blue eyes. I posed for tons of bonnie-baby commercials that my dad made.

My father was the darling of the incipient advertising and magazine industry, and therefore was never home. My mum was not having as good a time. Also, in the endless Spanish summer, the streets of Barcelona were dusty and gray, and the light was harsh. The city had turned its back on the sea, despite being a port. It was also profoundly conventional; the small freedoms my mum had previously taken for granted were absent. Censorship was everywhere in the form of black squares in every newspaper and magazine. Sex did not exist, and neither did bare breasts or legs. Foreign radio services were blocked. In the butchered movies shown on TV at night, clumsily cut by a censor, the protagonists invariably went straight to breakfast after the firstkiss, as empty film slithered across the screen. On Sundays only brass bands and religious services were on TV, and the dictator endlessly pontificated in a language my mother could not understand. If someone invited you to come to their apartment for dinner, you had to stand outside the building and clap, which was the signal for the sereno, the night watchman, to open the door. You could not just turn up. The codes of society were strict and hard to crack. Everyone over thirty wore black; married women never wore trousers, and they stayed indoors. On Sundays they wore lace veils to church.

This dark bitter Catalan city was not Mum’s idealized southern world. She wore bright-colored mini-shorts and clickity-clackety wooden sandals until November. She was like the Coppertone girl, tan all year round, smelling of coconut and carrot oil. She loved the sun, long white beaches, and the juicy pleasures of eating and cooking.

At this point, with her simple zest for life, the stay-at-home wife with peasant tastes might have slightly embarrassed my father, who was now playing a bigger game. One day she returned from the market to our expensive apartment, only to find that all my father’s clothes were gone. He had taken off with a woman named Debbie. There and then, when I was four, he disappeared off the face of my earth. He left behind:

  1. Piles of thick, peculiar-smelling storyboard paper, which for the next ten years I would use to draw on. These were a very exotic and inky black, with six white squares that represented TV screens with the space to write the scripts below each screen.
  2. One big box of Caran d’Ache colored pencils, arranged by tone like a rainbow.
  3. One box of pastels; square ones that left clouds of powdery tint on your fingers.
  4.  Four postcards from Paris, all identical, all saying the same thing: “I love you, Daddy.” The snapshots from before I was four show a tall slim man; a sharp dresser. I can’t remember him at all, not even his smell or his eyes. I can, however, recall the myth of him with outstanding clarity.

My mum was devastated, although she would never show it. Without my dad, my mum felt like a nobody. Instead of damning him for leaving her stranded, she immediately started weaving the fairy tale of him. This was the myth that sustained us both for twenty years. Unbelievably, she never spoke a word against him. She felt they’d had ten good years together and she’d been blissfully happy, which was more than most women got out of marriage, she said. That they never fought. That until it was off, it was always passionately on. His friends were divided into two opposing camps. The men wanted to sleep with her. The women wanted her to return to England and get welfare and legal aid.

* * *

She had absolutely no money. She had never finished school, had few marketable skills, and could not drive. She could not speak a word of Catalan; only a little Spanish mixed with Italian. And yet my mother didn’t leave fascist Spain, where she had no one, for an easier life in England. In this solitary fact lies coiled the essence of my profoundly unconventional childhood. She didn’t go back to Swinging London, which by 1971 had seen the breakup of the Beatles, the exodus of the Rolling Stones, and the rise of hard drugs, glam rock, and a haircut called the shag. She was plucky and stubborn, and determined not to drop her Mediterranean delusion.

She moved us to a small apartment in Castelldefels on the long beach south of Barcelona. From then on, our apartments would only get tinier and more dismal, and there would be a long succession of them, sometimes two or three a year. These were rundown rooms in buildings slapped together for seasonal holiday makers on the long streets that ran between the pine forest and the endless dunes. My mum decided not to look for a hairdressing job because it would mean too many long hours away from me. She found a summer job teaching swimming for a few pesetas, but by the time autumn rolled around again we were both very lost. I vaguely remember a boyfriend with a Doberman. That is, I remember long hours playing with a Doberman. And another who bought me a dress that was too small, but I could not tell him so because I was supposed to be nice to him. Within a few months, when I was five, Paul and Barbara, a very affluent couple also from the North of England who had two children and who had socialized with my parents in better days, offered to take me in.

Read an interview with Lisa Lovatt-Smith

WhoKnowsTomorrow-COVERBuy the book.

Author Q&A: Lisa Lovatt-Smith

Author Q&A: Lisa Lovatt-Smith

Headshot Lisa Lovatt Smith

Lisa Lovatt-Smith is the author of Who Knows Tomorrow. She began her career at the age of 18 as an intern for Bristish Vogue. In 2002, after a long career in fashion, Lisa left everything behind and founded OAfrica. Today she lives in Ghana with her family.

What led up to the moment where you quit your former life?

It was a combination of things. In the summer of 2002 I travelled to Ghana with my adopted daughter Sabrina to volunteer at an orphanage. The experience transformed me. The orphanage was so bad, the children were beaten and without food, and the place was filthy. The sheer awfulness of the whole thing moved me and I knew I had the resources to do something. I thought I could make a difference.

What was your inspiration for writing Who Knows Tomorrow?

I met a woman, Bonnie Lieberman, who broke the glass ceiling, she blazed her way to the top. She told me this was a story that had to be told.

What is the message you would like the reader to take away after reading Who Knows Tomorrow?

There are two messages. First the fact that anyone can make a difference. With a willingness to listen and learn, and ability to put a team together, one person can change things. The second is that if you give a child love they can’t fail and that the words we say are so powerful. Using encouraging words is so important.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

I was distraught an upset during much of the time I wrote, the writing brought back all the horror I had witnessed.

What “advice” would you give other mother writers?

I sat down with my kids and explained I was writing a book, and I was going to be very busy, and it would impact their lives because they were going to be in it. I wanted them to feel a part of it, which they are. Then I made a timetable and in the morning I wrote, then again after dinner – for six months there was no after dinner play. Also, writers have to realize that there will be unexpected interruptions to the process. My daughter gave birth and I took a week off, it happens.

WhoKnowsTomorrow-COVERBuy The Book.

Thirty percent of author proceeds are being donated to support OAfrica.



Am I a Bad Mother or Did Africa Run Out of Shoes?

Am I a Bad Mother or Did Africa Run Out of Shoes?

By Rachel Pieh Jones

shoes1I saw a scruffy boy at the Nairobi airport and wondered, where is that kid’s mother? His hair stuck up in all directions, uncombed and unwashed. He wore blue jeans with holes in the knees so wide the bottom half and the top half of the jeans were barely still connected. His red sweatshirt had a hole in the neck, both armpits, and the cuffs were shredded to strings. His shoes. I think they used to be shoes. Now, they were merely a see-through blue upper attached by shoelaces at the ankle to a rubber bottom that was filled with holes. His dirty socks poked through the holes and the soles flipped around his feet like flip-flops that flopped in the front instead of in back.

He’s not really motherless but he sure looked like it. His name is Henry and he’s my son.

He loves those shoes and jeans, that sweatshirt. He refused for months to get rid of them and refused to duct tape them (duct tape fixes run in the family).

But we were now in Minnesota and it was a below-zero-almost-every-day kind of December. Henry could not wear those shoes or jeans anymore. Grandma had already purchased new jeans; it was up to me to buy him new shoes.

We went to the mall, every expatriate’s favorite first place to go upon re-entry (oh wait, it isn’t?), and marched to the shoe store. I pulled a pair off the shelf. While Henry tried them on the store employee came to help us.

“How do they fit?” I asked.

“They’re a little tight,” Henry said.

“Anything is going to be tight after those.” I pointed at the old pair and the employee noticed, for the first time, the pile of rags and recognized them as used-to-be-shoes.

“Holy crap!” he said. “Are those your old shoes?” He started laughing so hard he drew the attention of the other staff. He picked up the shoes (a brave move if ever there was one, maybe he hadn’t seen Henry’s socks yet) and held them aloft.

“Guys, check this out.” The soles hung loose, his fingers slid ‘in and out of the upper part of the shoe. “Dude.” That was in a whisper. “Do you think Adidas has ever seen a pair of their shoes like this? Dude.”

Then he looked at me and I could see in his eyes admiration for Henry and (I’m sure I totally imagined this) condemnation of me. What kind of mother lets her son run around in such horrid clothing? Not only run around in these rags but wear them on airplanes and to the mall? Obviously, his eyes said (or rather my heart saw), a bad kind of mother.

“Why have you waited so long to buy new shoes?” he asked.

“We live in Africa,” I said.

I hate that I said it like that, like it was an excuse, like shoeless children are to be expected if they live in Africa, so I tried to fix it.

“Not that Africa doesn’t have shoes.” Now I was defending a continent.

“They have plenty of shoes.” Now I was lumping an entire continent into a word ‘they.’

“Its just that Henry goes to boarding school.” Now I’m an extra bad mother and ‘Africa’ is so bad I have to send Henry elsewhere.

“I mean, we live in Djibouti.” Now I’m talking about booties.

The employee had most likely made no judgment on my parenting and probably hadn’t caught my ridiculous: ‘we live in Africa so I can’t buy my son new shoes’ comment and I was now inundating him with meaningless information. He just wanted to laugh about shoes, not get a lecture on shoes in Africa, where is Djibouti, or why we chose boarding school.

But he was politely looking at me, nodding. I had a choice and how I communicated with this young man would either confirm the general idea that Africa has no shoes or would condemn me as a terrible, lazy mother. Who was going to take the fall here? Me? Or Africa?

I could easily have played into what so many Americans think about Africa. It is a single monolith, it is entirely poor, people don’t have shoes or clothes or food or jobs or creativity or … basically a continent filled with lack.

I could have said something foolish like, “Africa doesn’t have good shoes.” Then Africa would bear the blame for not being of sufficient quality, not me. I would be the brave mother who dared raise a son in such trying circumstances. I would be a hero. I could even suggest we donate this pair of trash shoes to ‘Africa.’ Maybe they need them. If they aren’t good enough for my son, maybe they are good enough for an African’s son.

Or. I could tell the truth.

I could say that I had made the cheap, lazy mothering choice. I just didn’t buy him shoes. That is exactly what I said.

Then I dragged this poor salesman into a monologue about how I shouldn’t have oversimplified my answer and how Africa is a continent made up of a multitude of diverse nations, each with lots of shoes, and yes there are some people on the massive continent who don’t have shoes (personally, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t own shoes. I know plenty who don’t own beautiful shoes or quality shoes or multiple pairs of shoes) but that isn’t because Africa doesn’t have shoes, and how I feel sad about my kids being at boarding school, but not guilty, and how parents of teenagers face the unique challenge of clothing them well, made even more unique in our case by distance.

We bought the first pair of shoes Henry tried on and he wore them out of the store, the old ones in the box (to be burned later).

I don’t want to go into that long and awkward of a conversation often and learned my lesson that day. I need to be careful how I represent this continent and this nation, even in off-the-cuff remarks. I have had the unique opportunity to learn some things and have a responsibility to honor that knowledge. I don’t need to lecture, lectures won’t make much difference, I’m sure the salesman tuned me out back at “Holy crap!”

But may I never make the conceited choice of masking my parenting weaknesses behind living in the developing world, may I never make the selfish choice of blaming my failure to do something for my family on my expatriate status. May I never choose to say ‘Africa has run out of shoes’ so that I will look like a better mother. And maybe, if I learn to speak more wisely and accurately, I can help begin a small trickle of change. Maybe people will begin to see Africa not as a continent of lack but of beauty and strength and power and growth.

I think the salesman was glad to see us go.

Rachel Pieh Jones lives in Djibouti with her husband Tom Jones (not the singer, though he thinks life might be more interesting as a musical) and three children. Raised in the Christian west, she used to say ‘you betcha,’ and ate Jell-O salads. Now she lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas.