A young woman in the peace corp stays to marry and raise a family in Nigeria.
By 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.
This is a sponsored excerpt from Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad. Available now.