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.



My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

My Son’s Home is an Ibo Village

By Catherine Onyemelukwe

IBOPeace Corps training had not prepared me for motherhood. It wasn’t intended to. My marriage and motherhood in Nigeria were unexpected by-products of being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the country for two years. I met my husband halfway through my second year in the Peace Corps.

We married a year later, and had our first child a year after that. Clem is Ibo, one of the three major tribes in Nigeria, and I am a white American. Our first child was a boy with skin of a lovely light caramel color. He had tight black curls and dark eyes. We settled in Lagos, the capital.

We had talked about names before he was born. “You know the custom is that my father will give the baby his name,” Clem said.

I agreed, as long as I could supply a middle name. So a week after our son was born, I opened the telegram that arrived from Clem’s father. There was the selected name—Chinakueze.

“I know that Chi means God, ku is to grow, and eze is king,” I said, handing Clem the telegram. “But God grows kings?”

“A name isn’t necessarily a literal translation,” Clem said. I could tell that he was grappling with his father’s intention behind this long name. “I see what it is,” he said suddenly. “God is the one who creates kings. I like it.”

“It’s a mouthful,” I said. “Whatever are we going to call him?”

“Why not the whole name, Chi-nakueze?”

“Five syllables for the first name, and another five for his surname? I think that’s a heavy burden for a small boy.”

Within two days we had shortened it to Chinaku. I added the middle name Danforth, my mother’s maiden name and my middle one. “He can use Dan as a nickname when he’s older if he wants,” I said.

Clem called his parents to tell them we liked the name. A few minutes into the call, he turned to me. “My father says we should come for a naming ceremony.”

“A naming ceremony? Is that like a christening?” I said, looking up from the baby in my arms to watch Clem.

“You’ll see,” Clem said. Turning back to the phone, he said, “I think we can come next weekend?” He looked at me to see me nod my head in agreement. I was being pulled deeper and deeper into Clem’s Ibo culture, and I loved it.

I had been to his village, 300 miles from the capital, Lagos, only once, and just for a couple of hours. Now we would spend two nights there, with no electricity and no running water. Although I was thrilled with the traditions, I wasn’t sure how I would manage with a three-week-old baby. But I had help. Clem’s cousin Rosa, age 12, had come to stay with us before the baby was born. She and I were communicating better every day, as I improved my Ibo language skill and she mastered English.

It was already dark when we arrived on the next Friday evening. Clem’s mother, whom I had learned to call Mama, had gas lanterns lit for us and dinner of pounded yam and egusi soup, my favorite, ready.

The ceremony would take place on Saturday afternoon and evening. The whole clan had been invited, so there would be 70 or 80 people. We had to provide a feast.

“Do I need to help prepare the food?” I asked Mama in my faltering Ibo.

“No,” she assured me. “The ndi nutaru di, the women married into the family, will cook.” Ejike, Clem’s oldest uncle and the patriarch, had already slaughtered the goat when we arrived. I caught the pungent smell from the next compound where it was suspended over a fire to burn off its hair. After that it would be cut up and added to the dishes for the next day.

Before we went to bed, I went over to thank the seven women who had begun cooking. They stirred the contents of huge iron pots set on tripods over open fires. I took the baby with me. I had seen two of the women each married to one of Clem’s uncles on my brief visit 18 months earlier, but had not spoken to them or even seen the others who were helping.

“Dalu. Thank you,” I said to one and then another. They were dressed for cooking, in wrappers—six feet of cotton cloth tied at the waist—and blouses that looked well-used. One woman had her baby tied on her back with an extra piece of cloth.

“Nno, nwunye Clement, welcome, Clement’s wife,” they said. Obele reached out to take the baby, holding him so the others could see. “O maka, he’s good-looking,” a younger woman said, and the others chorused their agreement. I thought their boisterous voices would wake him, but he slept on. With their warm greetings and obvious joy at seeing my baby, I felt close to them. I was now part of the extended family and I belonged here.

A few minutes later, I took Chinaku back to our house. Our bedroom faced the compound where the women were cooking. Well into the night I could hear them singing and talking. The aroma of the cooking goat meat was much more pleasant than the burning hair had been.

Benches borrowed from the nearby Anglican Church were put in place in front of the house on Saturday morning. At 3:00 in the afternoon I nursed Chinaku and dressed him in his blue cotton kimono with embroidered flowers. I changed into the fanciest item in my wardrobe, a fitted dress of woven Akwete cloth in blue, green, and red, which barely fit my recently pregnant body. I re-applied lipstick, eyeliner, and mascara which had faded after the day in the heat. Clem wore his suit trousers with a loose paisley-print shirt. Around 4:00 pm people started to gather. Clem and I had seats of honor with Clem’s parents and uncles in front of the house. Mama wore her best wrap- per, a blue print with matching blouse and head tie. Papa was dignified in his long gown of the same fabric. He had added a felt cap of dark blue and a walking stick.

When the space in front of the house was full, Ejike stood up. “Ndi be anyi, kwenu, my people, rejoice.” The guests shouted, “Kwenu.” He turned to his left, then his right, with the same greeting. Each time the response was louder and Chinaku began crying. I rocked him in my arms. “Don’t worry. You’re safe here.”

I knew breaking kola was the first major agenda item of any Ibo event. Ejike reached down and took one of the kola nuts from the plate in front of him. “With this kola I offer thanks to our ancestors,” he said in Ibo as he held up the kola for everyone to see.

“The ancestors have honored us by making our son Clement a chief engineer. They honored us by giving him a wife from America. Now they have blessed us with a son.”

He broke the kola nut he’d been holding into three pieces, took one himself, and placed the rest on the plate. Then he called several young men to carry the other trays of kola nuts to pass to everyone present, men first, then the women. When everyone had a piece, jugs of palm wine and bottles of Star beer were brought out and served. Most men had their own calabash gourds with them. Some, I suspected, had started their drinking earlier in the day. Chinaku stopped crying.

After the drinking was well underway, Ejike took Chinaku from me and held him up before the crowd.

“I have given this child the name Chinakueze.” He poured a libation of palm wine on the ground. “I consulted the Dibia who said the ancestors approve.”

The baby was handed around to all the senior men. Then the women took turns holding him. He was passed back to me as the women brought out and served the food. After everyone had eaten their fill of jollof rice, garri, pounded cassava and okra soup, a men’s dance troupe performed, accompanied by drums, the high-pitched wooden Ibo flute, and maracas. Then the women, the same group who had cooked and served the food, began to dance.

“Bia, gba egwu. Come dance with us.” They pulled me up. Clem held out his arms to take the baby as I rose and joined the circle. I found it easy to follow their steps and after a minute, lost my embarrassment and enjoyed the music, the movement, and the feeling of belonging. This was, after all, my group—the women married into the Onyemelukwe family. The crowd ap- plauded, Clem most of all, as I sat down, sweating and dusty.

The stub of Chinaku’s umbilical cord had fallen off when he was two weeks old. Clem had told me to save it and bring it along for the ceremony. Now Papa asked me to bring it to him.

“I bury this cord which binds Chinakueze to Nanka, to our compound, and to our people forever,” he said. “Whenever he returns he will know that he belongs here. When he is away, he will always know that part of him is here.” He placed the cord in the small hole that had been dug earlier. I felt an incredible surge of emotion for the family that had embraced me so warmly.?I returned to Lagos the next day, leaving a tiny part of my son behind in his father’s village. Would he feel this connection? I knew that I did; it was now my village, too.

Author’s Note: This story is from chapter 6 of Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad, my memoir of my twenty-four years in Africa. The story about my son’s name and naming ceremony is one example of how I was drawn into a culture completely different from the one I knew growing up in the U.S. It reflects my embrace of the Ibo culture not only for my children, but for myself as well. In August 2013 my husband and I took the umbilical cord of our newest grandchild and buried it in the village, as we’d done with our son’s so many years ago.

Catherine Onyemelukwe and her husband now live in Westport, CT. Their children live in London, Philadelphia, and Lagos, Nigeria. Another selection from her memoir is forthcoming in the anthology Love on the Road.

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