Catherine Onyemelukwe: Nigerian Culture Gave Me a Sense of Belonging
Two years after Nigeria declared its independence from Britain, 21 years old Catherine Onyemelukwe came to Nigeria as a Peace Corp volunteer to teach German to secondary school pupils for two years. Halfway through her second year in the Peace Corp, she met her would-be husband —Clement Onyemelukwe and became part of his family and their Igbo village in Nanka, Anambra state where she stayed during the Biafra war.
In her memoir, Nigeria Revisited, My Life and Loves Abroad, Ms Onyemelukwe wrote a refreshing story about her joys and travails while living in Nigeria for twenty-four years. Over the years, she has used her intimate knowledge and experience of the Nigerian culture to speak openly on issues regarding culture and racism, comparing the divisiveness of race issues in the U.S. and the sense of community in an African village while recommending methods white people like her can be part of the fight against racism.
Rural Reporters recently had a chat with Ms Onyemelukwe and here are the highlights of our conversation.
What was it like growing up in your home country?
I grew up in the U.S. in the 1940’s and ‘50’s. We lived in the mid-Western United States, in small towns. My father was an immigrant from Germany, my mother the daughter of a bank president. They taught me to accept all people on the basis of their character, not on their race or religious beliefs. They were also typically European, part of Western culture, in the way they raised us three children. There were limited displays of emotion. We didn’t talk about our feelings. In addition, we moved every two years, so there was also no strong sense of belonging to a particular culture or place.
Please share with us one of the memorable experiences you had during the year you stayed in your husband’s Igbo village during the Biafra war
My encounter with a python was certainly a memorable experience. I found the snake curled up in the outdoor toilet early one morning. I screamed for help and the young men came to move the snake away. But the young men in our family would not kill the snake. Igbo custom says a python walks on the Earth and is thus close to Ani, the god of the earth. So it is prohibited by Igbo custom to kill a python. But when I pleaded my foreignness and fear for our baby, they secretly relented and killed the snake, though they never claimed responsibility. The elders had to visit the Dibia, the local ‘medicine man,’ to appease the gods for this act!
Given the difference between the Nigerian and Western culture, how quick were you able to adapt to your adopted culture?
I adapted quickly because I was eager to be accepted and feel part of the culture. I didn’t hesitate to jump in and participate.
How did your experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in the 60s and marrying a Nigerian impact your cultural awareness?
My Peace Corps training before I ever arrived in Nigeria was extremely helpful in my being able to adjust well to life in the country. I was familiar with some of the customs that I would find in Nigeria and could appreciate the differences between the less personal life in the U.S. and the community approach to life in Nigeria. Certainly marrying a Nigerian man increased my cultural awareness as I came to know intimately the customs and traditions and people of his tribe and village.
So, how did this experience influence you to write a memoir about your experience?
So many times when I spoke about my experiences to individuals and to groups, people would respond, “You should write a book!” The idea finally got into my mind. Then I went to a writing friend and told her I wanted to write about Nigerian customs and traditions while telling stories about my life, she said, “You should write a memoir.” So I began reading a few memoirs and realized I could, with help. I joined a class for 2 1/2 years to read my work and get critiqued.
In one of the reviews about your book, it was said that your marriage to an African ‘sparked outrage and hate in America at a time when race relations were changing for the better but were still terribly tense’. How was it really for you in persevering through this situation? In your opinion, how much has the misconceptions of this racial prejudice subsided in this present age?
We did not experience the outrage and hate in Nigeria. So I didn’t have to struggle with those hurtful and harmful emotions. I believe the misconceptions by whites about Blacks still exist, though they are less. Those feelings are also less overt. Today people in the U.S. are not so willing to be obviously racist, although that has become less true during this election season. There is systemic racism in the U.S. and that has not lessened. I believe it will be many years before the U.S. achieves real racial harmony.
What advice will you give young people making their foray into the development sector, especially those who may want to work in Nigeria or Africa?
Do it! I don’t believe there is any more rewarding work than promoting change that benefits the lives of women and girls, in particular, and people in general, which is usually true of development work. Making your home in a part of the world that is different from the one you knew growing up is a wonderful way to enlarge your own community and knowledge about yourself. As you learn about others, and adapt to different ways of life, you only grow stronger.
What do you love most about the Nigerian culture?
What I love most about Nigerian culture is the sense of belonging, of being in a community, where you are valued. We have lost much of this sense in the Western world, and that is sad. I have taught classes and given speeches on this topic, pointing out so many ways that Igbo and African culture can teach us about living together in community.
What’s your favourite saying/adage in your husband native language?
My favourite saying in Igbo is one that I used at the front of my memoir: “Even in a strange land, a brother can be found.”
Photo Credit: Catherine Onyemelukwe