Woog’s World: A Westporter’s journey from ‘idealistic volunteer to seasoned survivor’
Updated 6:05 am, Sunday, September 27, 2015
Nigeria — the most populous country in Africa, with the world’s 20th largest economy — lies far off the radar of most Westporters. But it is always in Catherine Onyemelukwe’s heart.
A Midwesterner who moved often as a child, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College as a German major. In 1962, inspired by the chance to serve others, she joined the recently formed Peace Corps. She was assigned to Nigeria, just two years after that nation gained independence from the United Kingdom.
She lived in Lagos. She taught German to “brilliant” math and science students, and English, religion and African history to younger boys and girls in a village outside the capital.
She enjoyed a wonderful social life in Lagos. That’s where she met Clement Onyemelukwe, the chief engineer for the Nigerian electrical corporation. They fell in love. She won over his reluctant parents, in part by speaking Igbo. Her parents were pleased.
Their wedding drew 500 guests. Life magazine featured the ceremony. It was a great story: Peace Corps volunteer marries host country national. Telegrams came from all over the world. Most were congratulatory. Her parents received a few nasty phone calls. They lived in Kentucky, where interracial marriage was still illegal.
The Onyemelukwes’ first child was born the next year. But Nigeria was riven with conflicts over education, religion and oil. In 1967, after a massacre, the Ibo people seceded and created a new land called Biafra. Onyemelukwe’s husband headed its coal and electrical corporations, and oversaw its airports. Their second child was born in Biafra.
The family lived in her husband’s village. There was no electricity or running water. She was the only white person.
Life was hard, and she had a bad experience with a snake. She moved with her children to Madeira, the island to which her parents had retired. When the civil war ended in 1970, she relocated to Cincinnati. But the pull of Africa was strong. She moved back to Nigeria, and Onyemelukwe and her husband resumed their life together.
She taught for six years in an American school. Then she founded a clothing company, offering Western-style apparel for professional women. It was an exciting, fun and educational time for her.
In 1986 — when she was in her 40s — Onyemelukwe earned a master’s degree in public and private management at Yale. She consulted to companies looking to expand overseas.
A few years later, she and her husband moved to Westport. It was closer to New York, where he was working. To connect with her new community, she joined the Westport Library board. While planning a capital campaign, she realized she had a knack for raising money. Dick Foot hired her as the Westport YMCA’s first director of development. She later worked for non-profits in New York, and Stamford’s Mill River Collaborative.
Meanwhile, Onyemelukwe thought of writing a book about her experiences in Africa. She took classes at the Westport Writers’ Workshop. “Nigeria Revisited: My Life and Loves Abroad” was published last year. It covers her 24 years in that country, in a loving, honest and riveting way.
Her audience is former Peace Corps volunteers, anyone interested in Africa, and everyone “wanting to expand their horizons,” Onyemelukwe says. “And of course, anyone interested in memoirs. It’s the story of my changing life, from idealistic volunteer to seasoned survivor.”
Nigeria has been in the news lately, for reasons both bad (the extremist Boko Haram group) and good (the election of a new, peaceful government). Since the book’s release, Onyemelukwe has spoken locally to a broad array of audiences.
Her love for the country is palpable. She felt at home there from his first moments. “I could be myself there,” she says. “I had a great life.”
Her connection to Nigeria remains strong. Her two sons and daughter returned frequently; two of her children now live there. Her recent 50th anniversary was cause for a large celebration there.
“I love the openness,” Onyemelukwe says of Nigerian life. “People drop in on each other all the time. In the villages, so much of life is lived outdoors.”
But why should Americans care about her adopted land?
“Nigeria is the largest oil exporter from Africa,” Onyemelukwe notes. “There are so many brilliant, talented people. With the new president, it can be a driving force for economic development and growth all across the continent.”
She adds,“there is so much culture. Nigeria is a center of African music, dance and film. It’s a great place — so vibrant and alive.”
Catherine Onyemelukwe has had a rich life — in Westport, as well as Nigeria. She has contributed much to our community, which she loves, and to the African nation she has learned to call home.