So I arrived in London 3 weeks ago now and though I’ve been here many times before, it’s been over 25 years since I spent 21 or more days here in a row. You encounter a place very differently when you live there than if you are here on a short visit. You are more on alert, paying keener attention to street names, bus routes and train stations, where the doctor’s & dental practices are, the different ways you can top-up your travel card, what events the local library is hosting, who the families are that live along your street beyond the neighbors down below and on either side, what day the rubbish gets picked up, how late the corner shop stays open, the list could go on and on. Yes, the ordinary aspects of every day life — many not germane to someone on holiday — become very relevant to a new resident.

When I lived in New York, I frequently heard that it was the “greatest” city in the world. I’m not going to take that on here, but from my observation alone, London seems far more multicultural than my experience of NYC. Though there isn’t a significant Latino presence here, I’ve been struck by the wide variety of southeast Asians, many different kinds of both Western and Eastern Europeans, and a greater variety of Caribbeans & Africans. The Nigerian presence is very high, from hearing Yoruba (one of the 3 main languages) spoken at the airport, to meeting a young Buddhist Londoner at church. When she heard I was part Nigerian, she didn’t hesitate in trying to guess which tribe I was from! In all my years in New York City, many Americans barely knew where Nigeria was located– even some close friends had trouble locating it on a map of Africa — and hardly any could name it’s 3 largest ethnic groups. The reach of the British Empire accounts for much of London’s heterogeneity but so does the UK’s proximity to the refugee crisis that has gripped the middle east but spills across Africa and western Europe. As both mainstream political parties consolidate their leadership here, there is much talk of how to curb immigration which is not unrelated to concerns about what it means to welcome ” the other.”

Living in a new country is exposing my heart in new ways too: It’s surfacing grief at leaving the life I had come to love — especially the many rich and varied friendships — along with generating deep gratitude for what that was. And there’s some sadness lurking because I didn’t fully appreciate that community while I was a part of it.

The experience of being new here is also extremely humbling:

  1. There is far more that I don’t know about how things work than I’m used to and that’s not a very comfortable place for me. I, like most of us, feel more myself when things are familiar.
  2. I know few people and have fewer friends (2 @ this point!) –though am v grateful for those precious few and the wonderful network of people they’ve brought me into contact with already.
  3. I don’t have a job. And I’m not sure what that will be or look like here. Or when it will materialize but I’m OK with that so far.                                                                                                                                                                                  In being humbled, I find myself having greater compassion: for those who are lonely and without any family or friends; for those without a job, unable to work, or those who’ve been looking without success for what feels like a long time; for those uprooted from their homeland due to war or famine or some other crisis and forced to navigate a new culture in a country that has welcomed them with reluctance.

My current situation requires patience and perseverance but it’s stretching me in ways that are healthy and good, and for that I give thanks. It also gives me a small sense of what I share with the millions of displaced people across the globe and helps me to see many glimpses of just how fortunate I am.

 

 

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wiley college logoDr. Thomas Winston Cole, Sr. changed the course of my father’s life. In the early 1950’s, he took a chance by offering a Nigerian high school graduate of King’s College, Lagos, a scholarship to Wiley College in Marshall, TX, where Dr. Cole was the registrar. Wiley was a relatively small African-American university (<1500 students) which had ties to the Methodist Church. Though my father didn’t stay at Wiley College long enough to graduate from there, he did stay long enough to appear in two of the Wiley Wildcats yearbooks, which graced the shelves of our living room in Jos, Nigeria when I was growing up.

My father spoke fondly of Dr. Cole and repeatedly told us the story of how this man’s kindness gave him the rare opportunity to attend university in the States. I knew that Dr. Cole had gone onto become President of Wiley and then moved to the University of Florida where he was the third highest ranking administrator (and the first African-American), with a position in Academic Affairs and as University Ombudsman. However, there were many things about Dr. Cole I was not aware of – and perhaps neither was my father – until I recently discovered a lengthy interview with him on line.

Dr. Cole had attended Wiley himself and graduated in 1934. He claimed the highlight of his time there was serving on the debate team led by Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson’s debate team excelled, despite the climate of Jim Crow, winning the national championship in 1935, a story captured in the 2007 movie,  The Great Debaters, in which Denzel Washington starred as Mr. Tolson. (Prior to this film, apart from Papa, I’d never heard anyone speak of Wiley nor met anyone who’d heard of it.) After graduation, despite a degree in the natural sciences, Dr. Cole became a principal which subsequently propelled him into a higher education career. In 1950, he returned to Wiley, first as registrar and later as dean of the college. While working he managed to obtain a MSc in Educational Administration from the Univ of Wisconsin and then completed a doctorate in education at the University of Texas, the first African-American to do so. In 1958, he became the 10th President of Wiley and at the time he was installed, he became the first alumni and the first non-minister to be President. While at Wiley as the chief executive of a historically black college & university (HBCU), Dr. Cole heard Dr. King give his ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington. He stayed at Wiley until the early 1970s, dramatically increasing student enrollment, raising $100 million in funds for the fledgling university, and overseeing the construction of a number of buildings. Today, a library is named there in his honor.

dr cole library wileyPhoto credit: Wiley College

Long after he’d moved on to study at other colleges in the US, Papa stayed in touch with Dr. Cole, faithfully sending him a Christmas card every December. He also talked often about his dream of flying Dr. Cole out to Nigeria as a way to say thank you. And more than 25 years after they first met, he actually did this. To show his appreciation for Dr. Cole’s generosity to him all those years before, Papa invited Dr. Cole and his wife Eva to visit Nigeria. He put them up in their own chalet in arguably the poshest hotel in town, showed them around, and even hosted a cocktail party for them to meet other Nigerian friends and colleagues. I believe it was Dr. Cole’s only visit to Africa and he never  forgot it. In the interview I came across recently, this is what Dr. Cole shared:

 As president of Wiley College, I had a few gifted African students… We had several African students on our campus; they were all on scholarship.  Since I have been in Florida, one of the students who is a barrister, a lawyer, now in Nigeria, invited me to come over at his expense to visit his home country, Africa, because I was responsible for his education.  In fact, he included my wife [in the trip] to Africa.  We went at his expense.  We brought back several things from Africa.  That is what made me think about it (p36).

I recall the Coles’ trip to Jos back in 1979. They were an elegant and gracious couple. Though I was only an adolescent, I wish I’d been able to realize how significant this visit was and more importantly what a tremendous influence Dr. Cole had had on so many lives and not just my father’s.

Forget the great debaters, Dr. Cole was a great educator.

For someone with a Nigerian father, I have an unusual surname. Not only is my family name unAfrican and all together British but it’s also hyphenated. Hyhenated names, somewhat unusual in the U.S., are usually thought to be formed from the surnames of both parents. From time to time, people who know my background ask about my surname: ‘Brown-Peterside’. Perhaps because my mother is from Northern Ireland, they assume that ‘Brown’ is her maiden name and that ‘Peterside’ is from my father’s side of the family. That part is true, but our surname is a bit more interesting than that.

‘Brown’ is my grandfather’s first name. The tradition is that men on my father’s side of the family take their father’s first names and add them to ‘Peterside’ (the family name) to create a new surname with each generation. My father’s first name was ‘Gally’, short for ‘Galbraith’, so technically my brothers should be: ___ ‘Gally Peterside.’ However, they are not ___ ‘Gally Petersides,’ they are ‘Brown-Petersides.’ The reason  for this is that my father — as a tribute to his father, (Brown), who mortgaged his modest home to be able to afford to send Papa to the best secondary school in Nigeria in the early 1950s (King’s College), — added a hyphen and legalized ‘Brown-Peterside.’ So, we have become a new branch of the Peterside family.

Every Peterside — by birth or by marriage — can trace their ancestry to a compound on a small island in the Delta region of Nigeria, called Opobo Town. For most of my childhood, my grandfather, Brown Shoo Peterside, was the Chief of Peterside compound. He died in 1978 and was succeed by Dr. Peterside, a London-trained physician and the first in the family.  A few weeks ago, Dr. Peterside passed away at the age of 97. This weekend in Opobo, he is being buried in a 10 day ceremony with all the requisite traditions including a regatta of boats that will bring the casket from the mainland to the island with much pomp and circumstance. (Unfortunately, I was not able to go to bear witness to these events.) At some point soon, following Dr. Peterside’s burial, the family elders will select another chief for life.

You may be wondering what the origin of the name ‘Peterside’ is. It’s quite unique I believe in that it’s not Peterson or Petersen which are quite common. Our ancestral home, Opobo, is in the south of Nigeria on the Atlantic coast. When the British, our former colonizers, entered Nigeria this way, many generations back a number of families in this area — not just ours — adopted British-sounding names. It is believed that our original name was Biriye but no one seems to recall how or when the switch to ‘Peterside’ actually occurred.

So there you have it: a British family name long adapted from a Nigerian one and a lasting tribute to a (grand) father who made costly sacrifices.

Below is a statue of my great great grandfather (Sunju Sima Peterside) atop his grave. This monument sits in front of the home where my grandfather (Brown Shoo Peterside) is buried, in the living room.

sunju peterside statue opobo

I love most sports. And I love sports movies though I don’t find myself going to movies much anymore. However, 10 days ago, when I heard that ‘Concussion’ was about a Nigerian pathologist, Dr. Bennet Omalu, (played by Will Smith – who never did sound anything like a Nigerian/couldn’t Hollywood have cast an actor with Nigerian roots in this role??) who identifies a degenerative brain disease, now known as CTE – chronic traumatic encephalopathy, that is linked to the death of a growing number of football players, I decided this was one movie I should make the effort to see.

I’m so glad I did, though on this Superbowl Sunday, I feel even more conflicted than ever about this national sport. It’s similar to the way I felt after watching ‘Supersize Me’: I can never walk past a McDonalds again without thinking long and hard about how awful that food (eaten in great excess) can be for us…

It turns out I no longer have a working TV and have not been invited to any Superbowl parties, so my coverage of the big game will be limited to the NYTimes and my local radio station, WNYC (tomorrow morning to hear the results). If I was a real die-hard, I suppose I could follow the game on line somewhere play- by-play. Still, I realize I’m actually glad that I’m free from watching the many collisions that will no doubt accompany tonight’s game.

Yes, there is beauty and grace in this sport too, and the thrill of competition, and the challenge of strategy in advancing the ball down the field through passing & dodging & tackling & catching. But it would be hard to enjoy all this without also thinking about the billion dollar entity that football has become. The 30 second ads alone cost a staggering $5 million, that’s $166,666 per second (source: NYTimes, Sports section 2/7/16, p1). Yikes! It would also be difficult to set aside the reaction of the NFL organization to Dr. Omalu’s discovery and how as an organization, they sought to undermine his findings and set up a questionable Commission to cover up what they had long known. There is a staggering amount of money tied to power in this business: According to Forbes, as reported in Sept 2015, the average NFL team is worth $2 billion, up 38% from the previous year.

So tonight as the nation gathers around TV screens to celebrate the 50th Super Bowl, let’s not forget that as the hits pile up and concussions ensue, we may also be witnessing the acceleration of one or more of those athletes’ brains degenerating. CTE can only be confirmed posthumously but let’s not be naive about the fact that it has its antecedents in events such as these which we so readily glorify.

 

 

A month from today, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a President for a 5 year term. For a nation that has been independent from Britain for almost 55 years – and with much of it’s checkered past littered with military heads of state, a national “democratic” election (supposedly – that remains to be seen) is hardly an insignificant event.

However, what gives me pause before any votes are even cast is that the current President, Goodluck Jonathan, has been chosen by his party, the PDP, to be their presidential candidate once again. This is despite the fact that his leadership has been appalling, non-existent, ineffective, and embarrassing, at least as far as his response to the situation with Boko Haram is concerned. Attacks throughout the northeast of the country but extending as far south as the capital city of Abuja have taken thousands of lives and left entire villages decimated and destroyed since the insurgency began in 2002. There is minimal accountability: these deaths go unreported – often due to the risk of violence required to get near to the sites of the crimes – let alone investigated, so the perpetrators take life without impunity. They know they can get away with it.

Rather than be contained, the situation appears to be escalating and there is minimal evidence that the government at the state or national level has the will or the courage or the impetus to contain the violence. (Nigerians I’ve talked to – both those who live there and abroad – are convinced that some very high up in the government are benefiting greatly from this insurgency. Hence, the lack of motivation to mobilize the resources necessary to tackle it. As long as the oil money keeps flowing, those in power will continue to ignore the crisis that is building.)

That Goodluck Jonathan would issue a statement condemning the attacks in Paris last week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/13/goodluck-jonathan-boko-ha_n_6464928.html) and yet make no statement whatsoever regarding what may be the worst attack by Boko Haram so far, days earlier on Jan 3 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30794829) is disheartening at best, and pathetic at worst. And of course, despite the worldwide outrage at the abduction of 200+ girls from Chibok last spring, nothing more has been heard about the whereabouts of the girls except those who escaped of their own accord. Or what the government is doing to try to investigate this kidnapping and bring to justice those behind this attack.

How can we expect others to believe that Nigerian lives matter, when the man elected to lead his nation is unable to communicate that message to his people, let alone marshall the type of response needed to tackle this desperate situation? Over and over again, bombs are detonated (the latest one by a 10 year old girl), villages are attacked and burned, throats are slit (literally) and there is silence from Aso Rock, the Presidential Villa.

Who will stand for us?

dr ada igonoh ebola survivor nov2014

I continue to find myself gripped by the events surrounding the Ebola outbreak that continues to devastate Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As 2015 begins, there are now 20,000 reported cases and 8,000 deaths – and counting. I also keep reflecting on how thankful I am that the disease was successfully contained (at least so far) in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 170 million – and counting.

Ebola arrived there at the end of July when a Liberian man who had Ebola and turned about to be extremely infectious flew into to Lagos from Monrovia. He denied that he’d been in contact with any Ebola patients or that he’d been at a burial recently, though he’d gone to Liberia from the US, where he lived, to bury his sister who’d died from Ebola. Due to his failure to provide this crucial information, it took several days before he was tested for Ebola and the appropriate preventive measures put in place. A number of health workers who cared for him were infected with Ebola and some died but fortunately the disease did not spread in ways it might have.

With all the reports coming out of Nigeria about the relentless attacks of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, limiting the spread of Ebola was a huge national triumph. And in many ways, I think the true significance of this containment got lost in the haze of the international community’s attempts to face the enormity of what was unfolding further up the coast of West Africa in the worst affected nations.

Several months ago, I wrote here about the heroic efforts of Dr. Adadevoh, a senior doctor at First Consultant’s Hospital where the Liberian man was admitted. Sadly, her leadership and courage in caring for this patient ultimately cost this mother of one her life: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-29685127 . But she played a key role in preventing a catastrophe. Recently, I came across an inside account from another female doctor, Dr Ada Igonoh, who was also involved in the care of the Liberian man. She too contracted Ebola – but after battling heroically for several weeks, she survived. Her remarkable and sobering account was posted on Bill Gates’ blog: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Surviving-Ebola-Dr-Ada-Igonoh .

Her story gives us a vivid inside view of the terror infected health workers are facing on the front lines of this outbreak. In Dr. Igonoh’s case, the power of her faith in God to sustain her in the face of such fear is remarkable and her determination to live and the unwavering support of her Pastor are also particularly noteworthy.

(Photo credit: http://www.nta.ng)

The details came out in pieces. First I learned that a young woman in an elite public high school in Manhattan had taken her life. She was a junior (15 or 16 perhaps?) and the inciting incident appeared to have been that a teacher caught her cheating on an exam. The press had vilified the teacher, publishing both her name and showing her photo. The girl apologized, left a note on her exam, ostensibly went to the bathroom, and disappeared from the school. She made her way to the edge of the Hudson River and waded into it fully clothed until she disappeared. She didn’t know how to swim, nor did the fisherman who watched her, in horror.

During the meeting where I heard about this tragedy, a woman who is the school’s PTA president got a text and quietly slipped out. The girl’s body had washed up the day before on the river bank 5 days after she disappeared. Family members were gathering for the funeral at that very hour. The PTA prez had gone to represent the parents, unsure if any other parents or teachers would attend.

At the end of the meeting, I learned more. The young woman was a Muslim so I thought she was from the middle East. Then I heard she was an African, though it wasn’t clear what her country of origin was. Knowing she was a fellow African, I felt a profound sadness for her family and community. I wondered what sorts of struggles this young woman had had as an immigrant or in having immigrant parents.

Later that afternoon, I couldn’t help myself. I sought out on-line stories about the incident to find out more. As soon as I saw the girl’s name in print, my heart lurched.

She had a Yoruba name which meant, to me, she wasn’t just an African. She was a Nigerian.

Though brilliant and probably destined for great things – she’d expressed a desire to become a doctor – and her classmates described her as witty and athletic, it seems she’d had a troubled past. There were reports from neighbors of loud arguments with her mother and another time when she apparently disappeared for 3 days. I wondered what other warning signs there might have been that were ignored, or more likely misunderstood, by those closest to her. I considered whether her fragile mind had been made more vulnerable given the sad state Nigeria is in right now and the backdrop of knowing several hundred high school girls had not been kept safe within the boundaries of their school compound. Or was there such intense pressure to succeed, up and out of the South Bronx neighborhood where her family lived, that added additional psychological weight to the struggles she was already wrestling with? We’ll never know.

This terribly sad event made me think of this encouraging piece written by public health physician Ike Anya that came out in Granta a couple of years ago: People Don’t Get Depressed in Nigeria, http://www.granta.com/New-Writing/People-Dont-Get-Depressed-in-Nigeria.

Nigerians, like people from anywhere else, despite what we might wish to think, aren’t exempt from the demons of mental health, regardless of where we happen to live. In fact to be living in Nigeria right now might contribute to higher levels of mental health dysfunction, given the extreme levels of stress and the damage being done to the national psyche, from the lack of leadership and the terror of Boko Haram’s tactics.

I grieve for this young woman’s lost life, for her parents, for her classmates and teachers, and for her extended Nigerian community. I pray her tragic ending will not have been in vain.