Appreciating Extended Family and Kindnesses of Nigeria

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Appreciating Extended Family and Kindnesses of Nigeria

by Tony Palmieri Nigeria and African travels • 1963-1964

Excerpted from Echoes of Africa: North Quabbin Perspectives on the Second Largest Continent, compiled by Mary-Ann DeVita Palmieri and Marcia Gargliardi (Athol, MA: Haley's, 2013). Available at Amazon or from the publisher at 488 South Main Street, Athol, MA 01331.

A teacher of math and physics in the 1960s, the author went as a goodwill ambassador for the United States and came back sold on Nigeria and its people. He traveled through several countries while assigned to Africa.

Image:Tony's Peace Corps Card.png Tony Palmieri’s United States Peace Corps card identified him as a good will ambassador from the United States to Nigeria in the 1960s

In 1962, at age twenty-four, I left my engineering job to train for a Peace Corps assignment to teach math and physics at the secondary level in Nigeria. Following an intensive three months of teacher training at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City with a group of about thirty young men and women, I was sent off to Africa—a place I had absolutely no concept of outside of stereotypical images of lions, elephants, jungles, black people with spears, and so on. We were supposed to be emissaries of John F. Kennedy’s vision of a young generation sent abroad as goodwill ambassadors working directly with Nigerians. In many ways, however, the tables were turned, and the Nigerians were the ones who sold me on their country and their people.

I was assigned to a secondary school deep in a remote area of Eastern Nigeria not serviced by electricity or phone. The school compound was at one end of a village primarily of farmers who had cleared away a small piece of the jungle for planting. My students came from a wide area and boarded at school. They were selected by exam and then sponsored by their respective villages. There was a lot of pressure on them to succeed, since their villages were each investing a lot of money in them. And yet, with all that responsibility placed on them, their sense of humor and demeanor were terrific.

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Tony, staff members, and student house captains made things tick at Mbaise Secondary School.

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Staff housing lines the back of the athletic fields at the school.

Here are my impressions, somewhat filtered by fifty years, of a time in my life that I have never regretted. The Nigerians I met gave new meaning to the term “extended family.” Anyone in need was seldom turned away—including me. One afternoon, there was a commotion outside my living room. It appeared that an old woman, talking to herself and acting erratically, had wandered from the village over to my house and had taken an article of clothing drying on my laundry line. I watched as some of the villagers and children talked calmly to the woman and, forming a circle around her, gently ushered her back to the family who was watching over her—no screaming or belittling involved, no excessive commotion—just an understanding and acceptance of her condition. Eventually a delegation of villagers returned my clothes to me, assuring me she meant no harm. This was simply the way she was.

I was also struck by the empathy Nigerians showed me. I’ll never forget being awakened by my students on November 22, 1963. They came to tell me they had heard of JFK’s assassination. Everyone was so sorry and sad for me and did not wish for me to be alone in my grief. All day long, students and people from the village visited and sat with me commiserating with my loss. President Kennedy was so well liked, especially for his interest in Africa and for singling out Nigeria as a host country to this new idea of people-to-people interaction, the Peace Corps.

I also found, whenever I traveled, the strangers I met took care of me with genuine kindness. Once on a trip into neighboring Cameroon, a border guard took me home to his wife and kids because it was too late to cross, and the border had closed. I was fed with the family, joined their card game, and put up for the night. The next morning he took me back to the bus to continue the trip never indicating he needed compensation. Another time I was in a small market place and struck up a conversation with a young man, the village teacher. He was not happy with his situation teaching in such a remote area. But as we walked and talked, he stopped suddenly at a fruit vendor and bought me a wonderful ripe orange and gave it to me to enjoy. What a terrific gesture of friendship to someone he would never see again. No one ever accepted money—they certainly could have used some. I often wondered whether that spirit of genuine hospitality would be extended to a Nigerian here in the US under similar circumstance.

On a foolhardy trip I took from Nigeria to Egypt, I truly tested African hospitality. I would not be writing this today except for the kindness and care shown to me during that trip. I had planned with another Peace Corps volunteer to go to Egypt. We wanted to cross the lower Sahara—the countries of Chad and Sudan— and then go to Khartoum and up the Nile to Cairo before the Aswan Dam, under construction, would flood that whole valley and submerge Abu Simbel, a site I had always wanted to see. I planned to do all this and fly back before school resumed in three weeks’ time! Alone, I went through with this crazy plan even after my friend thought better of it. I originally planned to hitchhike the entire way. My first ride was outside Kano, in Northern Nigeria, with an African driving a tanker truck for a petroleum company. When we got to the Chad border, we could not get across because it had closed for the night. I was about to sleep under the truck when someone fetched the local teacher of the nearby village. Without any annoyance, he came and took me home to spend the night more comfortably.

The following day, we stopped for fuel in a tiny village in central Chad. I was the main object of attention, a white man in the middle of Africans. Surrounded by a crowd of children and adults, I suddenly fainted. While on the ground, all I could think about was how the Peace Corps would have to send in a helicopter to evacuate me. To my surprise, everyone helped me to my feet, gave me some water, got me back into the truck, and told the driver to keep moving. I don’t think they wanted a dead white man on their hands.

When we arrived at the border crossing between Chad and Sudan, I found out that the authorities would not allow hitchhiking because there was fighting even then in southern Sudan. I negotiated with a truck driver who was transporting freight across the desert to take me with him to El Fisher where the rail line would take me to Kharthoum. Drivers earned extra money by taking passengers along with their freight, and I was not the only passenger in his truck.

The care that I had been shown continued. First, the other passengers wrapped my head with gauze to form a turban so I wouldn’t bake in the sun because paying passengers (and that included me) sat on top of a mountain of peanuts in the back of the full dump truck. For seven days, the driver fed us one full meal each evening and made sure we had water. As we traveled in some of the most barren landscape I’ve ever seen, I began to realize that I could easily disappear without a trace. It was amazing how we bonded and communicated with each other using sign language, some very bad French, and some Italian with a Bedouin who had learned it in World War II. How could I not respect and be grateful to these sturdy people who were so caring to a foreigner? It was an amazing experience of trust and of friendship that Africans exhibited to a young American.

Nigerians may not have been technologically advanced in the 1960s, but they were light years ahead of us in understanding human nature. They were never shy about asking questions of a personal nature. The elders of the village wanted to know why I lived alone. Wouldn’t a young man of twenty-five( twenty- four) need a female companion? Solitude was something they did not understand. People were meant to belong to a group and not left to themselves.

My students, young as they were, were also aware and perceptive of human nature. My school was built by missionary priests from Ireland in exchange for the opportunity to proselytize. My students were obligated to attend Mass every morning at 6 am. One morning I was visited by a delegation just as I was having breakfast. Apparently they had been chastised during Mass by our stern headmaster, a priest who had become disillusioned in his attempt to civilize Nigerians. I guess he went into a tirade about the noise and chatter just before the consecration of the host during Mass. So they asked me if Father could consecrate the host if his heart was full of anger. They were wondering where I, a lapsed Catholic, stood. It took some delicate dodging on my part to stay neutral, but they and I understood that people aren’t perfect and that humans have their weaknesses.

And then there was “Nigerian time.” Today, we truly live in the age of connectivity—instant communication, almost. But in 1963, trying to stay in touch or to plan events was almost an art form. At my school, the telephone was nonexistent. You sent messages with whoever might occasionally pass through on your dirt road. There was the “post,” as the British liked to say—our equivalent to mail. And surprisingly, our small village had a mail house frequented by a postmaster, but he managed somehow to keep his hours a secret from us. Image:Hurdlers.png

Hurdlers compete during track events at Tony’s school.

You would think such a crude system of communicating would create anxiety, but in actuality, its simplicity gave me time to reflect and wonder about things happening elsewhere. Overall, there was a sense that you had to live with the unexpected so whenever you tried to plan something such as inviting people to dinner on such and such a date, you had to live with the possibility of changes and cancellation, since forewarnings were near impossible.

Image:Community Children.png The community’s children lined up to greet Tony.

Nigerian time created a certain measured pace of living which was reflected in music that came from the drum. Every night, I would be lulled to sleep by the villagers rhythmically beating their drums. Occasionally I would walk the five hundred feet that separated the school compound from the small village. There, young and old would sit or dance in a circle around a small fire while drummers playing sticks on a hollow log or shaking gourds filled with pebbles or cowrie beads strung on a chain all pulsated to the beat. It was impossible to sit still. That rhythm would eventually set you to dance! And occasionally, the younger children would visit me on the school grounds and play their improvised instruments with laughter and wide smiles. Everyone seemed to walk with a little beat as they stepped. The few times I went to the Cockatoo Club in Lagos, everyone danced high life in a wide encompassing circle throughout the club. No watchers on the sidelines allowed.

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The school’s drum corps rehearses.

I so enjoyed my experience in Africa. The Nigerians I met were terrific. I learned that if I treated them with respect, I was welcomed. And I will always remember how well I was taken care of by a wonderful people of a great continent. I was the stranger in a foreign land, and I was accepted. I hope I will remember to treat strangers with openness rather than suspicion.

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Tony, staff, and students display awards.

I thank Mother Africa from my heart for nurturing me and helping me to grow.

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