Peace Corps sparks life of social justice

Peace Corps sparks life of social justice

President of UU-UNO bridges life in Nigeria and U.S.
Elaine McArdle


Newly independent after 150 years of British rule, Nigeria in 1962 was an infant nation ripe with possibility and rich in natural resources, including a diverse and entrepreneurial population. Vibrant and pulsing with potential, it offered just the opportunity that 21-year-old Catherine Onyemelukwe, a recent Mount Holyoke College graduate with a rapidly developing social conscience, yearned to seize as a Peace Corps volunteer eager to promote democracy and see the world.

“The whole thing was swirling and alive, it was so exciting to be there,” recalls Onyemelukwe, who stayed in Nigeria for 24 years, marrying her husband Clement Onyemelukwe and raising their three children there. The couple returned to the United States in the mid-1980s, and today Onyemelukwe is a member of the Unitarian Church in Westport, Conn., while also serving in a number of community organizations. She is also president of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO), which on April 29 voted to officially rejoin the UUA as a member organization. “The social justice piece and the international piece are closely tied for me,” she says.

Her ties to Nigeria remain strong—one of her children still lives there—and her other home nation often presents itself in unexpected ways. The day before the UU-UNO vote, Onyemelukwe was leaving UN Headquarters in New York City after a meeting when she spied a group of women dressed in the bright red and yellow garments customary to Nigeria. They were part of a group with NGO status at the UN, and it turned out they and Onyemelukwe had friends in common. “Of course they were absolutely flabbergasted that I could speak to them in Igbo,” says Onyemelukwe, who teaches a course on Nigeria at Norwalk Community College.

What does she hope people today realize about Nigeria? “That it’s still a country of great promise. The people of Nigeria are entrepreneurial, brilliant, and it’s such a shame the country hasn’t become a force in the world as it should,” she says. “It’s heavily populated, home to 150 million people, and it’s a democracy, and yet hasn’t got its act together enough to shine on the world stage.”

From Peace Corps volunteer to Nigerian bride, from Yale business school graduate to energetic volunteer for a series of social justice organizations, Onyemelukwe over the past half century has composed a most unusual and rewarding life. “There are people in this world who are able to balance what seems a normal, even prosaic, middle-class, comfortable American life with a sense of adventure, and they don’t give up one for the other, they just figure out how to balance them,” says Denny Davidoff, former moderator of the UUA and a longtime friend of Onyemelukwe. “These people are few and far between, and it’s very special.”

As a college student, Onyemelukwe was inspired to social justice after hearing a speech by Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin, and she became among the first to respond to President John F. Kennedy’s call for young Americans to join the newly established Peace Corps. With African nations at the time shaking off the colonial yoke, Nigeria appealed to Onyemelukwe’s desire to make a difference. “People were very excited about independence and their new country and having political power,” she recalls.

From the capital city of Lagos teeming with millions of people to the mangrove swamps along the coast, from the tropical rainforests laden with ebony and mahogany trees to the golden savannahs, she was thrilled with her new home. “It was beautiful,” she says. “I never was homesick.” She spent the next two years teaching German to gifted adults at the Federal Emergency Science School and also instructing children in a nearby fishing village in English and African history, tooling about the lush countryside and into tiny villages in a Fiat 500 provided to her by a benefactor.

Early in her second year, she received an annoying memo from the electric company requesting her appearance before an official to participate in a survey on electricity usage. “I marched to the office in downtown Lagos, and I was not very pleasant about it,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Why are you bothering me? I have a refrigerator and an iron that I never plug in; I don’t use much electricity.’” The official, a young engineer and economist named Clement Onyemelukwe, who’d been educated in England, calmed her down; a week later, he appeared at her home and invited her to a dinner he was hosting the following weekend. They began dating and soon were engaged. Only 15 years later, while assisting her husband with another memo related to one of his companies, did Catherine realize the electricity survey was a ploy he’d devised to meet her.

When she wrote to announce her engagement to her family, political liberals in the conservative state of Kentucky, Onyemelukwe’s mother had only one question: Was Clement a Christian? She was relieved to learn her future son-in-law was a devout Anglican, but his family, in turn, was less receptive to the union. Foreign women who married Nigerian men tended to return to their homes, taking the grandchildren with them, they worried. But Catherine, entranced with Nigeria as well as with Clement, had no intention of leaving. In addition to the Yoruba she’d mastered during her Peace Corps training, she’d learned to speak Igbo, her husband’s language, which helped convince his parents of her earnestness.

“I met them, spent time with them, and won them over,” she says, laughing. “One thing I love about Nigeria—and miss here—is how close families are, how much people interact with each other.” After the couple married in 1964—their wedding photo comprised the centerfold in Life magazine as the then-unusual union between a Peace Corps volunteer and a host country national—they had three children and spent the next two decades raising their family in Nigeria.

“It was my home so I didn’t think about it being unusual or different,” says Onyemelukwe, who founded an organization, Niger Wives, that successfully advocated making school entrance exams available in Braille for sight-challenged children, as well as changing the law to make it easier for foreign wives of Nigerian men to visit their families abroad. At the same time, she adds, “It was very, very enriching.”

When civil war among ethnic groups broke out in 1967, Catherine, who had been teaching at an American school, was pregnant with the couple’s second child. A few months earlier, anticipating the conflict, the family had moved from Lagos to the eastern part of the country, to be closer to her husband’s parents. That region, dominated by Igbo, seceded and declared itself the Republic of Biafra; Clement was named director of its fuel and energy commission. It was an exuberant time, Catherine recalls. But the realities of war took their toll. The family built an air raid shelter in a cornfield, and when sirens blared their warnings, Catherine would grab her two-year-old son and infant daughter and clamber into the underground shelter.

In 1968, Catherine flew with the children to Portugal, where her parents were living, and then on to the U.S. for a year before returning to Nigeria after the war ended. In the late 1980s, her children grown, she decided she wanted to return to the U.S. and convinced Clement to move back. She got her MBA in 1988 from the Yale School of Management, and began putting her business and fundraising skills to use in a series of jobs and volunteering activities related to social justice, first with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, then at other organizations including the Bridgeport Child Advocacy Coalition. Today, she works as capital campaign director for the nonprofit Mill River Collaborative, which is building a world-class urban park in downtown Stamford, Conn. She also heads a racial justice group at her parish in Westport, and is a member of UU Allies for Racial Equity.

In 1994, after she and Clement moved to Westport, Onyemelukwe attended a talk by Davidoff at the local UU church on liberal response to the religious right-wing movement. She and Clement raised the children in the Anglican Church in Nigeria, and she’d never been to a UU service. “I was blown away that there was a church I could go to and be comfortable in,” says Onyemelukwe, who became a UU that year. The experience also launched her close friendship with Davidoff, who calls Onyemelukwe “a blessing” to the UUA.

“To get out of Mount Holyoke and go to Lagos and meet Clem and live with toddlers and infants through the Biafran war in Clem’s family village, what comes out of this is not a person who is easily cowed,” says Davidoff. “This is not a person who is going to shrink from a multicultural world.”

This year, the Onyemelukwes are celebrating their 47th wedding anniversary, and the Peace Corps its 50th anniversary. Onyemelukwe recently hosted a party in her home for Peace Corps alumni.

As Onyemelukwe reflects on her life—she’s writing her memoir—she notes that none of it was planned. But it all made perfect sense. “As I think back on it, I don’t think I sat and pondered, ‘Could I possibly do this?’ Unlike some people, I don’t think I do things because these are my dreams but because the opportunity comes up and it seems the natural thing to do,” she says. “That’s the way it felt to join the Peace Corps, and that’s the way it felt to get married. Clem was the man I loved. I didn’t say, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t do this.’”

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