Profiles

Meet Catherine Onyemelukwe – The White Woman Who Married A Nigerian Man, Lived Through The War With Him and Made The Biafran Cause Her Own

   

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What happens when a young white lady, leaves the comfort of her country, comes into 1960 Nigeria falls in love and marries a Nigerian man, stays back, lives through war and survives with her new family. Take a deep breath, that is not the plot of a movie – It is a real story!

Catherine Onyemelukwe got married to Clement Onyemelukwe when she came to serve as a Peace Corp Volunteer in 1962. She stayed with her husband in Lagos till the Biafra war pushed her and her family to the village which lacked water, light or any of the amenities she was used to. She decided to stay with her family.

Decades later, Catherine has written a book on her experiences. The book is called Nigeria Revisited.

Ainehi Edoro of Brittle Paper caught up with her recently. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

On what it was like being caught up, as an outsider in the events that led up to the Biafran wars

Very strange. I was torn – part of me saying there was too much being made of Igbo fears, and part saying the Igbo massacres were real and threatening. I sensed the fear but didn’t feel it in my body. Clem and I were under intense pressure from my mother-in-law to flee Lagos. Finally I gave in to the surrounding belief that we were no longer safe in Lagos and owed allegiance to the East.
I finally made the Igbo cause my own, since my husband and baby son were Igbo. I think I was also caught up in the excitement of creating a new country. Not only my husband but other Igbo people I had come to know gave me the sense that there was a possibility for Biafra to succeed.

During the Biafran war, she had no access to cake so she stuck a candle inside pounded yam to celebrate her son’s birthday! “I needed to maintain a sense of normality, of everyday activities, in the midst of the war and its disruptions. I wanted my children to feel life was normal, and I wanted to feel it myself” she said.

On the inspiration she draws from the Biafran Dream

Yes, I can draw several lessons from Biafra. The Biafran dream taught us that even with very hard work and dedication one cannot always achieve one’s wishes. Sometimes there are too many factors outside one’s control.Second, I think it taught me, or maybe reinforced for me, the importance of adaptability.
When I speak to audiences about my memoir, people often ask, “How did you manage to live in your husband’s village with no other white people, no electricity, no running water, no supermarkets?”
I had made the choice to stay, so there I was. Why not make the best of it? My primary focus was taking care of our children, and that would have been true wherever we were. So although the challenges of child-rearing were different, they still occupied my mind. In addition, I had the opportunity to learn Igbo, become closer to my husband’s family, and experience village life. I also learned that material goods are less important than safety and family.

Read the full interview on Brittle Paper

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