Give Me A Riddle
by Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961-63)
First published on PeaceCorpsWriters.org in 2001
A COUPLE OF YEARS AFTER WE SERVED together as PCVs in Nigeria, David Schickele asked me if I would be part of a film project he was proposing to the Peace Corps. The basic concept was to capture the adventure of crossing into another culture and the rewards gained from escaping the cocoon in
which Americans living abroad typically enclose themselves. It is an experience common among many PCVs to one degree or another, and for the Peace Corps, this film could be used to recruit the next wave of Volunteers, focusing on its two mandated cross-cultural goals rather than the more commonly publicized development assistance goal. Our personal experiences in Africa had been a revelation to us in numerous ways, and David wanted to make a documentary providing Americans with a new perspective from inside the Volunteer’s Peace Corps and a different view of Africans.
The Peace Corps was jittery about the proposed project. In 1965, David was unknown, at the beginning of a career as an independent filmmaker and musician. These were still the early years of the Peace Corps, and facing a lot of Congressional skepticism, the agency was sensitive about its image both in Washington and with the American public. This project did not fit the preferred style of hiring a powerful PR firm to shape the Peace Corps message and conducting recruitment campaigns under tight agency control. But as things often happened in those days, Harris Wofford got behind the project and convinced Sargent Shriver to take a chance, despite strong objections from others within the Peace Corps.
At the time, I was a Peace Corps employee, a program officer in the Division of Training, and I soon got a taste of the obstacles David and Harris had overcome. In preparation for our filmmaking party’s departure, my passport had to be sent, with Travel Orders, through the General Counsel’s office for final approval. There they were confiscated and declared “lost.” It took a confrontational hubbub to pry them out only a short time before the party’s scheduled flight to Nigeria. That was just the beginning of our troubles.
Starting with only an idea
I have to admit there was not much of a plan for the film, except in David’s mind. There was no written script. And I had never been in a film before and was fairly nervous myself about what role I was expected to play. The general plan was to meet up with four Nigerian friends – former students of ours at the University of Nigeria at Nsukka between 1961 through 1963 – and David would capture the ensuing reunions and take things from there. Our friends had not even been notified we were coming. The idea was to take them by surprise.
The Peace Corps country director, David Elliott, could not have been more helpful. He had a Peace Corps vehicle lined up for us along with the Nigerian driver requested by David – a trusted colleague from our Volunteer days. But the Nigerian government had to approve letting an American film crew loose in their country at a time when they were even more sensitive about their image than the Peace Corps was. After fruitless visits to many government offices in Lagos to obtain the proper documents, we finally got another break when we ended up before the Minister of Culture. The Minister turned out to be Cyprian Ekwensi, a famous Nigerian novelist whose most popular work, Jagua Nana,was the story of a celebrated Nigerian prostitute. Minister Ekwensi was not stuck on propaganda. He and David hit it off and we soon had the necessary documents to deal with policemen or other government agents who might spot our film crew at work.
The filming crew
The crew was David, with a hand held 16 mm camera, a second cameraman, a soundman, the Nigerian driver, and myself. As I remember, we had five weeks to locate our Nigerian friends and get enough footage for David to create his recruiting film. This is something of a blur to me, and not only because this all happened many years ago. Being surrounded by a film crew is more than a small distraction from returning to your Peace Corps site.
The centerpiece of David’s “script” turned out to be trips back to the home areas of the four Nigerians, in far-flung parts of eastern Nigeria – in one case by dugout canoe up the Cross River to a tiny village. David wanted to include as a part of the film the journey this new generation of university-educated Nigerians were making from their ancestral ethnic roots. In many ways it was a greater epic than anything PCVs faced.
The cast – the RPCV
For years afterwards, I kidded David that he had cast me as himself in the film. This was more of a paradox than you might think. David and I were the best of friends and remained that way until he died a year and a half ago, but we were also quite different. For lack of a better phrase, David had a beat generation interest in culture and the arts. He found the preferred Peace Corps brand of idealism cliché-ridden and the political drama of Nigeria’s early independence discomforting. When we first arrived in Nigeria as PCVs in 1961, I think he was a bit afraid of Nigerian students, who were not only profoundly African in manner (this was well before today’s slick globalizing influences) but zealously outspoken about neocolonialism, which kept all of us somewhat on guard. The students demonstrated against the Peace Corps upon our arrival on campus where we had been thrown – sink or swim style – into their dorms to live with them, adding to the normal tensions of adjustment to another culture. We also had our classes to plan and conduct in these somewhat volatile circumstances. It was months before David left the university campus to get out and mix it up with Nigeria and Nigerians. Some in our group never really did this. I, on the other hand, was excited about the Peace Corps mission and was determined to spend most of my time with Nigerians, and so I began making excursions into the countryside as soon as we arrived in Nsukka. Curiosity soon got the best of David, and, before long he joined in. We spent a good deal of time together exploring Nigeria, but in the end, David made his own personal journey into Nigeria, as I did. I have always thought that my outgoing approach with Nigeria and Nigerians got David out of his shell, and, to that extent, inspired David’s film project. In watching him make the film, it became clear that he was far more reflective than I was about things I often took for granted. At any rate, my role in the film, as cast by David, became that of an interlocutor with the Nigerians.
The cast – the former students
One by one, we found our four Nigerian friends – each astounded to see us appear at his doorsteps. They had graduated and now were at their jobs in various parts of eastern Nigeria. Two were teachers, one was with an oil company, and the other was a government district officer. We proceeded to become reacquainted – Nigerian-style, with lots of parties and long conversations.
Pol Ndu, a teacher and published poet, appears briefly in the film to host one of those wonderful Nigerian small-town parties with local friends, gossiping and dancing. Not many years after making the film, Pol, a sweet and refined young man with a wife and two kids, was killed in an automobile accident.
Paul Okpokum – a teacher who turned out to be a natural actor – is seen in the film with his class at a girl’s school, where he pushes me into making a guest appearance for a lesson about Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart. He later leads an excursion to his ancestral village on the Cross River where I meet his family. Masks and drums are brought from the Sacred Forest for mascarade dances to celebrate his return home.
Paul came to the US in the late 60s to star in Bushman, a feature film David made about the adventures of an African in San Francisco. That film won awards at independent film festivals and is in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City as an early example of cinema verite. Paul also got arrested during a race riot at San Francisco State University, allegedly for carrying a homemade bomb on campus in his jacket pocket. That event became the conclusion of Bushman. Paul was briefly imprisoned and then deported to Nigeria where he resumed his career in acting and theatre management.
Manze Ejiogu appears in the film conversing with me at length about Nigeria and translating at an Owerri village celebration. He has had a long career in the oil business and was installed as a traditional chief in Owerri. Manze visited David and me in the States a few years ago and has corresponded with us over many years, often about Nigeria’s descent into political darkness.
Gabriel Ogar is the man many women seeing the film most wanted to meet. Gabe married his fiancée, Josephine, who appears briefly in the film as well. As far as I know, they lived happily ever afterwards. His career has been in local government. We heard about him through Paul but not from him directly.
The film focuses mostly on these people but some of the most beautiful parts are quiet scenes of a rural village waking up in the morning, yam fields, and Nigerian music.
“Give Me A Riddle”
As for the film itself, Give Me A Riddle – named after a scene about Ibo proverbs and riddles – lives on, especially with Nigeria RPCVs.
It was utilized a bit in Peace Corps recruiting, although the agency was never comfortable with the “behind the scenes” look at the Peace Corps. By the time the rough-cut was prepared from over 25 hours of footage, Shriver was gone. The new Peace Corps director, Jack Hood Vaughn, told David that scenes showing bearded PCVs drinking with their Nigerian hosts would have to go because this “image” made it too hard to defend the Peace Corps on Capitol Hill. It turned out that President Johnson had called Vaughn to complain about PCVs. For years, David quoted with relish Vaughn’s account of the phone call: “Gawddammit Jack, here’s another picture of a Volunteer with a gawddamn beard. What you got over there, a bunch of gawddamn hippies?”
The Peace Corps banned showings of the film in southern states out of concern that it would inflame race relations – which probably meant offend southern politicians. The Peace Corps leadership feared the American south in the 60s – probably for good reasons. There was a Shriver policy that PCVs could not be trained where they might face racial discrimination, which eliminated southern colleges and universities. As a program officer for training, I arranged the first training program at a black college – Morehouse in Atlanta. The Morehouse president and I had to promise Shriver that there would be no trouble. Then a carload of trainees, training staff, Nigerians and I were mistaken for civil rights workers, and arrested and jailed on phony charges in the small town of Roberta, Georgia. It was Morehouse and the Nigerian Embassy that got us released, not the Peace Corps. David would have loved to film that.
Today, when I see Give Me A Riddle, I am always a little surprised by how bold we were in those early years of Peace Corps. It is an emotional experience to see again how generous our Nigerian friends really were and to revisit David’s take on the Peace Corps. At one level, Riddle is about friendships, talks, trips and a sense of place. It is true to those dimensions of the Peace Corps. David prized the film as a historical document capturing the spirit of Nigeria in that halcyon time between independence and civil war. With David’s death, from a brain tumor, Riddle has become infused – at least for me – with his sense of spiritual journey and of finding delight in unexpected places.
The film is long forgotten by the Peace Corps but is sometimes shown at RPCV conferences. I hear about it fairly often. Harris Wofford called a few months back after showing it on video to the founder of City Year, who wanted to talk about it. A few weeks ago some Peace Corps friends of mine insisted on seeing it. Parts of the film were shown at the Memorial Service for David in San Francisco in November 1999. The RPCV group Friends of Nigeria has asked to show it during their gathering at the 40th anniversary conference. David took the film back to Nigeria for a showing in 1972.
Unfortunately, the Peace Corps doesn’t make films like this anymore, but RPCVs still tell their stories in books and in other ways. When I meet young people who I think have the right stuff to join the Peace Corps, I always shown them the film. They usually sign up and, I am happy to report, usually have very similar experiences in places as distant from Nigeria as Hungary and Ecuador.
Today Roger Landrum (Nigeria 1961-63) is a fine art photographer who has achieved international recognition. In 2008 he was awarded a Prix de laPhotographie Paris. He was a 1st place winner in the 2008 International Photography Awards. The IPA judges selected his work for recognition again in 2009. Landrum’s interest in photography began as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. He says, “living in a different culture made me aware of the distinctive visual aspects and color sensibilities expressive of other traditions.” His Nigeria photographs won several awards and were published as a book. The prints are now sought out by photography collectors. His website is: http://www.rogerlandrum.com/
Previously, Roger founded and directed three nonprofit organizations. The Teachers Inc. recruited, trained and supported a corps of teachers for inner-city public schools in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and Atlanta. Youth Service America, by leading a nation-wide expansion of youth volunteer programs in schools and higher education and youth corps in states and cities, laid the program and policy foundation for the federal National and Community Service Acts of 1990 and 1993. Youth Service International, is developing service programs for young people in Central and Eastern Europe. Landrum served as volunteer president of the group RPCV/Washington and the National Peace Corps Association, and organized and chaired the RPCV Coalition that created the 25th Peace Corps Anniversary Celebration in Washington, D.C. in 1986. He lives in Washington, DC.