Marjorie Michelmore Peace Corps Postcard, Part II (Nigeria)

In the Fall, 1999 issue of the Friends of Nigeria Newsletter, Frank recalls the incident and those early tense days in Ibadan, Nigeria. Murray writes:

The Postcard Affair began October 14, 1961. That was the day Peace Corps Nigeria almost came to an end . . . before it started. And I was in the middle of it all.

Nigeria I had arrived in Ibadan early in October. Volunteers were settling into dormitories at the University of Ibadan (then a part of the University of London and called University College of Ibadan) where they would continue the training started at Harvard.

I was the Western Region Peace Corps Representative. My family and I arrived in September, ahead of any other Regional Representatives and their families. Brent Ashabranner, who left AID to become Nigeria’s first Peace Corps Director, helped us get settled. We had a house in Bodija, a middle-class development between the center of Ibandan and the University. Residents included professionals and senior government officials – not quite the Peace Corps mold – but quite a comfortable area for a family with children aged two and four.

I had nothing to do with Volunteer training. My job was to arrange Volunteer assignments. I would visit a potential location, meet the principal and staff, establish that there was a position for the Volunteer to fill, and check out living conditions. I had not gotten very far by Friday, October 13. But, I was getting to know Volunteers as work assignments were developing.

Volunteers went to class and studied Monday through Saturday mornings. Friday night, October 13, PCV Marjorie Michelmore wrote some letters and picture postcards to folks back home. She mailed them on the way to class Saturday morning. One of the postcards described her first impressions.

When Volunteers arrived at dormitory dining halls for lunch Saturday, October 14, there was a copy, word for word, of that postcard at each place. Marjorie’s comments described how the average Nigerian lived. While not inaccurate, her comments were not flattering, and to a Nigerian student – especially one concerned about Western imperialism – the comments seemed downright insulting.

God help me!
A couple of Volunteers hitched a ride from the university to bring me the news. Protests were beginning on campus, Volunteers were being ostracized. This was clearly not a training issue. Now, I was in charge, God help me!

I arranged for all of the Volunteers to come to my house while I went to the USIS library to phone Lagos. I didn’t have a phone. I told Ashabranner what I knew. He cabled Peace Corps Washington.

By coincidence, the second-in-command at the American Embassy, the Deputy Chief of Mission, was on his way back to Lagos after a trip up North when the story broke. I met him at a local rest house with Marjorie and we agreed that she should go with him to Lagos. There was an AP stringer at the rest house. He could see that something was up.

I went home to meet with Nigeria I Volunteers. I was totally unprepared for this.

Initially the group felt anger – at Marjorie for getting us into this, at the Nigerians for making such a big deal out of one person’s comments on a postcard and holding us all responsible. Should we issue a statement disassociating ourselves? If so, to whom? How? We got by that quickly and went on to examine how representative these students and their feelings were of the country, and especially of the people with whom we would be working

Intense nationalism
We knew that Nigeria was newly independent but, in retrospect, I don’t know if we fully absorbed how deeply this influenced the students’ behavior. It had not been very long since independence had been won. The visages of the colonial period were still all around, including and especially white people who symbolized a colonial past. A Nigerian self-image based on new freedom was developing. Nigerians, at least by this group of young intellectuals, demanded respect.

I understood it better after I attended the inauguration ceremonies when the University College of Ibadan became the independent University of Ibadan. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zeke), the father of independence, was the main attraction. When it was his turn to speak, the excitement – the electricity – in the crowd was palpable. A zzzZZZEKE cheer went wherever he did. They cheered and cried for him and for the event that reaffirmed independence. Zeke insisted that the University of Ibadan was “our” university, free of London’s influence and now part of Nigeria’s development. It was thrilling – the closest I ever came to such intense nationalism.

But on October 14, 1961, most of us had just confronted this intense nationalism for the first time. All of us had experienced student protests in the States. But this was quite different. It was not really about a postcard. We knew there were those who opposed foreigners “invading” their country and those who would use this incident for their own purposes. Some feared that we would not really be able to help Nigerians if that was how we wrote home about them.

We asked many questions. Do we have a choice, or have our chances of success been reduced significantly? Why try to stay where so many don’t want us? Shouldn’t we go somewhere else where we are invited and start fresh? Can we continue to live and train at the University where there is such hostility toward us?

And then the counter arguments came. We know Nigeria needs teachers. We can teach. We are not imperialists, nor CIA agents, nor ugly Americans. We know who we are. We can make a difference.

We were agitated but the discussion was mostly calm, always serious. It was hard work that afternoon. Concensus was a long time in coming. I saw my role as the discussion leader. These were the folks who would be on the firing line. They had to decide for themselves.

We were all young
We were all young. The oldest in that room was 34. We were newly transplanted to a very different culture, confronted with a situation for which none of us had any real preparation. But the Volunteers had spirit and maturity.

We continued to try to answer many questions. What are we doing here? Should we leave, or stay and prove that we have something to give? After many hours we made a decision.

We wanted to stay.

Murray with Ginna, Peter and Lisa in Nigeria on their way to a ceremony to crown a chief.

Murray with his wife Ginna, and their children Peter and Lisa in Nigeria on their way to a ceremony to crown a chief.

Marjorie’s postcard appeared in all Nigerian newspapers the next day. The story was in the American press, too. There were no directives nor advice from Peace Corps Washington or our Embassy. Only one message came. It was from the State Department asking “Were there really over 256 words on one-half the side of the postcard?”

In coming days and weeks, Volunteers continued to take some meals and sleep in the dormitories, but they were always isolated. One of the Volunteers, Aubry Brown, had training and experience in non-violent resistance. He told the Nigerian students in his dorm that he would not eat if he couldn’t eat with them.

Aubry Brown makes his stand
After a while, the Nigerians saw Aubry meant it. When they brought a dinner tray to his room he refused it. Soon the Nigerians invited him to join them at meals. Other Volunteers and students did the same. A dialogue began between students and the Volunteers – more valuable than if the incident had not taken place.

The Nigerian-American Society, and organization of Nigerians trained in America, also came to our defense in meetings, through letters to the editor, and with friendship. I remember particularly H.A.. Oluwasanmi, who taught agronomy at the University of Ibadan and later was Chancellor of the University of Ife. His support and advice on how to understand the situation was invaluable.

Richard Taiwo, an engineer in one of the Western Region ministries was a likeable, garrulous supporter, praising the Peace Corps everywhere. He and others organized a party for us at one of the very visible clubs in Ibadan. There was plenty of Star beer and lessons in Highlife.

Another outspoken and effective supporter was Tai Solarin, principal of the Mayflower School which he founded and named for our Mayflower. Had it not been for the support and advice from the Nigerian-American group, it would have been far more difficult to weather the storm. We might not have made it.

The Volunteers’ behavior after the tumult of the Postcard Affair was special. PCVs remained calm and were not retaliatory with Nigerians who taunted them. These young men and women balanced individuality and group allegiance, knowing that the issues were not personal. They remained reasonably self-confident and able to listen and learn

I assume that there will be PCV’s going into Nigeria again soon.

I hope they will be as good as Nigeria I volunteers were. They couldn’t be better.


Murray Frank

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