Reviewed by Marianne Arieux (Ethiopia 1965–67)
It is 1969. Former Peace Corps Volunteer and American Midwesterner, now Nigerian wife and mother, Catharine Onyemeluke nests with her family in her in-laws remote Igbo village, fleeing the encroaching Biafran war. For the first time since coming to Africa, she must become part of a rural African village without electricity, running water, or a health facility nearby; an undertaking that is a hallmark of Peace Corps training.
Onyemelukwe’s telling of this particular venture highlights her achievement in this well written memoir — a tale of a young woman whose adventurous spirit carries her into a life path introduced and limned by the Peace Corps and its lore. Her book has the tone of a life-cycle epic. We are invited on a journey of constant discovery as Ms. Onyemelukwe develops and matures within and through a culture and country very different from her own. Her memoir begins with her arrival in Lagos to teach German and ends twenty-four years later, in midlife as she contemplates another transnational voyage that may be as life altering as the first.
Midwifed by the Peace Corps to engage and fall in love with a this new land, Onyemelukwe nee Zastrow has married Clem, an Igbo engineer. She embraces Igbo life, enveloping herself in the cuisine, customs, and habits with a daunting ease. She finds much to like — even to prefer, as in the warm communications, and freedoms of child raising. Yet her strong personality remains throughout, as when she continues sleeping with her husband as opposed to the traditional practice of sleeping with newborn babies. Her in-laws consider her one of them. Onyemelukwe’s tale of personal cultural development takes place as her adopted country undergoes profound cultural change morphing from nascent independence through civil war into a stability supportive of ongoing development. These usually separate stories are intertwined making for a richer understanding of the country as the author weaves, for example, the progress of the Biafran war (the Igbo ultimately lost) into decisions she and her husband make about the safety of their children. The hybird space created by both of these strains alone would make for an interesting read, but it is her writing that makes the story come alive.
Cathering Onyenmeluke is what I would call, a visual writer. She paints a three dimensional landscape of her life, inviting the reader alongside, as she eats countless Nigerian meals, waits for her father-in-law to name her babies, and frets with her husband over the best schooling choices for their children. Onyemelukwe also lets the reader in on the future, a device that I would not necessarily think a good idea, but it works for her storytelling.
Hers is a candid and intimate portrait revealing without the introspection so common in memoirs. She captures the geographic and temporal terrains describing activities of life in rich detail (including dialogue equally precise). Her depiction of life in the remote village of her husbands’ family is so powerfully portrayed that I was there with her pounding yams, rationing water, amid the smell of Kerosene. It sounds almost trite, but somehow I was then immediately transported, with a vividness not felt in years, to my Peace Corps experience of a very different African place. The appeal of this memoir however, lies reliably in the multiple stories it offers to a wide audience: of how a naive Midwesterner transforms into an established woman of a culture very different from her own while keeping her own identity, amidst the nation building of the country she loves; of the multicultural family that is the outcome of both, and finally (and perhaps only for the initiated) how this was influenced by the young Peace Corps that offered both portal and tool box.
Marianne Arieux, PhD, MSN, RN was part of the Ethiopia V (1965-67) medical group, assigned to teach and assist at the Itege Mennen Dresser School in Asmara. She recently retired from a full-time academic teaching career in Human Development and Psychology at SUNY Empire State College to live in Oakland, CA near her grandchildren.