When the Right Hand Washes the Left [Part Three]

Hundreds of 23-year-old spies

Life at Nsukka was not always the easiest thing in the world, and the friendships I talk of so cavalierly were not the work of a day. Our group arrived at Nsukka shortly after the Peace Corps’ first big publicity break, the famous Post Card Incident, which was still very much on Nigerian minds. We were always treated with a sense of natural friendliness and hospitality, but there was also quite a bit of understandable mistrust. Nigeria became a nation only in 1960, and the present university generation is one bred on the struggle for independence and the appropriate slogans and attitudes. I tended to feel guilty rather than defensive, except when the accusations were patently ridiculous, such as the idea that we were all master spires – hundred of 23-year-old master spies – or when facts were purposefully ignored, as in the statement that the Peace Corps was run by the CIA. America is a large, rich, powerful, feared and envied nation; Nigeria is a new country naturally jealous of its independence and autonomy. All things considered, I am a little amazed at the openness and frankness of our receptions.

There were other problems. Many Nigerians have an overdeveloped sense of status and found it hard to believe that we were paid practically nothing. Many reasoned that because we lived in the dormitories with the students instead of in big houses as the rest of the faculty, we must be second-raters, or misfits that America was fobbing off on them. But insofar as we made names for ourselves as good teachers and made ourselves accessible as people (something that few of my friends had ever known a white man to do), our eventual acceptance into the community was assured. Shortly after our arrival a petition circulated among the students asking the administration to dismiss the Peace Corps. Months later student grievances erupted into a riot that forced the school to close down for more than two weeks, but in the long list of grievances, the Peace Corp was not now mentioned.

I do not wish to imply that we “won them over”; indeed, I think they won us over in the final analysis. It’s just that the intransigence of our preconceptions of ourselves and others gradually dissolved into a kind of affectionate confusion. Ideas often try to live a life of their own, independent of and separate from the people and objects with which they supposedly deal. In the intellect alone they are self-proliferating, like fungus under glass, without regard for what the weather is doing outside. But the kind of personal contact we had with Nigerians helped break up the false buttressing of formal thought, and when that happens, personal friction creates a warmth conducive to further understanding and not a heat with which to light incendiary fires. A glass of beer can make the difference between families and worthy opponents.

I was at first surprised by how little I felt the presence of any racial feeling in Nigeria. What little I did notice had a kind of second-hand quality, as if it were merely a principled identification with the American Negro or a historical commitment. Though well-informed about civil rights events in the United States, most Nigerians I talked to showed little understanding of the state of mind of the American Negro as differentiated from themselves. Most Nigerians have had little contact with hardcore prejudice backed by social force. They have good reason to resent, sometimes to hate, the white man in Africa, but they have never been subjected as people to the kind of daily and life-long injustice that confronts the American Negro.

Racial feeling sometimes crops up in strange circumstances. A friend writes me, “Before Nsukka, the only whites I had ever known were reverend fathers in school who interpreted everything I did as a sure sign of fast-approaching eternal damnation . . . .” In Africa as in America all whites are to a certain extent, guilty until proven innocent, but in a very short time we were joking about our respective colors with a freedom and levity which is not always possible in America. Color has its own pure power, too; and I soon felt ashamed of my chalky, pallid skin against the splendor of the African’s.

Much has been written recently about the contradictory feelings of the Negro toward the white man – hating him and yet buying facial creams to be more like him – and I think the same sort of contradictory relationship exists in Nigeria, but with a cultural rather than a racial basis. The African stands in a very delicate psychological position between Western industrial culture and his own. He is driven to a comparative evaluation and must build a society out of his decisions. America is not so much interested in changing as exporting its society; Nigeria is interested in change and is of necessity much less parochial than ourselves in the source of its inspiration

The only thing that cuts a little ice
“Africa caught between two world” – it is a cliché, but it is no joke. To the race problem it is at least possible to postulate an ideal resolution: racial equality and the elimination of intolerance. But in its cultural aspect – the struggle between African traditions and the heritage of the West – there is no indisputable resolution, not even in the mind. If I have learned anything from living in Nigeria, it is the unenviably complex and difficult position in which the young Nigerian finds himself; and if I have learned anything from the poems and stories written by my students, it is the incredible grace, honesty and sometimes power with which many Nigerians are examining themselves, their past and their future.

I don’t know how friendship fits into all this, but somehow it does. My instincts revolt against the whole idea of having to prove in some mechanistic or quantitative way the value of the Peace Corps. If the aim is to help people, I understand that in the sense of the Ibo proverb which says that when the right hand washes the left hand, the right hand become clean also. E. M. Forster had said that “love is a great force in private life,” but “in public affairs [it] does not work.” The fact is we can only love what we know personally, and we cannot know much. The only thing that cuts a little ice is affection, or the possibility of affection. I only know that when I am infuriated by some article in a Nigerian newspaper, I can summon up countless images of dusty cycle rides with Paul Okpokam, reading poetry with Glory Nwanodi, dancing and drinking palm wine with Gabriel Ogar, and it suddenly matters very much that I go beyond my annoyance to some kind of understanding. That my Nigerian friends trust me is no reason for them to trust Washington or forgive Birmingham; but something is there which was not there before and which the world is the better for having.

After a long career as a songwriter, musician, filmmaker and teacher, David Schickele died of a brain tumor in 2000.

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  • One of the blessings of serving in Ethiopia was that they believed since they had been independent for a couple of thousand years and did not feel the least bit inferior to us as Peace Corps volunteers. However, they were concerned about our comparitively young ages. When I first started to teach in Asmara in the Auto Shop at the Point Four School, the first thing that they asked me was how old I was. I said 23 and it was obvious that many of them were older than me. However, they have been trying to fix an ignition system for two days. I took one look at it, adjusted the points, got the engine running and even set the timing in about 15 minutes. They were clearly impressed, and for the next couple of weeks before being transferred to the technical school in Addis Ababa, they looked to me for guidance in car repair. To this day, I still have Ethiopian acquaintances and have never ceased to value their friendship, inteligence and wit; and of course, the food is the greatest!

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