Boniface Obichere

Coming to America: Boniface Obichere and the Lineage of West African Students in the United States

Edward A. Alpers
University of California, Los Angeles

What impels a young man to leave his home, his family, and his country to study in a foreign land?  And why, given the option of taking the more prestigious path of study at Cambridge would that same young man choose to decline that opportunity to study in the United States?  I have been asking myself these questions about my late colleague, friend and scholar, Professor Boniface I. Obichere, and it is the unraveling of this conundrum that provides the purpose of my essay.

Through his teaching, his writing, and his community involvement, Boniface Obichere was a notable bridge-builder, an important cultural translator among diaspora Africans and between Africans and Americans of African descent.  His approach was Africa-centered, though not rigidly Afrocentric; as a son of the soil, he had no need to imagine, invent, or rediscover Africa.  A wonderful, often autobiographical, raconteur, I don’t believe he would have emphasized his singularity - though like all of us he was certainly unique - but, were he here to instruct us, he would have taken care to place his experience in the historical context of Africans who have traveled abroad to study and, more broadly, in that of the African diaspora.  In will examine Boniface Obichere in a wider context as a way of appreciating his individuality and imagining his journey.

I began my quest by re-examining the accounts of the two most prominent West African political leaders who studied in the United States, Nnamdi Azikiwe and Kwame Nkrumah, for clues about the circumstances that in an earlier period brought each to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.  When I mentioned this strategy to Professor Joseph  Holloway, one of Boniface’s most distinguished former students, he said, “Oh, Zik and Nkrumah were Professor Obichere’s heroes!”  Finding myself on the right track, I have since that moment expanded my research to try to reconstruct a key moment and process in Professor Obichere’s life about which he has not himself written.  While we do not possess the evidence to determine what he was thinking, I think we can legitimately imagine both how he came to make this decision and what he must have felt as he embarked on what would prove to be a life-altering decision and experience.

Here are the bare facts as recounted to me by Mrs. Armer Obichere, and set forth in Professor Obichere’s own curriculum vitae: [1] Boniface was inspired by the example of Zik, the popular nickname of Nnamdi Azikiwe, the most prominent Igbo public spokesperson and nationalist politician of his day and a generation older than he.  As he made his way through the Roman Catholic educational system in eastern Nigeria, he spent, in his own words, “many years as a primary school pupil teacher.” When he finally completed his secondary education at Mount St. Mary’s Teacher Training College at Azareagbelu, in Owerri, he received a Nigerian Federal Government Scholarship to study abroad.  Accepted at Cambridge, he declined this opportunity in favor of studying in America.  He was accepted as an advanced standing student at Harvard, but because he was unable to settle his affairs and travel in time for the beginning of the Fall 1959 semester at Harvard, the very moment when I entered Harvard as a freshman, he instead accepted an offer to attend the University of Minnesota (now identified as the Twin Cities campus), where he earned his B.A. with Honors in 1961.  Following an additional year at Minnesota, he spent 1962-1964 in the Ph.D. program in European History at UC Berkeley, where he was a Teaching Assistant and where he met his future wife.  In that same year he earned his M.A. in History from Minnesota.  At that point, having gained a Beit Senior Research Scholarship in Commonwealth History, he decided to leave the United States to study at Linacre College, Oxford, where he earned his D.Phil. in 1967 under the supervision of John Gallagher.[2] That Fall he returned to the United States to take up a teaching appointment at UCLA, which remained his academic home until his untimely death.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Not long after he came to UCLA, Professor Obichere drew upon some of his early educational experiences in a talk on the state of African historiography he presented at a conference in 1968.[3] His comments reveal some insight, I think, into why he was eager to study in an educational system that was not dominated by British imperial perspectives and personalities.

I remember sitting in the examination hall in Owerri (Biafra) and the Education Officer, a rotund Englishman, showed us very clearly the envelope in which our examination questions were sent from England with the seal of the University Senate in London.  The regulations were that these examinations had to be opened at a specified time so that they would start at the same time all over.  This was to ensure that people would not cable back and forth the questions from Nigeria to Britain.  The Officer said, ‘Here are your examinations,’ undid the seal of the Senate, and the[n] zip - we started off.  It was just as simple as that, because I could have landed on the steps of London University and discussed those questions with the same degree of depth and ability as any honors student in England - because the questions were the same, the people who were going to mark and grade them were the same, living in the suburbs of Essex and Sussex or what have you.  So, under these circumstances it would be too much to expect African universities to branch out into the investigation of African history, because only ‘European History,’ ‘English History,’ and ‘The History of the British Empire’ were on the syllabus (p. 4).

My reading of this passage suggests that, although everyone who worked with him knew his insistence upon high standards, the fact remains that these were standards imposed on Africa from the outside by a system that represented the imperial power that had colonized much of Africa.  The lack of interpretive options was clearly a problem for him in the English system as he understood it at that time.  This impression is reinforced by an earlier anecdote in this same talk:

When I was living in the then eastern Nigeria, now Biafra, I was in an English-style boarding school preparing for a London University examination, and of course one of my subjects was the History of the British Empire - and that included North America.  In a textbook for this particular examination, which was a set of lectures written up in London at the time, it was very interesting to note that John Hancock was described, and I quote, as ‘the greatest smuggler in Boston.’  When I came to the United States a few years later, I was told as a student in a state university, if I wanted an honors degree in history, which I was in the process of getting, I had to do American history.  So, I registered for American history for a whole year, and in that particular class I was taught that John Hancock was a very great patriot, and, of course, that his name appears first on the Declaration of Independence.  This is a simple fact, but it affected me profoundly later on in my college career, especially when I went back to Oxford.  In this example, you see the difference in thinking, the difference in attitude, the difference in prejudices and so on and so forth (p. 1).

You may think that I am reading too much into these remarks, but let us listen once more to Professor Obichere’s recollection of his youthful experience.  As he chipped away in this talk at the narrow intellectual range of options that he perceived to be available to him in the system in which he was being educated, he specifically lauded Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe’s advocacy of “mental emancipation” as being necessary for the reinterpretation of African history.  Later, he characteristically illustrated this process by telling a story about himself that makes the distinction between genetic inheritance - what we socially define as race - and culture:

About a week ago I was out until two a.m. listening to Leroi Jones [Amiri Baraka] and his theatre group perform.  But when I was green from Biafra where did I go?  The Minneapolis Symphony, because I was taught in the boarding school that this was the ultimate in music.  I went to the Guthrie Theatre and watched Chekhov’s Three Sisters and some Shakespeare.  But today I can go to a black theatre and enjoy it.

These several extended insights from Professor Obichere suggest to me that, even if he was not so clear in his own mind about these issues before he left Nigeria for the United States, he probably was feeling a kind of intellectual constraint that was impelling him towards a different kind of educational system and experience from that with which he was familiar.  And it is here that the prior experience of other, notable West Africans undoubtedly influenced his decision.

Let’s begin with Zik, since he would clearly have been the key influence on a young Igbo with high academic aspirations.  Nnamdi Azikiwe was born in 1904 to Igbo parents in Northern Nigeria, where he lived until 1912, when he went to live with relatives in Onitsha and joined the Anglican Church.[4] In 1915, he was sent to school in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, where he attended the Wesleyan Boys’ High School, the second oldest in Nigeria.[5] In 1918 he returned to Onitsha, where he continued his education at the CMS [Church Missionary Society] Central School. He passed his Standard VI examination a year later and was posted as a teacher to a nearby CMS school.  Because of his youth, his family encouraged him to continue his education, for which purpose he joined his father at Calabar. [6] Although Zik had already acquired a cosmopolitan worldview from his travels around Nigeria and interactions with schoolmates and teachers from many different parts of the Anglophone Atlantic world, it was at his new school, Hope Waddell Training Institution, that he first heard of Marcus Garvey and the Universal Negro Improvement Association, both of which captured his imagination.  In particular, he was attracted to Garvey’s motto of  “One God, One Aim, One Destiny,” which he states came to shape his philosophy of life.[7] Soon, however, Zik returned to Lagos and the Wesleyan Boys’ High School, which offered a more appropriate curriculum for him.  So at the age of sixteen, Zik found himself with several classmates at morning services at Tinubu Methodist Church, where “One day I listened to a sermon which saturated my whole being.  I became spiritually electrified.”  The speaker was the Reverend Doctor James Emmanuel Kwegyir Aggrey; his text was Isaiah vi. 1-10, and his exegesis emphasized that “Africans were ensconced in the wilderness of western materialism. . . .  Unless, therefore, there was a reorientation of values in Africa, that continent was certainly doomed.”  Aggrey went on to describe his life, including his education in America, his decision to join the influential Phelps-Stokes Commission to Africa in 1921, and his belief that “‘Nothing but the best is good enough for Africa.’”  Zik concludes his description of this transforming moment in the following terms:

As he uttered these words, the scales fell from my eyes and I began to see a glorious future.  His sermon ended in words like these: ‘If I, one of you, could go to the new world, and make a man of myself, then you can too.  May God help you.  Amen.’[8]

The following day, Aggrey visited the Wesleyan Boys’ High School, where, Zik tells us, “I had the distinction to be the recipient of a gift of a book from him.”  The book was Negro Education: a Study of the Private and Higher Schools for Colored People in the United States, a major publication of the same Phelps-Stokes Fund that had funded the commission of which Aggrey was a part.[9] The impact of this book on Zik cannot be overemphasized.  As he tells us,

For the next five years it was my constant companion.  In fact, I owe my higher education to this book, for it was through the information I gleaned from it that I was enabled to make the necessary contacts for my education in America.[10]

Who was this man Aggrey?  Born in 1875 to the Fante ruling family of Anamabu, the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), he left West Africa in 1898 for the United States at the urging of an American-educated AME Zion Bishop from Barbados.  He was educated at the principal AME Zion institution of higher education, Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina, obtaining both B.A. and D.D. degrees.  Marrying an African American woman, Aggrey remained in the United States, ministering to African Americans and teaching at various colleges, until his two trips to Africa as part of the Phelps-Stokes Commission prompted him to return in 1925 to the Gold Coast, where he helped the British colonial administration establish Achimota College, the forerunner of higher education in Ghana.  He died shortly after his return to New York to complete his Ph.D. at Columbia University in 1927.[11] His role in inspiring young Africans to study in America was not, as we shall presently see, limited to Nnamdi Azikiwe.

Returning to Zik, at his father’s urging he took and passed the Nigerian civil service examination, which led to his spending a very unhappy few years at the Treasury.  He hated the regimentation of the civil service and the restriction of opportunities for Africans.  Further education, he believed, was the way out.  “I planned to go to the United States and be re-educated from my mis-education.”[12] Working with the source book that Aggrey had presented to him at school, he randomly selected Howard University as his choice.  Funding was not available at Howard, however, and after much correspondence and a very circuitous route, he ended up at Storer College in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, a place of no little historical significance.  He notes in his autobiography that he was especially appreciative of “the philanthropic spirit of American educators, who were so sympathetic to the aspiration of African youth for higher education in America.”[13] After two years at Storer, Zik subsequently studied at Howard University in Washington, D.C., but the financial and personal problems that had plagued him since arriving in America forced him to withdraw before graduating.  Finally, he completed his senior year at Lincoln University, in southeast Pennsylvania, graduating with his B.A. in 1930.  Before returning to West Africa in 1934, Zik also completed M.A. degrees at both Lincoln and the University of Pennsylvania.

Zik’s autobiography and some of his collected speeches give us a very detailed idea of his many impressions of the United States, both positive and negative.  On balance, however, he declared that “It is only in the United States that any human being can live in a free environment which will give that individual full scope to develop his personality to the full, in spite of the vagaries of human life . . . .”[14] Zik returned many times to the United States in subsequent years, but on no occasion were his remarks more significant than his address at the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the NAACP, at the Polo Grounds in New York City, on July 19, 1959, only a few months before Boniface Obichere began his own odyssey in America and fifteen months before the achievement of Nigerian independence.  On that occasion, Zik emphasized both the promise of Nigeria and the challenges confronting the new nation.  “The greatest of these,” he asserted, “is to raise the standard of living of our people, and it is in this connection, in particular, that we of Africa seek the co-operation of citizens of African descent in the United States.”[15] Although we cannot know to what extent Professor Obichere was moved by these precise sentiments in 1959, I believe we can see that he certainly came to embrace both of these principles enthusiastically, as well as many others I have noted previously, that guided Zik’s life.

Zik was, however, only one of Boniface Obichere’s great inspirations; the other was Kwame Nkrumah, another great Pan African nationalist leader and first Prime Minister of Ghana, the first West African state to gain independence from its colonial rulers.  Born in 1909 at Nkroful, in Nzima, at the extreme southwest of Ghana, Nkrumah followed a familiar path through the educational opportunities available in the rural Gold Coast at that time.  After completing his primary education at Half Assini, where his parents had moved when he was three, he became a student-teacher.  In 1926, he was recruited from Half Assini for teacher training by the Principal of the Government Training College at Accra.  “This marks a turning point in my life for in the following year I came to his college, a raw youth bewildered at first by city life and like most boys who leave home for boarding school, thoroughly homesick.”[16] A year later, Achimota College opened, where Nkrumah was among the first group of teachers to be trained and Aggrey was Vice-Principal and first African member of staff.  “To me he seemed the most remarkable man I had ever met and I had the deepest affection for him. . . . It was through him that my nationalism was first aroused.”[17] His death in 1927 was a shock to the young Nkrumah, especially as it followed the death of his father only a year previously.  It should come as no surprise, then, that Nkrumah declared “It was because of my great admiration for Aggrey, both as a man and a scholar, that I first formed the idea of furthering my studies in the United States of America.”[18]

During his third year at Achimota, Nkrumah played the lead role in a school drama called “Kofi Goes Abroad,” perhaps foreshadowing his own ultimate journey.[19] Upon graduation in 1930, he assumed a teaching position for the Roman Catholic Church at Elmina, although he remained determined to study in America.  The following year he became Head Teacher at Axim and studied to prepare for the London Matriculation examination.  He next taught at Amissano, near Elmina, but he was still eager to continue his education in America.  Nkrumah reflected:

My nationalism was also revived at about that time through articles written in The African Morning Post by Nnamdi Azikiwe, a Nigerian from Onitsha.  Azikiwe was himself a graduate from an American university and when I had first met him after he had addressed a meeting of the Gold Coast teachers’ Association some years earlier in Accra, I had been greatly impressed by him and had been more determined than ever to go to America.[20]

Finally, in 1935 Nkrumah decided to leave for America, although he had little funding available.  He was headed to Lincoln University, where Zik had studied and with which he had already corresponded.  Despite financial difficulties, Nkrumah graduated from Lincoln in 1939 with his B.A., earning a B.Th. from there in 1942.  In that same year he also received a M.Sc. in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.  A year later he earned a M.A., as well, from Penn.[21] During his ten years in the United States, which he left in 1945, Nkrumah, like both Aggrey and Azikiwe, worked at a variety of jobs and came to know the country, and especially its people of African descent, very well.  He was active among the growing group of African students in North America and worked to organize them politically.  He was also engaged in promoting the study of Africa.  He read widely, “But I think that of all the literature that I studied, the book that did more than any other to fire my enthusiasm was Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey published in 1923.”[22] Like Aggrey, Garvey was another connecting link for Nkrumah to Azikiwe.

We are fortunate to have a third detailed account of a West African who left his homeland to study in America.  Like Zik and Professor Obichere, Mbonu Ojike was Igbo.  His memoirs were recorded specifically both to explain his own history and the Africa he knew to an American audience.  In this act of cultural translation he was very much like the man we honor today.  Recalling Nkrumah’s early childhood memories, Ojike’s story reminds us that the place where he began life was a very sheltered community.  As he notes, “The world of my childhood was a small one.  Everybody was black.  Everybody spoke Ibo language.  All observed the same social customs.”[23] By the time he had completed his elementary education, however, he was already chafing at the ethnocentric character of the colonial curriculum, which “had little to do with our own history and customs.  We were fed stories of English heroes and English traditions.”  Echoing sentiments we have previously heard, he continued: “It will take decades, perhaps a century, to re-educate the African into holding a proper balance between his culture and that of the West.  He has been terribly miseducated!”  Later in his account, when he was teaching at a secondary school in Onitsha, he similarly lamented, “No African history yet.  What a system!”[24] Like the other men whose early lives we have examined, Ojike spent two years as a pupil-teacher before entering the CMS Training College at Oka in 1928.  At Oka he was assigned to Aggrey House, one of two residential houses (the other was Crowther House, named for the first African bishop in West Africa), that were “named after African heroes.”[25] In his first year at Oka, Ojike won a book prize for Scripture examination: the book was Edwin Smith’s Aggrey of Africa.  “The story was a revelation.”  Aggrey’s biography inspired him to study abroad, where he hoped “that I might go to America, obtain academic degrees, and use my experience to promote brotherhood between American and African.”[26] During his five-year contractual period of teaching after completing his secondary education, Ojike studied for the London Matriculation examination by taking correspondence courses through Oxford.  During this period he also met Zik, “whose contact cleared the way for correspondence with American universities,” among them Lincoln University in Pennsylvania.  Finally, when he passed his exams he quit his teaching position with the CMS and, with Zik’s help in gaining a fee reduction, left Nigeria at the beginning of 1939 to study at Lincoln.  That Zik’s imprint is quite strong is evident in what Ojike tells us Zik wrote in his notebook when he sailed from Lagos:

‘There is no achievement which
Is possible to human beings which
Is not possible to Africans.
You are an African.
Your studies of Logic should
Lead to the correct conclusion.
Therefore, go forth, thou
Son of Africa, and return
Home laden with the
Golden Fleece.’[27]

Thus Mbonu Ojike set off on his own odyssey to America.[28]

One of the interesting aspects of these three stories concerns the difficulty of leaving family and friends behind.  For Zik, the matter was complicated by his parents’ estrangement; for Nkrumah by the fact that his mother was a widow.[29] On the last evening that Nkrumah spent with his mother, she “related in detail the history of my ancestors, of the chief Aduku Addaie, the first of my forebears to settle in Nzima centuries ago, whose sister Nwia gave birth to my matrilineal line. . . . I took notes of all that she told me and always carried them with me until one day I lost them in a New York subway.”[30] In Ojike’s case, he notes simply that “As I departed from my village, women and children wept.”[31] While we cannot know what leave-takings Boniface Obichere experienced, two other West African have written about similar moments as they were about to set off on their educational journeys abroad that, together with the recollections of Azikiwe and Nkrumah, may provide enough context for us to imagine what it must have been like for him.  Perhaps the best known such account is that of the Guinean writer Camara Laye, whose autobiographical memoir is dedicated to his mother for her sacrifices on his behalf and concludes with the trauma occasioned by his leaving to study in Paris.[32] More immediately relevant in this case, however, is the astonishing novel by T. Obinkaram Echewa, I Saw the Sky Catch Fire (New York, 1992), which is constructed around the departure of a young Igbo man for America and the stories his grandmother recounts to him about the famous 1929 Women’s War in Eastern Nigeria.[33] It does not take much for me, at least, to imagine something similar surrounding the departure of Boniface Obichere for the United States forty years ago.

To conclude, I hope that I have demonstrated the remarkable lineage that connects Professor Obichere historically to earlier prominent West Africans, who sought higher education in America.  In particular, the examples of Aggrey, Azikiwe, and Nkrumah personified Boniface’s commitment to a Pan African perspective that was his consistent lifetime philosophy.  Similarly, those of Aggrey and Ojike parallel his dedication to serving as a living bridge and cultural translator between Africa and America, but especially between Africans and African Americans.  In coming to America, Boniface Obichere had some distinguished ancestors; we again see that his own legacy was no less remarkable.

[1] Telephone conversation with Mrs. Armer Obichere, February 23, 1999, with additional details from Professor Obichere’s c.v. on file in the Department of History at UCLA.

[2] The revised dissertation was published as West African States and European Expansion: The Dahomey-Niger Hinterland, 1885-1898 (New Haven & London, 1971).

[3] This untitled presentation is among Professor Obichere’s papers in the Boniface I. Obichere Library and Archive at Cornell University and has no explicit reference to the occasion at which he delivered it.  I have dated it from an internal reference to 1968.  His references to Biafra also help to date this talk.  My thanks to Professors Holloway and Darryle J. Gatlin for making a copy of the typescript of this paper available to me.

[4] Nnamdi Azikiwe, My Odyssey: An Autobiography (London, 1970), pp. 7, 9.

[5] Ibid., pp. 17, 20.

[6] Ibid., pp. 27-29.

[7] Ibid., pp. 32-35.

[8] Ibid., pp. 36-37.

[9] The full reference is United States Office of Education, Negro education; a study of the private and higher schools for colored people in the United States. Prepared in cooperation with the Phelps-Stokes fund under the direction of Thomas Jesse Jones, specialist in the education of racial groups, Bureau of Education (Washington, 1917), 2 vols.

[10] Azikiwe, My Odyssey, p. 38.

[11] For details, see Edwin W. Smith, Aggrey of Africa: a Study in Black and White (London, 1929); L.H. Ofosu-Appiah, The Life of Dr. J.E.K. Aggrey (Accra, 1975).

[12] Azikiwe, My Odyssey, p. 45.

[13] Ibid., p. 75.

[14] Ibid., p. 196.

[15] Azikiwe, ZIK: A Selection from the Speeches of Nnamdi Azikiwe (Cambridge, 1961), p. 21.

[16] Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana - The Autobiography of Kwame Nkrumah (New York, 1971; 1st ed. London, 1957), p. 13.

[17] Ibid., p. 14.

[18] Ibid., p. 15.  Another prominent African political leader who was inspired to study in America following a meeting with Dr. Aggrey, in this case in 1921 at Johannesburg, was Kamuzu Banda, former President of Malawi.  See Philip Short, Banda (London & Boston, 1974), pp. 18-20.

[19] Nkrumah, Ghana, p. 18.

[20] Ibid., p. 22.

[21] Ibid., pp. 31-33.

[22] Ibid., p. 45.  See Amy Jacques-Garvey (ed.), Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (New York, 1969), two volumes in one, with a new preface by William Loren Katz (Vol. 1: 1st ed. 1923; Vol. 2: 1st ed. 1925).

[23] Mbonu Ojike, My Africa (London, 1955; 1st ed. New York, 1946), p. 60.

[24] Ibid., pp. 68-69, 81.

[25] Ibid., pp. 75-76.

[26] Ibid., pp. 79-80.

[27] Ibid., pp. 84-85.

[28] For Ojike’s experiences in America and as a cultural translator between Africa and America, see his I Have Two Countries (New York, 1947).  Still another contemporary West African account of education at Lincoln University comes from Liberian diplomat T.O. Dosumu-Johnson, Reflections of an African Nationalist (New York, 1980).  For  discussion of  his friendship with both Zik and Nkrumah at Lincoln, see ibid., pp. 28-38.

[29] Azikiwe, My Odyssey, pp. 60-62, 68-69, 72-73; Nkrumah, Ghana, p. 25.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ojike, My Africa, p. 84.

[32] Camara Laye, The African Child (London, 1959), pp. 151-159.  Laye’s book was originally published in French as L’Enfant Noir (Paris, 1954) and first translated into English as The Dark Child (London, 1955).

[33] For historical studies, none of which quite catch the vitality that Echewa brings to the story, see Caroline Ifeka-Moller, “Female Militancy and Colonial Revolt: The Women’s War of 1929, Eastern Nigeria, in Shirley Ardener, (ed.), Perceiving Women (London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1975), pp. 127-157; Judith Allen, “‘Aba Riots’ or Igbo ‘Women’s War’? Ideology, Stratification, and the Invisibility of Women,” in Nancy Hafkin and Edna Bay (eds.), Women in Africa: Studies in Social and Economic Change (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1976), pp. 68-97; Nina Mba, Nigerian Women Mobilized: Women’s Political Activity in Southern Nigeria, 1900-1965 (Berkeley: Institute of International Studies, University of California), pp. 59-85.