Invisible in Africa Talk for Montclair New Jersey Unitarian Church 10/10/10

I am always sympathetic to the person who has to introduce me – he or she is usually slightly stressed, making sure all the elements of the service or event work well. S/he may even practice saying my name, but it can still throw you at the last moment! I want you to know how to say it, so you can introduce me and tell others about what you learn today. I’ll help you. It is 5 syllables, long for our language. What makes it hard to grasp when you hear it are the tones. It has 3 tone levels. I’ll say it for you and I’ll teach you how to say it – o-nye-may-lu-kway. Syllable by syllable it’s less challenging. Excellent! I am here today to celebrate United Nations Sunday with you. I have loved the UN since reading about Dag Hammarskjold, the second UN Secretary General, in the 1950’s. I am honored to be the president of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, or UUUNO. Each year the UU-UNO chooses a theme for UN Sunday. Usually it’s the same them as our Intergenerational Spring Seminar a few months before UN Sunday. This year we chose Climate Change. To be really specific, the theme is the Ethical Aspects of Climate Change. This was a hard topic for me, and I puzzled for quite a while. Then I read an article online that told me exactly what to say. I realized that I should tell you about my in-laws whose lives in Africa have been severely impacted by climate change. Yet their plight is hardly known even in Nigeria, and not at all in the West – they are invisible to us. When I joined the Peace Corps in 1962, I was thrilled to be on my way to Nigeria in West Africa. The country had been independent for 2 years and had a democratic government. In our training I learned that there were three major tribes and hundreds of others in Nigeria. I learned about the importance of home, family, and clan. I learned that the tie to ones’ ancestral place is on a different plane from our own sense of hometown. The tie to ones’ place, to one’s ancestral land permeates the lives of Nigerians and many Africans, I learned. But it was only an idea to me. Later I learned it in practice. And it is the tie to ancestral land that makes the story I’ll tell you so tragic. For my Peace Corps assignment I was a teacher in the capital city, Lagos, and in a smaller school outside the capital. During my second year of teaching, I met Clement. He was the Chief Electrical Engineer of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, or ECN. He had spent 9 years in England and to the relief of his parents, had come back without an English wife!

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Clem is Ibo, from the Eastern part of the country, but was working in Lagos at the Electricity Corporation headquarters. After we had been dating for a few weeks, I went to the East to spend the Christmas holidays on a Peace Corps assignment. Clem called a cousin who lived there and asked him to take me to visit Onitsha, a large city where Clem’s parents lived, and to Clem’s ancestral village nearby. In my naïveté, I remember thinking this was very generous, to get his cousin to go out of his way to give me a look at village life and a city in another part of the country. I met Clem’s parents who were more curious about me even than I was about them. I met other relatives in the village, and saw the compound. I was surprised when the cousin showed me the house that Clem was already having built in the village. When I came back to Lagos, I asked Clem about the house – why was he building a house in the village? His parents lived in a nearby city and didn’t expect to live in the village anytime soon, and I was sure he didn’t expect to live there. He said it was essential. As soon as he had come back to Nigeria from his years abroad, his father had insisted that building this house was necessary. For a successful professional son not to build a house in his village was unthinkable. A couple of months later, Clem finally told me that he had asked his cousin to take me to the village and to see his parents because he wanted to marry me. Not a very romantic proposal, I thought! His parents, even though they had met me, were not happy. They came to Lagos for a few days to persuade him to change his mind. But I won them over with my Ibo language skills and warmth. We were married on Boxing Day (December 26) in 1964. So now I was part of the family and village structure. We traveled every few months to Onitsha and Nanka, including a visit when our first son was just a few weeks old. He had to be introduced to the family and village. I got my first lesson in how to create the tie to ancestral land: our son’s umbilical cord – the part that drops off a few days after birth was buried in our compound. As I said earlier, we certainly didn’t expect to live in the village – it was the place to visit when we went to the East, to go for holidays. But life is full of surprises. Within 3 years of our marriage, Nigeria was embroiled in a civil war – the Biafran War. Some of you may remember it. We were very fortunate that Clem had built that house in the village that seemed unnecessary a couple of years earlier. We ended up in the village, refugees first from Lagos, the Nigerian capital, and then from Enugu, the Biafran capital. Clem’s parents, two sisters, and a brother all lived with us in our house in the village. There I was, with two children, our now 2 year old son and 4 month old daughter. Over the next year, I cemented my Ibo language skills, learned to cook over a wood fire, took part in women’s meetings, got to know many relatives and other villagers, went to the market regularly, and learned where to get scarce products like powdered milk (from the

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nuns of Catholic Relief Services). I learned about the erosion, a factor of life in our village, the whole town of Nanka, and surrounding towns. Perhaps a quarter of the houses in Nanka had thatched roofs when we lived there in 196768. There was no electricity and no running water. Women and children fetched water at springs or streams nearby, climbing down steep ravines with empty pots on their heads and coming back up with full ones, balanced precariously. The erosion was already an amazing sight at that time. It was and is Nanka’s only tourist attraction. There was a sign on the main road marking the turn into the village to see it. Though it’s simply called the erosion, it is a canyon that zigzags its way from Agulu, the town to the east, to Ekwulobia in the west. It is like the Grand Canyon, but instead of rock, it is loose reddish brown soil. Even in 1967 we knew of houses that had fallen into the ravine created by the erosion, but the losses seemed long ago and had happened to people we didn’t know. We stayed in the village for a year during the Civil War. Then I left Nigeria and returned nearly 2 years later when the war was over. We resettled in Lagos and the country gradually returned to normal. The head of state right after the war made determined and mostly successful efforts to reunite the tribes after the years of bloodshed. I resumed my teaching job at the American International School. Over the years we continued to visit the village. Clem’s parents stayed there after the War. We occasionally visited the erosion. One year we found that a new sign had been put up at a different spot on the main road to direct visitors to a second place to view the ever widening ravines. Some parts of the village were cut off by the encroaching erosion site. Clem’s cousin Nwelutu had married a man in another part of the village, nearer the erosion site. In 1992 their home was a quarter of a mile from the erosion’s edge. By 2007 it was perched on the edge of the ravine. At Christmas time last year we visited again. Her son Basil met us on the road. The house was gone, although the lower part of the wall furthest from the ravine remained. He showed us the house they were building on the edge of their property, two hundred yards away. Yet the erosion approaches steadily and stealthily, inch by inch. Suddenly there is a crack in the mud wall, or a ditch appears beside the house. A month or so later, the ditch is wider. Then the rainy season comes, your compound floods, and the ditch deepens and your wall begins to lean. You see it in your fields, too. A couple of rows of the maize you planted before the rainy season are missing, and the field has become smaller. Over the last two decades many people in Nanka and the surrounding towns have lost homes. Nwelutu and her family will soon lose their new house and have no land left. They will have to beg a relative to give them a plot of land. They will be displaced and join others who are environmental refugees or environmental migrants.

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Sasha Chavkin wrote the article that I saw online, the one that gave me the inspiration to tell you about Nwelutu. Chavkin said, “Poor countries like Nigeria experience the vast majority of displacement linked to climate change, although climate change is primarily caused by centuries of carbon emissions by the world’s leading industrialized powers.”1 The land among the Ibos is the most densely populated of all of Nigeria. And land is precious. There isn’t ready land available for people like Nwelutu and her family. Worst of all, they have nothing to pass on to their children. And they are invisible. They are invisible to the government of our state, Anambra, which denies a problem. The Commissioner of the Environment says, “I don’t know of any families who have been displaced.” They are invisible to the federal government of Nigeria, which has enough worries with the Delta rebels and the oil industry. They are invisible to the aid and development agencies, which more often go to the areas affected by diseases. They are invisible to the people of the West because as environmental migrants they have no rights. Writing about another family in our village, Chavkin said, “The family’s struggle for refuge . . . is shared by millions worldwide displaced by changes in the environment, varying from dramatic events such as floods and erosion to gradual desertification caused by decreasing rainfall. The plight of these environmental migrants – defined by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) as persons who are obliged to leave their homes by “sudden or progressive changes in the environment that adversely affect their lives or living conditions” – represents a rapidly growing humanitarian and political dilemma.” He continues, “The leading driver of environmental migration is climate change. Desertification, rising sea levels and extreme rainfall events are increasing in severity and scale, threatening unprecedented numbers of homes and livelihoods.” How can we respond? What are we called to do? We are called to be more responsible in our own use of energy – how we heat or cool our homes, consume fuel in our cars, and buy our groceries. But we are called to do more. We must do more for justice. And we must do more for ourselves and our children. Our own safety and survival are at stake – leaving people to face the effects of climate change, hastened by our actions, mean enhanced opportunity for extremists to make their message heard. Poverty, lack of opportunity, having to abandon the land which should have been one’s birthright – all give chance for those who wish us ill.

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Yale Global Online, July 22, 2010 Montclair NJ 10/10/2010 4/6

C. Onyemelukwe

The UU-UNO is one of thousands of nonprofits, or Non Governmental Organizations, NGO’s, in UN-speak. The NGO’s have committees that monitor and attempt to influence the work of the UN. In 2010 a UN delegation came to the UU-UNO to seek help in revitalizing the UN's NGO Committee on Sustainable Development. Our Executive Director recommended one of our board members who is an expert on climate change. So we now have our own board member serving on the NGO committee on Sustainable Development. This is one powerful example of the voice of UU’s at the UN – this committee urges the UN to pay attention to climate change issues. In April 2010 the UU-UNO dedicated its Spring Intergenerational Seminar to the topic of Climate Change, and as you know, the theme of the Ethical Aspects of Climate Change is our theme today, for UN Sunday. Every year the Seminar issues a statement, modeled on UN practice with ‘whereas’ and we hereby resolve’. The 2010 Statement was called, “A Climate of Change: Heads, Hearts and Hands Around the Planet.” You have a copy in your order of service. I’ll read just a few points: Whereas… Climate change has the potential to degrade the quality of life of all people on earth, particularly those who lack the resources to adapt… The impacts of global warming have dire consequences, including extreme weather, rising sea levels, and mass extinctions… And my favorite: There is no second planet and so we must preserve the one we have… We hereby resolve to… Be conscientious consumers by distinguishing the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’. Educate our communities with the most accurate information available, counter disinformation, and to use the Internet and the arts as a tool of communication. Take simple and economical steps in our own backyards (such as planting native trees and plants) as well as advocating for pro-environment legislation and research on a larger scale. Support political candidates/elected officials that acknowledge the climate crisis and demand that they take action. The UU-UNO plays a significant role at the most important international forum in the world, the United Nations, to encourage all nations to take the steps necessary to mitigate the harmful effects of man-made climate change.

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We need your support to keep our work going. We need you to become a member or renew your membership today. Thank you for listening to Nwelutu’s story and mine, and thank you for becoming a member or renewing your membership in the UU-UNO. 10/10/10

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