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  • Writer's pictureDr. Emmanuel A. Oduah

I NEVER PLANNED TO STAY IN AMERICA THIS LONG


By Dr. Emmanuel A. Oduah




I never, ever planned to stay in America this long.

 

That’s what I told my oldest child, Chika, in 2022. My daughter and I were having a morning jog together in our neighborhood here in Covington, a nice, peaceful city about 45 miles east of Georgia's state capital of Atlanta. My daughter and I were discussing along the way. So, that morning, she was casually asking me about my overall experiences living in America all these years. She made a remark about how she noticed that many Nigerians emigrate to America for the intention of furthering their education, but end up spending decades in the U.S., usually their most productive years and then go back to Nigeria when they are old and retired. She was somehow suggesting that we, immigrants, are giving our best years to America. Her words hit me. So, I told her and I made it very clear: “I never planned to stay in America this long.”


I moved to the United States of America from Nigeria back in 1977 when I was 25. I’m 71 years old now and I live a solid, comfortable middle-class life in America where I and my amazing wife of nearly forty years have raised our seven children together.


“I never saw any starving children..”

 

The first time I thought about coming to America was during the Nigerian-Biafran War. In Nigeria, we call this conflict the Biafra War or the civil war. Before I tell you about my move to America, let me tell you about Biafra because my move to America is linked to that war.  


Retrieved from BBC.com


Biafra Changed My Life

The war began in 1967 and lasted until January the fifteenth of 1970. I was 14 years old. It affected so many people from the region in Nigeria where I come from, the southeastern part. Citing injustices and mass killings inflicted upon them, many of the people of this region wanted to break away from Nigeria. So, in May 1967, the leaders of the region declared that they were no longer part of Nigeria. The region seceded, forming an entirely new country and called itself the Republic of Biafra. A few countries even formally recognized Biafra: Haiti, Zambia, Tanzania, Gabon, Ivory Coast. But the Nigerian government was totally against the secession. It wanted the region to return to Nigeria.

 

So, the armies of Biafra and Nigeria fought and fought and continued fighting each other for three hard, long years, resulting in the deaths of more than a million people. It was mostly people from my region who died. People died from bullets and air raids. Most of them died of starvation. What was happening in Biafra was being filmed and reported by journalists. So all over the world, people were reading about the plight of Biafrans in newspapers and seeing starving Biafran children on their TV screens. In fact, it has been said that the Biafra War was the first war in Africa to be televised, because at the time, TV was still a new technology. 


Retrieved from Quartz Africa


During the war, my village in an area known as Ogbaru was cut off from the world and schools were closed for three years. In the absence of school, I spent my days fishing in the nearby River Niger and farming on my father’s land. Compared to other communities, my own was not so badly impacted. I never saw any starving children because our land is very fertile and we were cultivating vegetables like greens and tubers. Also, I did not have any near death experiences. I followed what was going on by listening to the emissions on my brother’s radio. Radio Biafra, Voice of America and Nigerian news casters were broadcasting regular updates. Like everyone around me, I was a big supporter of the Biafran cause.  

 

“I felt like three years of my life had been wasted.” 


I could have joined the Biafran military to fight, but I did not because I was told I was too young. But in 1968 and 1969, I was conscripted twice. Soldiers marching down the streets snatched me up. But I was released from the elementary schools they took us to, saying I was too young to join the military. Some people of my size and age were drafted or voluntarily joined but I know God's always with me and didn't want me to join.  


Planning To Leave Nigeria

At that point I started thinking of leaving Biafra and Nigeria as a whole. My thoughts wandered towards going to the United States of America, mainly because we were not going to school since the war had interrupted the school system.

 

I was ready to resume my education. I had an uncle named Patrick living in the U.S. and he had been paying school fees for about ten of us in Nigeria before the war started. 

 

I finalized my decision to travel to America after the war ended in 1970. My uncle Patrick traveled to Biafra in December 1969 for peace talks with Nigeria on behalf of Biafran leaders and this was sponsored by the World Council of Churches and Caritas International. My uncle and other Biafran leaders were brought to Biafra’s Uli international airport and were escorted by the military people to my home town to see me and my family. My uncle told my parents about the future of Biafra and gave us hope that the war would end shortly. 

 

“Four American universities accepted me.”


After two weeks, he left and went back to the United States. Then the war ended in January 1970 when Biafra surrendered to Nigeria. The southeastern region returned to Nigeria and the short-lived Republic of Biafra naturally dissolved. Schools were reopened in March. Finally, I was back in the classroom. But I was way behind. We all were. Three years of no formal schooling had impacted us. I felt like three years of my life had been wasted. We weren’t doing anything academically productive, but I continued to read whenever I could. When I resumed school, I continued to think about a plan to travel to America.

 

After the war, peace returned to Nigeria. School and life normalized. I graduated from high school in 1974 then picked up a job in Lagos with the Nigerian Defense Department and was later employed by United Bank of Africa before I came to America in December 1977. Everything was OK. I could have gone to a university in Nigeria but I had already made up my mind: I was going to America. I didn’t want anything or anyone to stop me.

 

But first, I had to prepare. So, while I was working at the bank in Lagos, I was also applying for admission in American schools and making contacts with relatives and friends in America. Four American universities accepted me.


 "I was going to America. I didn’t want anything or anyone to stop me."


I sat down with my mom and other family members (by then, my father had already passed) to tell them about my plans. I made a choice to go to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and then went to the American embassy on Eleke Crescent in Lagos for a visa. I got my student visa. Getting an American visa as a Nigerian was easier back then, than I hear it is today.


Living As A University Student In America

I boarded a Pan Am airplane and arrived in December of 1977. I was ready. My plan was in motion. My mind was set. My entire purpose for coming to America was to get a university education. Ten years at the most, was my intention, estimating four years for undergraduate school, two years for my Masters and another four years to further my education. After that, I would go back to Nigeria and get into politics or just get a job in my field. When I was working in the bank in Lagos, I came across Yoruba boys whose education was never interrupted by the war and some had even embarked on the opportunity to enroll in universities in Nigeria or America. They came back with Masters degrees, taking up roles as bank managers or other high ranking professional positions. I admired these guys, and was a little envious, too. I told myself, “I must be like those people.”



Why did I choose Arkansas? Mainly, because I had friends there who asked me to come over. Coming to a new place, especially a country, you will want to go to where you have people you know who will welcome you and give you support. 


I lived the student life. I found part-time jobs at Burger King, McDonald’s and working as a security guard. I paid full cash for a Chevy Malibu, so I was able to get around town. I couldn't find any Nigerian food, so I ate what was available: hamburgers, french fries, pizza, fried chicken, pasta and other American food staples. I shared an apartment with another Nigerian. We rented beds, couches and a TV set from a store called Aaron’s. Every few months, I sent letters to my family back in Nigeria and I would read the letters that they sent to me. 




“I was surprised by the high school dropout rate in America.”

 

In my undergraduate program, my friends and I started applying for graduate programs. I was interested in a Master’s degree in business. I graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1981. Graduation day, May 1981. Crowds of people. We gathered in a stadium on campus. I felt like I had achieved something great. I was holding a degree. By then, I had been living in America for four years. In that time, I had learned and grown. I felt that with a first degree, I could do anything and that many doors would open for me in America. 


After graduation, I moved to Oklahoma along with some of my friends, including a close mate named Osi. Again, we had some other people there who had asked us to come over. Oklahoma and Arkansas are neighbors. So, when I was living in Arkansas, my friends and I would drive over to Oklahoma to see our friends there who were having parties. 


What I Noticed In America

I got through the graduate program with little challenges. I had become a bit used to America by then, but I was still surprised by aspects of life in America. For example, I was surprised by the high school dropout rate. It seemed high and I wondered why so many people dropped out of high school in America despite the fact that the education is free. The school system provided free transportation, busing the kids to and fro, five days a week. Lunch is free also. In Nigeria, students dropout of school when their parents can no longer afford it. But America had a good public school system, and yet, many teenagers chose to drop out. I found it to be a baffling waste of the opportunity to get a free education.


“I didn’t allow America’s racial problem to hinder me.” 

 

I was also curious about Black tertiary educational institutions, known as HBCUs, which means Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Something struck me about HBCUs. I noticed that black females far outnumbered black males in these schools.  An alarming number of black men were serving time in prison and many were also just not in school. But in the predominantly white colleges and universities, it seemed to me that white males outnumbered white females.

 

Another surprise I met in America – I found out that there was still discrimination here, in schools and even in churches. I noticed the segregation. I realized some African-Americans were not comfortable going into certain areas that were dominated by white people, and that white people felt the same about areas that were deemed “black.” But, I, personally, never felt discomfort. I didn’t allow America’s racial problem to hinder me. My friends and I went anywhere. We wanted to see the diversity of life in America. We explored the “black” neighborhoods, “white” neighborhoods, rich neighborhoods, middle-case areas and poor communities.  When I took a job as a newspaper boy for the Arkansas Gazette, I drove through various communities, tossing the paper from my car onto the lawns of subscribers.



The discrimination also crossed ethnic lines. By this, I mean, I experienced some dislike from African-Americans. Many of us Nigerians faced unpleasant encounters with African-Americans. For example, they told us that they were uncomfortable with us because we were university students and they were not. They accused our forefathers of being the ones who sold them into slavery. Also, some of the men didn’t like me and my friends because they thought we were taking away their girlfriends. In fact, I did have African-American girlfriends. I had friends from different races and ethnic backgrounds. 



“The truth is that I didn't have big challenges when I came to America…”


Overall, I was surprised by how I eased into the American educational system and society so quickly. Things were easy for me and I didn't even have to pay anyone a bribe! One thing I took notice of very well was that in America, people mind their own business. Sometimes people who live across the street from you don't even know your name and don't even speak to you. You have a neighbor and the two of you may casually talk outside. But at the end of it, you go your separate ways, each into his home and there it ends.

 

You may want to know of the greatest challenges I faced while trying to settle in American society. The truth is that I didn't have big challenges when I came to America because back in Nigeria I was reading American novels and other books to study America. James Hadley Chase’s U.S.-based thrillers were among my favorites and were very popular in Nigeria. I learned about the Ford Thunderbird car from his novels. I adjusted to America’s cold seasons, shoveling snow from the driveway. 



Leaving Oklahoma

I earned my Masters in business administration in 1983. One day during my graduate studies, representatives of the dominant political party, the National Party of Nigeria, came to Oklahoma and visited us Nigerian students. Looking to recruit young people, the party reps encouraged us to move back to Nigeria to join the party. So, I decided to do that, after six years of living in America. I had always had an interest in politics. I left the accountant job I had with the Oklahoma state government, moved to Nigeria and was embraced by the NPN. 




“...hoping that things would get better in Nigeria…”


But before I could enter Nigeria’s workforce, I had to participate in the National Youth Service Corps, which is a mandatory one-year federal program in which university graduates serve the Nigerian government by relocating to a certain part of the country and working in a service capacity to develop and build the country. Every corper was paid a 200 naira wage (which was just enough for me to get by), but some corpers found a way to serve in the private sector, where they could earn a bigger salary. I registered that September and was stationed in Benin, in the current state of Edo. In December of that same year, President Shehu Shagari, was overthrown in a coup d’etat while he was serving his second term. Everything changed from then. Many politicians left the country for safety. 


Back In The USA 

But, I stayed on for three years until 1986 and even got married to a wonderful woman named Mercy who was studying at the teacher’s college in Benin.



I stayed, hoping that things would get better in Nigeria. Unfortunately, they didn't, so I decided to return to the States and start all over again. Leaving my wife and two daughters behind in Nigeria, I joined my younger brother, Victor, in Dallas, Texas and later moved to Houston while he moved to Atlanta, all within six months. I did have a little challenge when it came to finding a job when I came back, after three years of being in Nigeria. I couldn’t find a job in accounting or in another professional position, so I had to pick up work in a gas station and another time, in a grocery store. 


“Raising a family in America has its challenges; I worried about crime and young people using drugs.” 


It wasn’t difficult to bring my family to America. They joined me in Houston in 1987 and we moved to Atlanta after one month of their arrival. I chose Atlanta because my brother was already there. I enrolled in a doctoral program of psychology at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta. I obtained my Ph.D. in counseling psychology.  My wife and four girls were by my side when the ceremony ended and everyone gathered to take pictures.

 

My wife became a nurse and our children all got their education and good jobs. Raising a family in America has its challenges: I worried about crime and young people using drugs. As a family, we prayed together a lot and this has helped us. 

 


Since I left Nigeria in December 1977 until now in 2024, it has been 46 years with a break of three years. That was not the plan. I had always planned to return to Nigeria after obtaining my education, but there was no stability there. The government was not good. Employment was hard to find. The system was not favorable to Nigerians returning from abroad. I felt more comfortable in America.  

 

In America, I eat McDonald’s hamburgers. I like Wendy’s fries. We order tacos, which my wife particularly likes very well. I eat salad, which I may never have learned to do in Nigeria. I’ve bought many cars over the years: Mercedes, Toyota Sequoia, Volvo, Mitsubishi, etc. I lived in apartment complexes, rented a home and purchased a home mortgage. I maintain my lawn, subscribe to cable TV and internet, pay my taxes and obey the laws of this land. I am part of middle-class suburban America. This is the life I have lived for so many years. It is what I now know.


   Dr. Oduah and family celebrating the college graduation of his youngest child in 2023. 

 

Enjoying the Super Eagles alongside his first grandson, Eli, in his home in Covington, Georgia.


I Will Go Back Home

Despite living in America, I have found ways to maintain my Nigerian and Igbo culture here. My wife and I cook Nigerian food. We buy the ingredients at the international food stores. We have many Igbo and Nigerian organizations here that I am part of. Every month, there is an Igbo function and a lot of Igbo people live here. I continue to speak Igbo language with my wife and friends. 


“America is not the end of my journey.”


Unfortunately, we did not seriously teach it to our children when they were growing up, but I am happy to see that some of them are now gaining an interest in the language in their adult years and I am trying to help them learn. I keep up with what is happening in my community back home and in Nigeria as a whole. Every day, I follow Nigerian news. And of course, I visit. When I travel back home, I see that many of my mates have done well for themselves. Some have retired from high positions and are enjoying their wealth.

 

I have built my house in my village, and I have bought real estate in other states in Nigeria. This makes me proud. I have established a good life for myself, my wife, our seven children and our two grandsons. For this, I am very thankful. Even though I have been living in America for almost forty-five years, America is not the end of my journey. I will eventually go back home and help develop my community.




 

Dr. Emmanuel A. Oduah is a pastor, professor and retired school psychologist living in metro-Atlanta. He is the father of seven children and grandfather to two boys.

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Apr 04
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Brilliant. Heartwarming

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