Annual Meeting

Friends of Nigeria (FON) Conference Agenda

Holiday Inn Austin Midtown
Austin, Texas
June 20, 2019

8:30 am      Business Meeting. The agenda will include the President’s annual report (Greg Jones), the nomination of members for the FON Board of Directors (Mimi Budd), the Treasurer’s report (Warren Keller), a report on the African Community Health Initiative (Queen Obasi), a report on Fistula and FON’s contributions to DOVENET(Ned Greeley) and a greeting from Glenn Blumhorst, the President and CEO of the National Peace Corps Association.

10:00 am    Refreshments

10:15 am    Morning Panel. Greg Jones will welcome those in attendance to the full meeting and introduce the morning panel which will include FON members Neil Cullen, who will serve as moderator, and Ross Bigelow. They will tell stories from their time in Nigeria as volunteers.  Neil Cullen’s Presentation.  Ross Bigelow’s Presentation.  Andrew Hooks, a former Shell Oil executive in Nigeria, will also serve as a panel member and share his experiences in Nigeria. Q&A to follow. The session will end at 11:30 am.

11:45 am    Buffet Lunch

1:15 pm      Presentation. Neil Cullen will introduce Chief Iyeme Efem, a noted Public Health professional with extensive experience in Nigeria. Chief Efem will address the ongoing efforts to eradicate Fistula in Nigeria and other women’s health issues and comment on the country’s current social and political climate.

2:30 pm      Refreshments

2:45 pm      Afternoon Panel. A panel of Nigerians currently living in the US will discuss their lives in this country and their perceptions of the contemporary political and/or cultural scene in Nigeria. Godwin Ndukwe, a member of the FON conference committee, will present and serve as moderator. Dr. Richard Nwachukwu, the Secretary General of the World Igbo Congress and Dr. Babs Sabanjo, an auditor of the Texas Health and Human Services Department, will join Godwin as panelists. Q&A to follow.

4:00 pm      Adjournment

Group 22 held a reunion on Wednesday night.

Here is the newsletter article released in July summarizing the meeting.

Friends of Nigeria Meets in Austin, Texas

Friends of Nigeria Newsletter Summer 2019 Vol 23, No 4

Highlights of the year included awarding grants totaling $39,550 to six organizations working on the ground in Nigeria

by Peter Hansen, (27) 66-68

The 2019 annual meeting of Friends of Nigeria (FON) took place on June 20th at the Holiday Inn Austin Midtown with roughly 65 members and friends present. The meeting was held in conjunction with the National Peace Corps Association (NPCA) 2019 Peace Corps Connect Conference. Coincidently, the decision to launch FON was made at a conference of the National Association of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (forerunner of the NPCA) in Austin, TX in 1995 by Cathy Onyemelukwe, (04) 62-64, and me.

FON president, Greg Jones, (22) 66-68, welcomed attendees, presided over the election of board members, and reviewed the highlights of 2018-19. Members elected to the board are listed on the masthead on page two. They include new members: Chris Clarkson, (22) 66-68, Monique LeBlanc, (15) 65-67, and Spencer Ralston, (13) 64-66.

Highlights of the year included awarding grants totaling $39,550 to six organizations working on the ground in Nigeria: DOVENET ($16,000), African Community Health Initiative ($8,050), Fantsuam Foundation ($5,000), Mediwat Computer Science School ($4,500), American University of Nigeria Foundation ($3,000) and Gadar Maiwa Primary Health Center ($3,000).

Greg also provided a summary of the results of the recent FON survey, for which there were 210 respondents. Rating various functions of FON, 59% of respondents selected the newsletter as the “most important” FON function. RPCV Recollections (56%) and In Memoriam (52%), were the newsletter’s “most favored” features. Regarding member use of social media, 36% never use it, 35% use it daily (principally Facebook) and the remainder use it monthly (16%) or weekly (13%).

Acknowledging that ten days remained in the 2018-19 fiscal year, FON treasurer Warren Keller, (23) 66-67, provided a brief financial report. Most notable was the total amount collected in donations, roughly $31,500, about $3,500 less than last year’s record-breaking total. He then issued a challenge: if each attendee wrote a check for $50 this difference would be eliminated and would honor Greg Jones, who prioritized fundraising during his final two years as president. (As of 4 pm the day of the meeting, he had received checks totaling more than half the difference.)

Queen Obasi, Executive Director of the African Community Health Initiative (ACHI), provided an overview of her organization’s work, its mission and history. She reviewed several projects for which FON had provided funding: refurbishing an old school into a resource center, a water project to bring pure water to the center, and the addition of sanitary facilities. ACHI conducts health assessments and provides information on disease management for villagers, and is an important resource for health education in the area.

Ned Greeley, chair of FON’s Maternal Health Committee, reported on the activities of DOVENET. Since March 2018, FON has awarded DOVENET grants totaling $26,000. (See page 7 of this newsletter for a more substantial report on the work of DOVENET.)

We next heard from Glenn Blumhorst, president of the NPCA, who addressed three issues: 110, Pio Cotzalo and Southwest Airlines. 110 refers to the recent U.S. House vote on an amendment to eliminate funding for the Peace Corps and other international assistance programs. The proposal was defeated by a vote of 110 to 315. Although relieved, he emphasized the need for the 110 House members to be contacted and educated by RPCVs from their districts. The second issue was immigration as it relates to climate change. He told the story of Pio Cotzalo, a boy whom Glen has known since his Peace Corps days (Guatemala 1988-91). Recently Pio, now a young man, crossed the border into the U.S., turned himself in, requested asylum, was released, but now wears an immigrant ankle monitor until his case is adjudicated. Owing to climate change, Pio’s area of Guatemala is suffering from severe drought and he had no future there. The third issue concerns the need to publicize the Peace Corps since many Americans – particularly millennials – are not familiar with the Peace Corps. Recently Glenn flew on Southwest Airlines and an attendant, seeing the Peace Corps pin on his lapel, asked him, “What’s the Peace Corps?”

Following refreshments, attendees heard from a panel consisting of Ross Bigelow, (07) 63-65, Neil Cullen, (11) 64-66, and Andrew Hooks, a former Shell Oil executive.

(L to R) Andrew Hooks, former Shell Oil manager; Neil Cullen, (11) 64-66; and Ross Bigelow, (07) 63-65

Ross was a geography teacher at a secondary school in Maiduguri. He recalled how the “noisy” classrooms of American teachers bothered the Brits. They regarded the give-and-take of student participation as noise; they preferred uninterrupted lectures. He had vivid memories of the news of President Kennedy’s assassination and was overwhelmed by the heart-felt, personal responses of many Nigerians. Related to the assassination, he recalled showing a 16mm movie to 200 students at his school when a projector bulb exploded. The students scattered in all directions. He later realized that the explosion occurred at about the same moment that Lee Harvey Oswald’s shots were fired. Some experiences you never forget.

Neil taught ESL and literature at a secondary school in Birnin Kebbi. A fire in the house that Neil shared with Bill Bingham, (10) 64-66, resulted in a real learning experience. Neil and Bill emptied the house of furniture and their belongings and fought the fire until the wee hours of the morning. They were pleased at having extinguished the fire, but the school’s principal was very upset with them for not having awakened him. Did they start the fire intentionally? Why didn’t they follow protocol? He subsequently brought them up before a Board of Inquiry – thankfully they were exonerated. Neil later realized that there was much more to the story. The principal was a Yoruba man who had succeeded a popular Hausa principal. He was not in Birnin Kebbi by choice. He didn’t feel welcomed, appreciated or respected. He worried that he would be held responsible for the damage to the house. Neil said that this was a classic example of two people talking by one another.

Andrew Hooks worked for Shell Oil in Nigeria 2001-05. He had nothing but the warmest memories of his time in Nigeria. He arrived at a time of much optimism: Nigeria’s president, Olusegun Obasanjo, was a democratically elected president who succeeded military heads of state; investments in offshore drilling and natural gas production were increasing; and Nigeria’s GDP growth rose from 3% to 6%. However, Hooks did not gloss over Nigeria’s problems and shortcomings: the huge increase in oil revenue resulted in decreased investments in other sectors; ten percent of Nigeria’s oil production was stolen. Environmental degradation was a huge problem. Too little of the oil revenue was shared with local governments. Nigeria had major infrastructure problems: refineries, electric power plants and the grid are not maintained and have not been upgraded. The unreliability of the electric system has resulted in widespread use of imported, diesel-fueled electric generators, which are far less efficient. On the plus side, Hooks believes that Nigeria has extraordinary opportunities in renewables – both solar and wind.

After a buffet luncheon served at the Holiday Inn, we heard from our keynote speaker “Eze” Iyeme Efem, “an inductee into the Highest Ezeship of Izzi Kingdom,” a northeastern Igbo sub-group. Efem has nearly 30 years of international health experience, mostly in Africa and the U.S. He has managed projects with annual budgets ranging from $2M to $290M.

“Eze” Iyeme Efem, international health professional

The title of his address was, “Current State of Women’s Health in Nigeria: A focus on the critical age.” Efem noted that the population of Nigeria is very young (42.45% are between 0 – 14 years). He is concerned by the Age Specific Fertility Rates (ASFR) of young Nigerian women (births per 1,000 women):

• 10 – 14 years, ASFR = 2

• 15 – 19 years, ASFR = 107

He referred to these as the “Danger Quintiles,” since mothers so young are not ready for the responsibilities of motherhood, have high maternal and infant mortality rates, are more likely to have fistulas, and are a strain on healthcare services.

Efem proposed the following:

• Introduce sex education early

• Provide access to services

• Enforce the Child Rights Act (In 2003 Nigeria adopted the Child Rights Act to mirror the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child)

• Introduce free basic education for all at primary and secondary schools

• Redeploy most of the doctors and nurses who have desk jobs at the Ministry of Health to clinical practice

He wondered if Nigeria has what it takes to implement these proposals in a country whose maximum sentence for rape is three years but for engaging in homosexual acts is ten years.

As an aside, Efem pointed out that for many years it was believed that fistulas were only a big problem in the North and not in the South. His explanation was that owing to the ease of divorce for Muslim men, women in the North with fistulas were more likely to become outcasts and hence more visible whereas in the South they remained with their families and were often concealed.

Efem spoke at some length about the healthcare “brain drain” – the emigration of physicians and nurses to other countries. Although many people are critical of this, he pointed out that the Nigerian diaspora was Nigeria’s second highest source of foreign exchange, after oil. He was more concerned with the “brain shift” – the movement of healthcare professionals to desk jobs. He claimed that there were two thousand of these in the Federal Ministry of Health alone, many others in the Ministries of the 36 states, and still others at the local level. Efem proposes that all these healthcare professionals make a pledge to do five days of clinical work every month.

He concluded by raising the question, “How have we fared so far in our programing?” He complimented the work of groups such as DOVENET. Efem stressed the importance of advocacy with policy makers and traditional community and religious leaders. He offered the example of the siting of Nigeria’s National Obstetrics Fistula Center. Originally it was assumed that the Centre should be in the country’s capital, Abuja; however, he successfully advocated for regional centers and there are now centers in Ningi, Katsina and Abakaliki, and not Abuja.

He encouraged all of us to view the movie Dry on YouTube. (Editor’s Note: Search YouTube for “Dry by Stephanie Linus,” since there are a number of movies with this name, and be prepared to pay a small sum to view the movie.)

The final event on the schedule was a panel of Nigerian-Americans consisting of Godwin Ndukwe, Senior Revenue Agent, International Technical Specialist, IRS; Richard Nwachukwu, Secretary General of the World Igbo Congress; and Babs Sabanjo, Texas Health and Human Services Department.


(L to R) Babs Sabanjo, Texas Health and Human Services Department; Richard Nwachukwu, Secretary General of the
World Igbo Congress; and Godwin Ndukwe, Senior Revenue Agent, International Technical Specialist, IRS

These three men had quite different backgrounds (Ndukwe came from a family of 36 children!). But they were all high achievers and valued education. They came to the U.S. knowing hardly a soul and although they found that adapting to American customs was not always easy, they found their way and have all been successful.

All three maintain close ties to Nigeria. They appreciate the cultural values that have shaped them, but they are also well aware of Nigeria’s shortcomings. (“Nigeria is a consuming nation; they don’t manufacture anything; Nigeria does not have a culture of maintenance.”)

Near the end of the session, Ndukwe made a controversial assertion, supported by Nwachukwu, that the attacks by Fulani herdsman on predominately Christian farmers, which have been common in recent years, were not random acts of violence, but rather part of a well-planned and coordinated drive to Islamize Nigeria. Many in the audience were skeptical.

During the Q&A panelists were asked whether they, like many African American parents, give their sons “the talk” to prepare them for police encounters. All three panelists responded with essentially the same answer: it was not necessary since from a very early age their children were taught to be respectful of their elders and those in authority.

Following the annual meeting, the FON board met with the main purpose of electing officers. The elected officers are shown on the masthead on page two. There are two changes: Jim Clark, (12) 64-66, was elected president, replacing Greg Jones who is stepping down after eight years as president; and Mimi Budd, (15) 65-67, was elected vice president replacing Jim Clark.

Finally thanks to the members of the Annual Meeting Organizing Committee: Ross Bigelow, (07) 63-65; Jim Clark, (12) 64-66; Chris Clarkson, (22) 66-68; Neil Cullen, (11) 64-66; Hunter Ellinger, (14) 65-67; Greg Jones, (22) 66-68; Godwin Ndukwe, friend; Mary-Ann Palmieri, (05) 62-64 and David Strain, (07) 63-66.

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