To Africa, For Culture and Credits
U.S.-Born Students Are Going Back to Their Family Roots
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007; C01
As the first day of school approached this month, Brian Agugoesi, 13, packed his bags with pens and notebooks. He also included Honeycomb cereal, which is impossible to get at his school, and tablets to fend off malaria, which unfortunately is not.
The Randallstown, Md., boy was packing for his second year at Grundtvig International Secondary School in the Niger River Valley of southeast Nigeria, an institution that, according to its Web site, boasts a water borehole and "network of tarred roads" on a 10-hectare campus. Grundtvig also offers, according to Brian, packed school days and teachers who require rule-flouters — such as Brian the time he forgot to empty the trash in his dorm room — to cut the campus grass "until they’re satisfied."
Brian’s parents, Rita and Charles Agugoesi, chuckled at that story on the recent eve of Brian’s flight to Lagos. It is just what they wanted when they decided, like many of their Nigerian friends, to send their U.S.-born child to school in their African homeland.
"Every individual comes from somewhere," said Rita Agugoesi, a social worker. "When you have children, you want them to know where you came from."
Immigrants’ journeys to America have long been inspired by educational opportunities for children. But unlike previous generations of immigrants, who often encouraged their kids’ full assimilation, today’s newcomers strive and sometimes struggle to transmit traditions to children submerged in a high-speed, diverse American culture. For some Africans, many of whom came to the United States for higher education, the answer is full immersion — in Africa. A few years abroad, immigrant parents say, teaches children about Africa and, even better, some perspective about life in America.
"There are a lot of people over there who are dreaming to come here. They would be willing to have one of their fingers chopped off to come here," said Cosmas U. Nwokeafor, whose elder son spent three years in Nigeria and whose younger son will go there in December.
On a recent night, Nwokeafor, who toiled his way from busboy to Bowie State University professor and assistant provost, stretched out his arms in his spacious, freshly built Upper Marlboro home. "This was not made in a day."
Africans are immigrating to the United States faster than ever, and they are among the best-educated of all immigrant groups. But the African immigrant population, at about 1.4 million, is relatively small and new, so there is scant research on parenting and second-generation integration. No one tracks how many children of African immigrants attend school in their ancestral lands.
Community leaders say the practice is most common among Nigerians and Ghanaians, whose countries offer the unusual combination of relative political stability and established boarding schools with strict discipline and rigorous courses in English. At $5,000 to $10,000 a year, the schools are generally more affordable than American private schools.
Nwokeafor said he and his wife, Catherine, made great efforts to teach their four children traditional Nigerian songs and folk tales about turtles and lions. They took them to Nigeria often, taught them to address adults as "sir" and "auntie," and spoke to them in Igbo, their language.
But they wondered whether it was enough. The children told stories about American friends talking back to teachers and telling their parents to "shut up."
"I don’t even know if I could spell my name the next day if I did that," Chinedu, 14, the younger son, said softly on a recent night.
Once, Nwokeafor noticed that a photo album — filled with snapshots of the family posing by the Mercedes-Benz and the grand white house they keep in the village of Umubasi in southern Nigeria — was missing from its spot. Chinedu confessed that he had taken it to school to prove to teasing classmates that Africans did not "live in trees, like monkeys."
"Whatever we try to put into them is being challenged by the dominant culture," Nwokeafor said. "At times, I feel so sorry for them because they are in a battle. They don’t know whether to believe their parents or the dominant culture."
Uchenna Nwokeafor, 20, no longer has doubts. He spent seventh through ninth grade sharing a dorm room with 12 other students at a school in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. The crack-of-dawn treks to fetch bath water from a tap a mile away, 5 a.m. prayers, 7 a.m. classes and weekends cutting grass with a machete, he said, taught him that "you have to work for your own."
Now a lanky social-work major at Bowie State who wears hip black-rimmed glasses, Uchenna remembers fondly the basketball tournament he played in with his Nigerian classmates, who called him "Americana." He banters fluently in Igbo with his father and listens to Nigerian pop music in his car. He said he feels "like the true African American."
"Culture-wise, it changed my life," Uchenna Nwokeafor said. "Those three years, it showed me another place called home."
That sort of review has made Chinedu enthusiastic about his upcoming year in Nigeria. A stellar student who dreams of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he hopes Nigeria will help him focus.
"Here, I’m with all my friends," he said. "I have too many distractions."
Cosmas Nwokeafor said that he is too "overprotective" to send his two daughters to Nigeria and that other parents he knows feel the same. In most cases, immigrants say, children are sent abroad for a few years in their early teens and then complete high school and prepare for the SAT in the United States.
Not every alumnus has glowing memories. Riverdale area resident Faraday Okoro, 20, said attending grades nine and 10 in a Nigerian school hurt his grades. Students there, he said, were incredibly competitive, and that made him work hard. But although 75 was a top grade there, it still translated to a C on his U.S. transcript.
His mother, Adaku Okoro, decided for that reason against sending Faraday’s brother and two sisters, to their relief. (Faraday’s sister Maryland, 15, wrote a letter to her parents, making a case for not having to go. "But I would suggest that I could visit," she concluded.)
Nevertheless, Faraday and his mother agree that the sojourn taught him valuable lessons. He learned that getting malaria felt "just like being really sick," grew to love soccer and, his mother said, became less obsessed with buying the latest Nike shoes. An aspiring filmmaker, the Prince George’s Community College student said his time in Nigeria sparked his love of cinema.
"They don’t have consistent power, and once they turn it on, and the television came on, and you have a movie, it seemed, like, unreal," he recalled. "I learned more about Nigeria — and maybe you can stretch and say the world in general. . . . I can set a movie in a foreign place and really go into detail into how a character from a foreign land will act."
The Agugoesis said they hope to retire in Nigeria and wanted their three sons to feel comfortable there. They started talking to Brian about going to school there when he was in fifth grade. He was game.
Rita Agugoesi said she almost changed her mind when she took Brian to Nigeria last fall. Then she saw her exceedingly shy son mingling with other students. Brian did not complain the whole year, except about the snakes that sometimes slither across the school grounds.
"It’s the same," Brian, deep-voiced and tall, said nonchalantly when asked to compare Nigerian schools with schools in suburban Baltimore.
For now, the Agugoesis say they are pleased that Brian came back for his summer vacation more mature and relaxed than a year ago, with a voracious appetite for books and Nigerian "Nollywood" films.
"Sometimes you feel so alone, doing it all by yourself, raising them, trying to pass on the culture," Rita Agugoesi said, sitting in the living room, near Brian’s suitcases, which bulged with Pringles, peanut butter and shiny dress shoes. "It has really made a big difference."