When Boniface Nwugwo left his hometown in Eastern Nigeria in 1980 to study in America, he had only $4600 to his name for his tuition, his faith in God and an unquenchable thirst to succeed in America. In this revealing, inspiring and compelling memoir, Boniface with uncompromising candor, tells his story of courage, insurmountable struggles, and triumphs that he and many West African immigrants faced before and after coming to America demonstrating that you can reach your dreams if you persevere.
From modest beginnings as the son of a teacher in his native Imo State of Nigeria, Boniface Nwugwo overcame poverty to distinguish himself as a brilliant academic and achieve a respectable career in the information technology industry.
Through his story and the sample stories of other West African immigrants, America's promise as land of immigrants with infinite possibilities are rekindled in this self-revealing and self-fulfilling book.
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The Silent Immigrants
Untold Stories of Courage, Struggles & Triumphs of West Africans in America
By Boniface C. Nwugwo
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Boniface C. Nwugwo, Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
Planning My Exit
"To want to be what one can be is purpose in life." Cynthia Ozick (O Magazine, September 2002)
The Decision to Leave
"Papa, I want to go to the United States to further my studies." That was how I began the conversation that would change my destiny forever. The year was 1979, one late summer day in August, or what Nigerians call the August break, which is the period in the month of August that there is a week or two of break from the relentless torrential rains of the rainy season. One of those weekends, I went home to my village, Alaenyi Ogwa in the Mbaitoli Local Government Area of Imo State Nigeria, which was about 25 kilometers (approximately 16 miles) from Owerri, the nearest city to my town.
I had been employed by First Bank of Nigeria (formerly Standard Bank of Nigeria) since February of that year as a clerk and had been quietly preparing on my own to secure admission from an accredited American university, and obtain a passport and visa to travel to the United States of America.
During one of my frequent weekend trips to the village, I sat down one evening with my father for a family discussion. During our conversation, I mentioned to my father that I would like to travel to the United States to continue my education. "Where would you get the money to go to America for studies?" my father retorted. "Your older brother is already in the US and I still have five of your brothers and sisters in school to worry about. After all, it's only my meager teacher's salary for which the government continues to owe us month-after-month. I simply cannot afford for you to go to the United States of America for studies. I mean, you're lucky and you're at least working for a bank. You will have to take the Joint Admission and Matriculation Board (JAMB) exam and try to secure admission into one of the local universities." My father would not hear of me leaving because as far as he was concerned, it was impossible. But I quietly told him that I had already made up my mind to go to the United States and all I needed from him was to help me get over there and I would take care of myself. I made it clear to him that he wouldn't have to worry about sending money to me for anything as I was prepared to struggle to put myself through college.
I simply could no longer continue to wait for the JAMB, even though working in the bank paid better than the ministries and parastatals (large enterprises owned and run by the state). I did not see banking as a viable career path for my future, although I did not tell my father so, for that would have been foolish as far as he was concerned, since there were many people who would have done anything to secure a job with a bank. With JAMB, there was no guarantee that one would gain admission into a local university, so the only alternative as far I was concerned was to go abroad to America, even though it meant paying up to ten times the amount it would cost to study in Nigeria.
The JAMB (or Joint Admission and Matriculation Board) was created by a presidential decree in 1978 to handle entry examinations into all universities, polytechnics, and colleges of education in Nigeria. The official primary functions of JAMB were to determine matriculation requirements into first degree programs of Nigerian universities, conduct a joint matriculation examination for candidates seeking admissions to these institutions, and place suitably qualified candidates in the available spots within the universities. In reality, JAMB was and, in my opinion, still is an official medium for the implementation of a quota system of admission into higher institutions of learning in Nigeria.
Prior to 1978, there were only 13 Federal Universities in Nigeria and each conducted its own entrance examination and admitted its own students.
The military regime at the time setup a commission that concluded that having higher institutions conduct their own admission processes amounted to a lot of wasted resources and unnecessary financial difficulties for the average candidate. In an attempt to address the problem of wasted and uncoordinated resources on the part of higher institutions, alleviate the financial burden for candidates and their families, as well as address what they perceived to be educational inequities in Northern Nigeria, the military leader at the time, General Olusegun Obasanjo, enacted the JAMB decree to implement a system of admission of applicants into Nigerian universities based on a formula that could arguably be called a "state-of-origin university admission quota system."
Under this system, university admission was based on a formula that apportioned admission percentage to prospective candidates partially by merit and largely by state of origin. Specifically, 40 percent of admissions was based on merit (i.e., purely on a combination of secondary school examination results and the results of the JAMB's entrance examination to the university); 20 percent was based on Educationally Disadvantaged Status (i.e., applicants from an area historically designated as having low educational output); 30 percent was based on what is referred to as "Catchment Area" (i.e., applicants from the immediate vicinity of the educational facility); and 10 percent was purely by Discretion, (a catch-all phrase for basing admission on the individual circumstances of the applicant as well as an allocation for faculty/staff).
In essence, the university admission formula was instituted to boost the admission into higher institutions of learning for Northerners who traditionally had not been interested in going to school. Standards of entry into universities was lowered to favor the Northerners and continued to be lowered, which arguably has contributed to today's dismal standard of education in Nigeria's institutions of higher learning.
Suffice it to say that competition to gain admission into universities was fierce, especially for applicants from Imo State (which is one of the states in the Eastern Region of Nigeria), where there were fewer institutions of higher learning. Although Imo State (at the time, Imo State was comprised of the present day Imo, Abia, and Ebonyi States) produced more university candidates and more university graduates than any other state in Nigeria, the State had fewer universities to absorb all those potential candidates coming out of secondary and higher schools. While secondary schools prepared students for the Ordinary Level (O-Level), higher schools were post-secondary institutions that prepared students for Advanced Level (A-Level), which earned the A-Level students direct entry into universities. In comparison, higher schools then were the equivalent of two-year colleges in America but have since been phased out of the Nigerian educational system. Coming from Eastern Nigeria compounded the problem of admission for me because more than 50 percent of all student applicants for a university admission came from the Eastern region.
The number of admissions was limited and each year, new applicants, freshly out of secondary and higher schools, were added to the pool of eligible candidates for university admission, further diminishing the chances of gaining admission as years passed. Having already spent almost two years waiting for admission, it became clear to me that my best option was to look elsewhere overseas, preferably the United States of America, before it was too late. So, I made up my mind to travel abroad to America even though it would cost a lot more and my parents did not have all the financial resources required to sponsor such a venture.
I graduated from secondary school in 1978 at the age of 18 and it was also that same year that the first JAMB examination was administered. I was one of the aspiring candidates who took the exam that year in April just before my West African School Certificate exam in June, but when the results came out later that year, I was denied admission because my score was a few points below the cut-off point for candidates from Imo state. While my score would have easily secured me a spot if I were from another state outside the eastern region, in my state of origin, Imo State, I was declared ineligible. I had to wait for another year and try again. Meanwhile, I felt that time was running out and there was no guarantee that I would gain admission in my next attempt.
That first year for example, there were about 19,000 candidates from Imo State alone and only about 6000 applicants would be admitted. The following year, more than nineteen thousand plus the pool from the year before would again vie for the limited openings into universities. Given that scenario, it became abundantly clear to me that I had to seek admission elsewhere outside the country, but I needed to do something while waiting and planning my exit. So I began to look for a job in the financial sector, government ministries and parastatals.
After several months of searching without success, my father took me to the neighboring town of Mbieri to meet his friend whose son was then the Area Manager of Standard Bank of Nigeria Limited (now First Bank of Nigeria Limited). A couple of days before we visited the Area Manager, I told my dad that I would like to bring one of my best friends along as both of us had been searching for jobs together and my dad said okay. I spoke to my friend, and he was so excited about the news that he also told his father about it. His father informed my dad that he too would like to accompany us.
On the scheduled date, all of us (myself, my dad, my friend and his dad) visited the Bank's Area Manager, and when all was said and done, he informed us that we would be invited for an interview at the Owerri branch of the bank and we should watch out for their invitation letter. For me, it was a mixed bag of news, I wasn't sure whether to rejoice or cry, but being that I had never held any job before, just the possibility of being interviewed for a job that I dreamt of was very exciting. So I was very grateful to the Area Bank Manager for even promising to invite my friend and me for an interview.
About one month later, I received a letter from the bank inviting me for an interview. My best friend also received a similar letter. We were both so excited about the prospects of a job in the bank that on the day of the interview, we traveled to Owerri very early in the morning, arriving one hour ahead of the time the bank opened its doors to the public. When the bank finally opened, we went in and inquired about the contact we were supposed to meet. When we met the gentleman, instead of an interview as we were expecting, we were told that we would be taking a test along with ten other candidates. Needless to say, we were a bit disappointed, but we gladly took the test.
After the test, I felt a bit disillusioned, so I decided to visit my cousin Innocent Uwandu (now deceased) and his family at Aba (another city in the then Imo State popularly regarded as the commercial center of Imo State at the time) to continue my search for employment. Six weeks passed and there was no news. The second week in February, almost two months after the bank test, I received a message from my father to come home as soon as possible. Unbeknownst to me, a letter had arrived from the bank that week and the letter stated that I should report to work at the Owerri branch of Standard Bank on Monday, February 19, 1979.
However, the message reached me on a Wednesday and the person that gave me the information did not elaborate, instead he said, "your father wants you to come home as soon as possible." Sensing no urgency in the message, I decided to take my time and instead of going to the village the next day or two, I waited until the weekend to go home. I arrived home on Sunday afternoon and my dad handed me the letter from Standard Bank. Upon reading the letter, it dawned on me that I was supposed to report for duty the next day, so I informed my father that I would have to leave that evening. I quickly gathered my belongings and departed for Owerri that same evening. I didn't have any place to stay other than the home of one of my cousins, Mr. Martin Uwandu (of blessed memory), who himself had a large family of eight at the time living in a three-room flat (apartment) right opposite the bank's branch office. Despite the obvious inconvenience to them, he and his wife Amara (also of blessed memory) were happy to receive me and they allowed me to live and attend work from their home. I will forever remain grateful to both of them for their kindness.
Wishes of my Father
There was one thing that my siblings and I had going for us when we were little, we were raised by teachers. In Nigeria, there was a belief that even though teachers were not well-to-do, they always raised brilliant and model kids. So, for many kids whose parents were teachers, there was an unspoken societal pressure on the children to perform. If your parents were teachers, you were expected to be a good student both academically and in behavior.
Although my father was not a wealthy man, he was rich in many ways. As a teacher, his philosophy was simple, "only through education would his family rise above poverty." He believed that whatever level of education he could not attain his children would achieve it for him. For example, in 1973, he was given admission by the Catholic University, Washington DC to study in the United States but had to turn down the admission offer because as his best friend advised him then, if he left, nobody would take care of his children who were at the time beginning to enter secondary schools. When asked about it, he said that his children would do it for him since he couldn't.
One day I had a discussion with my father about the possibility of obtaining university education. He said to me, "while I may not be rich, when it comes to my children's education I will do everything within my power to make sure that they go to school. As long as you are doing well in school and willing to learn, even if it means selling all my ancestral lands, I will do it to send my children to school." At the time, my father was getting ready to construct a new home next to his father's. Although he really needed the new house, I begged him to abandon the project and concentrate on educating us. I promised him then that if he would train me in the university, I would build a new house for him. I must say that he kept his pledge, and I also fulfilled my promise.
In political terms, my father would be labeled a social conservative but fiscally liberal. However, I don't think that labels are enough to describe my father. He is in my opinion the most easy-going and understanding man one could ever ask for as a father. He is a very kind man who took care of his siblings and nine children (two became deceased during the civil war in Nigeria) despite the meager resources he had.
He was not always around when we needed him because he was too busy running around for his community, attending community meetings and functions serving as Master of Ceremonies, Secretary, Vice Chairman or Chairman of each organization or association he belonged to. He began serving his people at a very tender age of 16. He gets along with people of every economic stratum. He associates with the poor, the middle-class and the rich and is never intimidated by any class. While in Teacher Training College, he was the only junior student that could wear traditional suites because at the time he was a Councilor representing my community.
My father always wished better opportunities for us and for people in general. He once explained to me why people say "opportunity knocks only but once". He told me that for one to benefit when opportunity knocks, one has to be prepared, otherwise, opportunity will come and go and a person will not even know when it knocks and it will just pass him/her by. With that word of wisdom from my father, I came to the realization that I always have to be prepared just in case opportunity knocks.
A Window of Opportunity
So, on Monday February 19, 1979, I arrived at the bank all dressed up in slacks and a tie. I had just turned 19 years old three days prior, and as I would later learn from one of my colleagues, I looked too young to be working in a bank. There were also two other candidates that reported for duty that same morning. They were among the candidates that took the test with me and my friend two months earlier. Two other candidates had already started work the month before. It turned out that the bank had selected the top five of the twelve candidates who took the test, and I was number three. Unfortunately, my best friend did not make the list of the top five. After another round of oral questioning that momentous morning of February 19, all three of us were asked to begin our orientation, which lasted a couple of months.
Excerpted from The Silent Immigrants by Boniface C. Nwugwo. Copyright © 2013 Boniface C. Nwugwo, Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
PART I: RESHAPING DESTINY.................... 10
Chapter 1: Planning My Exit.................... 11
Chapter 2: The Struggles to Survive.................... 84
Chapter 3: The Triumphs.................... 153
PART II: COURAGE, STRUGGLES AND TRIUMPHS OF OTHER WEST AFRICAN IMMIGRANTS.. 191
Chapter 4: Determined to Make a Difference.................... 192
Chapter 5: Against All Odds.................... 210
Chapter 6: Determined to Survive.................... 229
Chapter 7: Stuck and Forced To Stay.................... 258
Chapter 8: Determined to Succeed.................... 274
Chapter 9: Other hurdles for West African Immigrants.................... 299
PART III: WEST AFRICANS AND THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE.................... 306
Chapter 10: Taking Aim at the Immigration Debate.................... 307
Chapter 11: Impact of 9/11 on West African Immigrants.................... 328
About the Author.................... 361