DR. Patience Akpan-Obong is an associate professor of science, technology and society in the School of Letters and Sciences at Arizona State University Polytechnic. She holds a Ph.D in Political Science from University of Alberta and a Master’s degree in Journalism. She is also the author of Information and Communication Technologies in Nigeria: Prospects and Challenges for Development (New York: Peter D. Lang, 2009), as well as numerous journal articles and book chapters on the implications of information and communication technologies for socio-economic and political development in resource-poor countries. Recently, the columnist came out with a new book entitled Letters to Nigeria: Journal of an African Woman in America. In this interview with Vanguard Art, Akpan-Obong reacts to some issues about the book. Excerpts
CONGRATULATIONS on your new book, Letters to Nigeria: Journal of an African Woman in America. The title of the book presupposes two agenda, Would you explain to us what you really intend to achieve with this?
Thank you. I guess, the title does propose two agenda. The first implies that the book is a narrative about life in the Diaspora specifically for Nigerian readers. The second suggests that the experiences of an African woman in North America are unique and worth chronicling. At the same time however, the issues cut across geographical, social and political boundaries. There are everyday issues encountered by people everywhere regardless of their geographical location, age, gender or marital status.
Letters to Nigeria: Journal of an African Woman in America book demystifies some misconceptions about life in the Diaspora while also providing a comparative insight into political and social issues in Nigeria.
The book is therefore aimed at informing, perhaps educating but definitely entertaining readers. The entries prompt the kind of contemplation that inspires action. It achieves its goals sublimely and humorously.
Didn’t you think that some of the issues raised in this book portray you as a feminist?
But I am a feminist, and not only because for four years, I taught Women’s Studies courses at Arizona State University! I am a feminist because my maternal grandfather and my father raised me to believe that girls should have the same opportunities as boys. In my context, those opportunities were specifically education.
I was the first-born child of my father at a time and in a sociocultural context that didn’t (and still don’t in many cases) place any value on daughters. When it was time for me to start secondary school, my paternal grandfather told my father (his first son) that girl education was a waste of money.
He said I would get pregnant or, if I finished secondary school, the benefits of my education would accrue to my husband’s family. My father resisted his father and vowed that he would sacrifice the last shirt on his back to ensure that I went to school.
My maternal grandfather (my mother’s dad) was equally supportive. He told me that I should go to “all the school there is to go” and that I had the capacity to achieve anything I put my mind to. These two Annang men were indeed the first two feminists that I knew.
I attended an all-girls secondary school, Cornelia Connelly College, Uyo, where girls competed with each other to be the best in academics, sports and the creative and performance arts. I was therefore surprised when I finished school and entered the “real world” only to be told that I couldn’t do this or that because I was a woman. This was strange to me because my upbringing and education didn’t circumscribe my life chances on the basis of gender. I started early on to stand up for myself.
The most inspiring words anyone could say to me was, “You can’t do that because you are a woman.” I would do whatever it was if only to prove that I could do it. My first job as a journalist was as a reporter on the sports desk of the Nigerian Chronicle. I was told that female journalists don’t cover sports. With the support of my sports editor, Mr. Paul Bassey, I proved that I could cover sports. I did it for two years before I asked to be moved to the general newsroom because I wanted to explore other beats. I earned the dubious distinction of being the first (or second, one was never quite sure) and active female member of the Sports Writers Association of Nigeria.
Feminism is essentially a political and academic project to end gender-based subjugation and oppression, or at least create awareness about these issues. In this context, I proudly declare that I am a feminist. However, Letters to Nigeria: Journal of an African Woman in America is not a feminist book.
How do you think your experiences in America can help to better the lot of women in Africa?
I don’t know if I can “better the lot of women in Africa” because that is a whole lot of women right there! However, I can share my experiences and hope that someone will learn from them – both the successes and failures. This is why I wrote Letters to Nigeria: Journal of an African Woman in America. I may not be the “typical woman” but I know that the issues that I have dealt with over the years are typical for most women … and men too.
For instance, I write in the first part of the book about all the people whom God used to bring me from a newsroom in a state-owned newspaper in Calabar, Cross River to where I am today – in a classroom in a state-owned university in Mesa, Arizona. The lesson there is that really, it takes a village to raise an individual. We all have a responsibility to raise the people in our lives including the strangers that we come across “by accident” while also being gracious and humble enough to accept the kindness of strangers. That is how we move forward as a community of women and
As a Professor of Science and Technology, one would have expected that you will be addressing science and technology related issues as in your first book, Information and Communication Technologies in Nigeria. What informed the choice of the letters?
You are right about the subject of my first book. For my work as a university professor, I research the implications of information and communication technologies for development, as well as the intersection of science, technology and society (STS). Besides the 2009 book, I have published widely in academic journals and book chapters in this area. However, there is more to me than being a university professor. I am a woman, Christian, journalist, wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend (and perhaps somebody’s enemy).
My writings reflect this multidimensionality in my identity. Even my ICT book reflected the journalist in me in the writing style and the sort of issues that I addressed. Equally, there is a section on technology in Letters to Nigeria. My forthcoming book with the working title of Calaro Girl will also be a blend of ICT research and the human dimension. Indeed, this is what the STS curriculum is all about – an examination of the intersections of science, technology and society. We can’t therefore exclude the human element from the scientific or technological. In this respect then, Letters to Nigeria fits perfectly with my academic pursuits.
The bulk of the letters to Nigeria are selection from your Saturday column in Punch, Medals, why did you decide to put them in a book now?
Yes, many of the entries in Letters to Nigeria are selections from my Saturday Punch column, “Medals.” Several imperatives informed the decision to use them as the springboard for Letters to Nigeria.
First, I began to write “Medals” in Punch in 1987 and then moved it to the Sunday Concord in 1990. I wrote the column for the next four years and then rested it. I got an opportunity to resume it in Saturday Punch in 2007 and I have written it consistently for the last six years. The column has therefore been (an active and passive) part of me for 26 years, more than half of my life. And so as I turned 50 this year, I decided that I would capture some of the entries written since 2007 in a book form. These words represent much of my life and were therefore a fitting way to celebrate 50 years of a life that was not given a chance to survive age 5 or 15.