Just Human

June 20, 2009

Like Obama, Nigerian kids in US seek the Dream

By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

For ten years, Greg Ezekwe and his family lived in a high rise apartment building off the Bruckner Blvd. in The Bronx, New York, even though he owned two houses in other parts of the Bronx.

As his kids grew, a girl and three boys, he was convinced he needed to relocate to a neighborhood where his kids could get good education as well as nurturing environment devoid of persistent crime. He worked harder and waited patiently until he had the money to buy a house in New Rochelle, Westchester County, fifteen minutes away from the City.

He snapped an old colonial house with six rooms that required a lot of work. An engineer with the New York City Parks Departments, he was ready to put in long hours of work to renovate the house and get it where he felt it should be.

It was at the peak of the housing boom and even though he bought the house at a bargain price of under $500,000, the house was an additional strain on his financial well being. Watching him sweat as he cut his lawn during the summer or trim the hedges, you get the sense that he could have done without such if he had a better option.

“I felt it was worth the additional burden,” the 43 year old Ezekwe said, “anything that will provide a quality education to my kids, especially my first son, Ofondu, was worth it.”
Ofondu, now 14, was in his sixth grade when the Ezekwe’s moved to Westchester County. In the Bronx, he had attended Catholic elementary school, a very motivated and enthusiastic pupil. The enthusiasm continued through middle school in New Rochelle until he entered High School.

Ezekwe emigrated from Nigeria in 1990. Like all immigrants, he still carries with him some of the norms of his Igbo people, the most important of which is that the true measure of a man is not just about wealth he acquired but about the wholesomeness and success of his children, especially the male children.

And amongst the male children, the prime index is placed on the first son, who by all intents and purposes is the heir apparent of every Igbo man.

In pitching their tent in Westchester, a county with highly rated public school, the Ezekwes were confident they’ve found Ofondu and his siblings a perfect place that promised to give them a rest of mind in raising their children and catering to their best educational needs.

They enrolled Ofondu at New Rochelle High School, a top-notch public school in the County. At first, Ofondu adjusted well at his new school. The Ezekwes monitored his progress in school as it went through several trajectories which were first viewed by his parents as a natural arc. And then, Ofondu began to make friends, to show interest in sports, and to assert himself within his new environment.

In less than a year of joining the new school, Ofondu tried out and got accepted into his school’s freshman basketball team and become one of the popular boys. His father resisted at first but when he promised to keep his grade up, the father relented. Soon after the basketball season started, his grades started to suffer.

The long hours of practice, the exhaustion at the end of the day after practice and the negative peer pressure from his new basketball buddies, all conspired to rob him of his focus and to cost him his high grades. He watched his boy’s performance begin to slump drastically.

It was a red alert for Mr. Ezekwe. He paid closer attention and the first thing that caught his attention was that his son had immersed himself into the basketball world. He noticed his less than enthusiastic interest in school work and higher degree of emphasis and admiration for basketball and for NBA stars. The parents had no option but to get more involved in his school work. In the months that followed, he spent time helping his son with his home work.

There were slight improvements but not as much as the father had expected. He was not seeing the once promising Ivy League student. The initial compromise was to keep him in the school team as long as he was making good grades. When that did not happen as expected, the father decided to take drastic action.

He took down the basketball hoop. He switched off the TV. In fact, he temporarily cancelled cable subscription entirely! He also took away video games and all other gaming gadgets available to the boy. He was determined to restore the boy’s sole focus to his studies.

There was only one last elephant in the room- basketball at school.
For Ofondu, classes had become an interruption. It was a place to go before the main event – basketball.

When Mr. Ezekwe’s effort to appeal to his son’s sense of reason failed, he put his foot down and pulled the boy out of his school basketball team.

Mr. Ezekwe said it wasn’t easy at all. “Once you cut off basketball you have to replace it with something else. And that added an additional burden on us.” The parents had to replace basket ball with swimming and music lessons.

“He would thank me one day,” said Mr. Ezekwe, “when he graduates from the Harvard medical school. Now he thinks I prevented him from pursuing a fabulous career in basketball.”

While it will still take some three years to see if Mr. Ezekwe’s dream came through, Mr. Ebbie Obukwelu of Brockton had achieved his dreams.


Last Summer, he had a cookout for his first son, Ifeanyi to celebrate his son’s admission into Harvard Business School with full scholarship. Members of his Nigerian community in the Diaspora

trooped out in great numbers. The Obukwelu’s success in the light of growing challenges in raising boys within the community was a source of pride to many.

“They thought that the only people who go to Harvard are people that had money and the elite. They said, we did not know that the child of Gladys will go to Harvard,” he said.
Naturally, many were interested in knowing how he and his wife, Gladys did it.

Mr. Obukwelu is a cab driver with modest means. His wife, Gladys, works in a hospital as a Medical assistant. The Obukwelu lived in Lowel, MA for about eight years. They moved to Hyde Park and later to Cambridge. They currently live in Brockton, MA.

“In a simple language it was really hard. Myself and my wife, we sacrificed a lot, socially and financially. When they were growing up we went everywhere with them. We attended parties with them. Any party where kids are not allowed, we did not go. We refused to leave them with babysitters.”

“The good thing was that our first son listened very well. He excelled in academics. He became a leader for his brothers in eight grade. He made roasters for his siblings.”
The take off for the Obukwelu’s family began when their first son Ifeanyi impressed his teacher that he called the parents and asked them to send him to a better school. “He didn’t belong to public school,” his teacher said.

The parents contacted admission officer at Boston College High School. After going through Ifeanyi’s grades the admission officer accepted that Ifeanyi was smart but then said to the family, “You’re a plus in public school does not show you will make a C plus in Boston College High School.” Ifeanyi responded by saying, “since I was born, I have never seen anything but an A in my report card.”

Ifeanyi was admitted to Boston College High School on the strength of his transcript. Immediately, he went through grilling. He had problem with French. It was a tough challenge but the teacher would not let him quit. At the end of the first semester, he was first in French.

When he graduated from Boston College High School, he made 4.0 GPA. He applied to eleven universities amongst which were Ivy leagues like Cornel, Yale, Harvard, Georgetown, Princeton, Colombia, University of Connecticut, University of Massachusetts, North Carolina amongst others.

They all gave him admission but he decided to go to Harvard where he is studying economics. He also plays football for Harvard. He wants to work in Wall Street when he graduates. The rest of Obukwelu’s kids, all five boys, he said, are following the footsteps of Ifeanyi.

The second son, Nnamdi, is at Boston College High School where he plays football.
Amongst the things the Obukwelu did well as to teach their kids their native language, Igbo. “They all speak Igbo. The first one takes Igbo as an elective at Harvard. He made a theater presentation in Igbo.”

Mr. Obukwelu said that when they began to speak Igbo to their kids, their friends complained that the kids’ brains were being messed up. “I told them that a child at that age could handle more than ten languages.”

At Cambridge, the young Ifeanyi attends college with children of the big and the mighty from all over the world. He triumphed over statistics that were staggering.

Dr. Ben Carson’s story is one such story that parents could share with their boys. Right now, they could buy their son a copy of “the Audacity of Hope,” Obama’s story.”
She quickly added that Obama’s victory in the presidential election in and of itself would not bring any benefit to black boys and their parents.

“The only thing that Obama’s presidency could do is to provide a sense of hope to all minorities. In the end, black people must be prepared to work as hard as Obama did to reap the rewards.