Why Nigerian Men No Longer Marry Foreigners — Koko Kalango Speaks
In this interview, Koko Kalango speaks about the book and the long-standing relationship.
There is no doubt that Koko Kalango is a household name in educational book publishing. She is an author and a pastor, born to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother.
In 2014, her publishing firm, Rainbow Book Club which has contributed immensely to improving the reading culture among school children in Nigeria, attracted the UNESCO World Book Capital to Port Harcourt.
Recently, she celebrated her 50th birthday with a historic book in a coffee table format called: One Love, documenting a decade of the Jamaica/Nigeria relationship. In this interview, Koko speaks about the book and the long-standing relationship.
You have also come up with a historical book that tells an existing cultural bond. Now, what were you thinking about before you embarked on this project, and at what point did it strike you to pick up your pen and write the book?
Being born to a Nigerian father and a Jamaican mother, I have grown up in two worlds. I have grown up with the first-hand experience of the interaction between Nigerians and West Indians, not just from my parents but from the wider Caribbean-Nigerian community. I am a witness to the contribution of people like my mother, Mrs Claire Bassey, to their adopted land and I thought their story should be documented. I began gathering these narratives in 2016 but the final decision to be the one to tell it came for me on a trip we took with family and friends to Jamaica to celebrate my 50th birthday.
When other foreigners were flying out of the country en-masse during the Nigerian-Biafran civil war, your mum refused to leave. Tell us more about your family war experience and the reasons why she became different from other Naija wives?
I was just seven days old when the war broke out so I cannot give you an eyewitness account of that experience (laughing). But from the stories my parents and siblings tell, it was a horrendous one. Prominent professionals on the Nigerian divide were hunted down and sometimes killed. For this reason, my father had to leave Port Harcourt to go into hiding, after he had sent the family ahead of him to find refuge in Calabar. At a point, my mother and the seven young girls with her had to abandon their Mercedes Benz and continue the journey on foot. There was a time the party walked 17 miles and even had to cross a river on felled trees. Indeed, during the war, foreigners had the opportunity to take Red Cross flights out of Nigeria. I think each family took the decision that was best for them. My mum opted to stay. Her resilience has taught me that love is sacrificial and unconditional.
Still, in the family, your mum once dreamt of becoming a model. Was there any of your siblings that eventually became a model?
None of her descendants is in mainstream modelling but my sister, Eme Akenzua, Creative Director of John 3 V 3 Hats, is a milliner. By virtue of her vocation, she models her hats and other headpieces. Then my niece, Kene Okpaise (Kene Rapu) makes footwear which she also models. This is the nearest we have come to modelling (laughing).
Jamaicans’ contribution to Nigeria’s development was visibly felt during the “amalgamation period” as documented in the second chapter of the book. Did this impact rub off on Jamaican soil back then?
I divided the book into three parts; profiles of those who arrived before the amalgamation (1914), those who came between the amalgamation and Independence (1960), and those who came after 1960. I think the contribution of Jamaicans to the Nigerian story is seen in different ways in all three sections of the book. Between the amalgamation and Independence, we have people like the Hitchmans who were teachers in Itigidi in present Cross River State (from 1915-1921); someone like Emmanuel Scott came in the late 1940s. He worked in the Salvation Army in Lagos and designed the curriculum for the Yaba College of Technology, then spent decades in the old Bendel where he was instrumental in education and agriculture. Then we have Elijah Petgrave who was an engineer with the Railways and Maisie Dankaro, who worked as a nurse in northern Nigeria. Others like Mrs. Joyce Igiehon worked as a nurse in Ibadan and Benin and of course my mum, who founded Springfield School, Port Harcourt over 42 years ago. I believe they were missed by their families back in Jamaica. Their coming to Nigeria made Jamaicans back home realise there was a home for them in Africa.
Some of the Jamaican ladies who were in the UK back then for studies hooked up with Nigerian men and were happy to migrate to Africa. Was there any sort of social face-off with Nigerian ladies, that Jamaican ladies were snatching their men? Also, did Jamaican men equally frown at the movement of their educated female healthcare workers to Nigeria?
On the contrary, I must say there is something about Nigerian men that many non-Nigerian women find very attractive, their quest to excel educationally and professionally, their ambition and aim for the best wherever they find themselves, the importance they attach to family. When you read the stories, you will see that these women fell in love and sometimes, against the advice of their families, took a leap of faith and followed their hearts to Nigeria.
It is also noticed that the number of Jamaicans coming to Nigeria either as wives or for greener pastures in the post-independence has reduced currently. What could be the cause?
I am not sure Nigeria would have qualified as greener pastures when compared to the UK, Canada or the US to which many others went. I would say many of the males came more from a sense of wanting to reconnect with their ancestral land. Most of them bought into the Back to Africa movement of Marcus Garvey which made it of interest for the African diaspora to want to return here. For the women, it was love that brought them here. Indeed, Nigerians are looking for opportunities to migrate to greener pastures like Canada, Europe and the UK. So, the tide has certainly changed mainly due to economic hardship.
Jamaica as a small country has gifted the world Reggae Music enshrined in the UNESCO listing and you; partly Nigerian/Jamaican has also attracted UNESCO World Book Capital recognition to Nigeria…
The inscription of Jamaican reggae on UNESCO’s intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2018 testifies to the influence this genre of music has had internationally. Bob Marley, the reggae icon used his songs to speak for the marginalised, to challenge injustice, to promote pan-Africanism, and to foster unity. In 1978, at a time of political tension in Jamaica, Marley organised his One Love Peace concert where he got the leaders of Jamaica’s political parties, Edward Seaga and Michael Manley, to shake hands in a show of peace and solidarity. It led to Bob Marley receiving the United Nations Peace Medal.
The UNESCO World Book Capital tenure of Port Harcourt, managed by your Rainbow Book Club was a huge success that attracted global interest. How has this impacted Nigeria’s reading culture?
I want to believe Port Harcourt’s recognition as World Book Capital did several things including draw national attention to the importance of reading to development. This feat boosted business in the book chain industry, highlighting writing talent whether through the publications we produced by upcoming writers or through the Africa 39 project that selected 39 prominent African writers under the age of 40 and celebrated them on the world stage. This type of work is a seed that bears fruits over generations.
Do you think globalisation has affected books published in the old days such as Things Fall Apart’ by Achebe that tells more about Africa? Do we expect similar books that still tell about Africa?
With globalisation and digitalisation, I think books about Africa would be in even more demand. The world is connected like never before, people are curious about other peoples and one of the best ways to learn about others is through their literature. Again, globalisation connects the African diaspora. With movements that encourage self-assertion on the part of minorities, therein lies increased awareness and subsequent demand for literature from Africa or about Africa.