Africa In Our Lives: Dr. Joanne Umolu and Dr. Kanchana Ugbabe

Contributors of the book, Home and Belonging, living in Jos. Dr. Umolu is on the far left and Dr. Kanchana is on the far right.
Contributors of the book, Home and Belonging, living in Jos. Dr. Umolu is on the far left and Dr. Kanchana is on the far right.

Kanchana Ugbabe is from Chennai, South India. She met and married her Nigerian husband in Australia. They have lived in Jos, Nigeria since 1975. Kanchana has had a long and productive career teaching, writing, and mentoring young students of the English department, at the University of Jos. She has a BA and MA from Madras University, India, and a Ph.D. in English Literature from the Flinders University of South Australia. Kanchana has participated in the International Writing Program, in Iowa (1993), has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University, MA (2016 -2017), and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Fordham University, New York (2017 – 2019). In 1993, while at Iowa, she was invited to give a talk on African Women Writers at the African Studies Program of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. 

Joanne Umolu is from the USA. She met her husband in Germany and moved to Nigeria in 1965. She worked as a teacher for 40 years in southern and northern Nigeria. She retired as a professor of Special Education from the University of Jos in 1999 and has since been involved in promoting literacy development and special education activities in Nigeria.

What’s your background and educational journey? What are some experiences that have enriched your scholarship and practice? 

Dr. Umolu– I grew up in South Western Wisconsin. I enrolled in UW in 1959 where I studied history. A few years later, I interrupted my studies to travel, get married to my Nigerian husband, and start my family. When I returned to finish my studies at UW in preparation for settling in Nigeria, I took courses in the African Studies Department. We lived in Nigeria for only two years before the civil war started and since my husband was Igbo we were living in Biafra. In the early part of the war, we left for the USA and stayed in Columbus Ohio. During the war in Biafra, there was widespread starvation among the children and I became concerned that many of the children who would survive would have an intellectual disability due to protein deficiency and would require special education. So I enrolled in Ohio State University and earned an M. Ed. in special education in preparation for our return after the war. However, after Biafra lost the war, we returned to Lagos instead. There the courses in African Studies at UW helped me when I taught African History in a Lagos secondary school. We later settled in Jos and I taught Special Education at the University of Jos and earned a Ph.D. at Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria. After 20 years with UniJos, I retired as a Professor of Special Education and spent another 20 years as founder and director of the Open Doors Special Education Centre in Jos. Although I was no longer engaged in African history, my late husband, who was a civil engineer, developed a passion for Nigerian history in his retirement years and was a voracious reader of books on Nigerian history. For many years he lectured me on everything he was learning about Nigerian history. He was fascinated by the migrations of the various ethnic groups and their interrelationships, particularly between the Igbos, Igalas, and Idomas. Perhaps someday I can document his research and see if anyone at UW ASP would be interested.  

Can you tell us about the new book that you recently published? 

Dr. Ugbabe- The book is called Home and Belonging: Collected Life Stories of Foreign Women Married to Nigerian Men. The idea for the book came about two years back when Joanne and I were reminiscing about what it was like to live in Nigeria in the 1960s and 1970s. Like many other foreign women who had lived in Nigeria for over 40 years and experienced the civil war, ethnoreligious conflicts, successive military coups, and cultural upheavals and adjustments, we realized that stories were waiting to be told. Twelve out of the 16 contributors to the book are foreign women who had settled in Jos, Nigeria. The other four women lived in Lagos and Ile-Ife, Nigeria, and raised their families there. We reached out to the foreign women with our proposal for a book and selected stories for variety and interest, and stories that were in keeping with the aims and objectives of the publication. As the stories came in we realized that they were women’s migrant stories, African stories that would speak to immigrants and exiles from around the world. The connection to Nigeria would, of course, make it particularly appealing to those considering Nigeria as their future home, or those who have lived in the country. 

 What do you hope readers glean from this book and the lives of foreign Nigerwives? 

Dr. Ugbabe- The book aims at diversity bringing together life stories of women from the USA, United Kingdom, Italy, France, India, Trinidad, Jamaica, Canada, and Russia who have chosen to make their home in Nigeria. Their former and later lives are embedded in the stories which bring to the fore the courage and resilience of women. They are engaging stories of survival. Borders and boundaries do not deter women when it concerns matters of the heart.  

The foreign women formed an association called Nigerwives which has branches in all the big cities in Nigeria. The association assists members with immigration mattersemployment, networking, and cultural adjustment. 

Where can the ASP community learn more about your work? 

Kanchana Ugbabe, Soulmates (Collection of short stories set in Nigeria), Penguin Books, 2011. 

Kanchana Ugbabe, Ed. Chukwuemeka Ike: Fifty Years as a Trailblazing Novelist, University Press, Ibadan, 2015. 

Kanchana Ugbabe, Ed. Chukwuemeka Ike: A Critical Reader, Malthouse Press, Lagos, 2001. 

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol.360, Detroit, 2011. Kanchana Ugbabe has contributed chapters on Zaynab Alkali, Biyi Bandele, and Camara Laye. 

Kanchana Ugbabe, ‘Happy Lockdown!’ Harvard Review Online, August 2021