Nigerians In Region Lead Community Development Efforts Back Home

Adaora Adibe (Left) and Claudia Okonkwo (Right) at the Lost Hope Restoration Center for Motherless Babies in Ojoto, Anambra State Nigeria.


— Common myths and stereotypes about Africa center on poverty, lack of innovation, and a shortage of access to modern technology. But those perceptions are shifting.

Africa has gone from a place of deficits to a land of opportunities and investments, with a growing number of the African diaspora — particularly those now in Boston — choosing to invest their talents, knowledge and resources back into their countries of origin.

Nigeria is the largest source of African immigration in the United States — with an estimated population of 376,000 immigrants, including first- and second-generation children, according to reports by the Migration Policy Institute. Massachusetts is one of 10 states that has a high Nigerian-born population, according to the American Community Survey.

I traveled to the southeast region of Nigeria with local ambassadors from Umu Igbo Unite (UIU), a U.S. based nonprofit organization that promotes cultural preservation, professional development, and civic engagement, among Igbos in this diaspora. One of their missions is to create solutions that will bring long-term sustainable developments in Igboland.

Beside learning about this nationwide initiative, I felt it was my personal duty as a first-generation American — with Nigerian roots — to give back, specifically in Igboland, where my parents are from. Considering the African diaspora isn’t monolithic, I wanted to focus on the country I consider my second home.

The Igbo tribe is one of three major ethnic groups, covering most of southeast Nigeria — a key contributing factor to the country’s vast cultural diversity and economy. However, the Igbo people are some of the most dispersed ethnic communities in Nigeria — the key factor that makes bridging the gap between Africans and those in the diaspora very crucial.

The Nigerian diaspora ranks among the most educated ethnic groups in the country, employed at higher rates than the general U.S. labor force in specialized fields facing unprecedented levels of demand — including health care, engineering, science and finance.

“Nigerians and their talents are scattered all over the world and are dominating many career sectors, but the lack of human capital needed to sustain Nigeria is caused by several factors that involve lack of security, poor health care and educational infrastructures, unemployment and corruption,” said Dr. Sylvester Okere, President of the United People for African Congress (UPAC) in Washington, D.C.

“The country has the potential to be great, but we must be doing more to become the ‘African giants’ we say we are.”

That’s why Northeastern alum (’15) Claudia Okonkwo, 25, who was born and raised in Nigeria, led community development efforts in Anambra State, Nigeria, with UIU.

“In Nigeria, there is a shortage of clean water and a lot of underserved communities in Igboland are not provided with this fundamental necessity,” Okonkwo said.

“We raised about 15 to 18 thousand dollars to build three boreholes (water wells), so families don’t have to walk miles to fetch water. We also will continue our yearly donations to orphanages in Igboland and provide food, medical supplies and household supplies each year.”

Okonkwo and the ambassadors worked closely with underprivileged youth — who spend the majority of their days selling snacks and bags of pure water on the sides of the roads at just 50-100 Naira (15 to 30 cents in the U.S.) to help provide for their families. The harsh reality contributes to the African nation’s “brain drain.”

“The brain drain is a big threat to the nation’s economy, causing many people to leave the country and in some cases they don’t return. If all our good talent leave Nigeria what will become of future generations?” asked Dr. Okere.

Former 2019 UIU Boston chapter president and Hyde Park native Ifeoma Kamalu, 27, says participating in these initiatives are crucial to solving Nigeria’s most pressing issues.

“It’s important for people here in Boston to understand how much of an asset the African diaspora is. Boston is the hub of academia, medicine and technology, and many of us are excelling in those spaces and in leadership positions where we are committed to a greater cause outside of ourselves and careers.”

Kamalu says it’s important for local students and graduates to consider leveraging their networks to develop initiatives that will impact lives outside of the world of academia.

Adaora Adibe, 31, a fellow ambassador who has worked with Okonkwo for three years, says her experiences with the organization inspired her family to also contribute.

Adibe’s father is an engineer, and used his career knowledge to build a hostel complex at Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University in Anambra State.

The hostel, or dormitories, were built on 70 plots of land. The building supplies water, 24/7 power, vocational training space and security personnel. It provides close to 300 furnished rooms, a computer lab, gymnasium and a multipurpose hall.

“Visiting the orphanages made me realize what I needed to do to ensure the future of these children are secure. Having a safe space (like the hostel) will help them reach their fullest potential,” Adibe said.

“My role includes making sure the students are cared for and ensure all staff meet building compliance.”

For both Okonkwo and Adibe, 2020 is the year to “level up.” Okonkwo hopes the ambassador’s efforts will inspire others to invest in Africa.

“The most important message that I want to tell people in the diaspora is to get out of your comfort zone. We cannot afford to take our talents for granted.”