Nigeria’s ‘Chekhov’ unravels Ukrainian toddler’s misconception of the smoking African

by Andy Kozlov

updated on August 4, 2012

It was in Harare last year listening to Jarreth Merz’s talk at the Zimbabwe International Film Festival that I realized something about my country’s link to Nigeria. Film-maker and actor Merz, known for his portrayal of Simon of Cyrene in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, mentioned in passing that one of his Nigeria-born brothers studies medicine in Ukraine. (See Top Ranking Cities for Health Safety and Security. List Scrap it!) Merz added that his brother does not consider it an European country and thinks of a plan to eventually move further west. (See Steppes In Figures #5: Ukraine and the world, Study-in-Russia: a Cheap Way to Get International Education, See the World and Become an Expert on one of the World’s Developing ‘Shumbas‘)

East or West – Ukraine is a springboard for bright Africans into successful careers. According to a recent report by an Ukrainian channel ICTV, Ukraine is one of the Top 20 countries in the world that provide foreign students with a quality higher education. There are over 50,000 students from 137 countries studying at various Ukrainian universities at the moment. They fill up Ukrainian coffers with over USD 100 million annually and provide jobs to 5,000 teachers. Their majors of choice are IT, economics, aviation engineering and music. But the highest number of foreign students (16,000 people, the bulk of them hails from Iran) attend 20 medical schools.

A Rose in Bloom, a novel by Ukraine-educated Nigerian Dr. Ejine Okoroafor-Ezediaro

Several weeks back, a Nigerian friend Cosmos Ojukwu, who works as a journalist in Kyiv, draw my attention to one of such students, who after graduating from the Vinnytsya State Medical University moved to the US, where she divides her time between practicing medicine and creative writing: in the good tradition of Anton Chekhov so to say. (See Multikulti Ukraine,  The Russian Barber of Harare) Dr. Ejine Okoroafor-Ezediaro says that whenever she writes about her patients, people say she must be a writer because of her paying particular attention to details beyond the health check-up routine.

She hails from Oguta in southeast Nigeria. (Oguta was one of the first territories used by the British to advance into the Igbo hinterland. It is also home to Donguarella, an Italian Catholic outreach project for handicapped children.)

Dr. Ejine attended the University of Port Harcourt for her first degree in physics before proceeding to Ukraine on scholarship. She subsequently relocated to the UK where she practiced medicine until 2005 when she joined her spouse in the USA.

Ejine’s significant immersion in the sciences failed to subdue her love for literary arts. She was only able to pursue this gift diligently when she found herself in the position of a stay-at-home housewife while sitting for the United States Medical Licensing Examination. Her reignated passion has so far spawned A Rose In Bloom and its sequel, Pathos of a Wilting Rose as well as a collection of poems, Whimsical Rhapsody.

Last March, Dr. Ejine presented all three of her books at the meeting of the Abuja Literary Society in her native Nigeria.

As a high school student, Ejine was seen to be  an ardent reader of Mills & Boon romance novels as well as books in the African Writers  Series.  Published by Heinemann since 1962, AWS has been a vehicle for some of the most important African writers, ensuring an international voice to literary masters including Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Steve Biko, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nadine Gordimer, Buchi Emecheta and Okot p’Bitek. (See The debut list “40 Most Powerful Celebrities In Africa”: dominated by musicians+overwhelming number has a very small social media presence+some did very little to support social causes)

My friend Ojukwu sent me links to several Nigerian publications about Dr. Ejine’s recent book tour of their homeland. As reported by Lagos-based The Vanguard (daily newspaper allegedly independent of political control and commended in 2009 for being instrumental in persuading the Niger Delta militants to accept amnesty), the Ukraine-educated doctor  shared that  her books were rejected several times by publishers in the US . She suggested that it “may be because they are not the kind of stories they were expecting from an African,” arguing that “they will rather like to read about poverty in Africa.”

This statement reminds me of the questions about the ‘gate-keeping’ role of donors  once raised by  Zimbabwe’s film icon Tsitsi Dangarembga. (See What some Zimbabweans know and those that don’t can learn from other nations’ film industries) Speaking about one of her films, Tsitsi said, “Everyone’s Child is not the film I wanted to make. I didn’t want to make another AIDS film on Africa. There is no guarantee that NGO-directed film projects can find the authentic voice of the oppressed and disadvantaged groups. Some of them may, in fact, represent institutional self-interest at the expense of local development.”

Not deterred in her  dream of reaching out to a wider audience, Dr. Ejine found the way to publish her view of the world.  Her public presentation at  the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs in  Lagos was attended by family members, friends, colleagues from the US, schoolmates from her years in the former Soviet Union and the University of Port Harcourt.

Presenting the books, the chairman of the occasion, Anogwi Anyanwu, said that Nigeria has for long remained a land of corruption with double personality thriving even among people of God. He characterized the launching of Dr. Ejine’s books as timely, as they are out to educate Nigerians on the value of tolerance, genuine love, forgiveness, integrity and patience.

Reading from her poetry collection Whimsical Rhapsody, the author explained that she had the urge to write the collection of poems to deal with some misconceptions about Africans after her encounter with a three-year-old Russian-speaker who saw a black man smoking and addressed his mother saying, “Mama, mama look at him smoking like a human being.”

This anecdote made me remember how my appearance in a rural  Filabusi store in  southern Zimbabwe set off the ‘alarm’ of a local toddler’s cry – I was probably the first white person in the kid’s life.

Here in Ukraine we are only left to wonder when a Nigeria-educated Ukrainian doctor will come back here after the studies to  tackle the misconceptions about Africans and educate this land of increasing corruption on the value of tolerance, genuine love, forgiveness, integrity and patience through novels if not through diligent medical service?

Looking for other African Chekhovs? Check out Valerie Tagwira, a Zimbabwean medical doctor and author of novel The Uncertainty of Hope, which is set in the densely populated suburb of Mbare in Harare.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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