|The infamous Peace Corps postcard
We knew that Nigeria was newly independent but, in retrospect, I dont know if we fully absorbed how deeply this influenced the students behavior. It had not been very long since independence had been won. The visages of the colonial period were still all around, including and especially white people who symbolized a colonial past. A Nigerian self-image based on new freedom was developing. Nigerians, at least by this group of young intellectuals, demanded respect.
I understood it better after I attended the inauguration ceremonies when the University College of Ibadan became the independent University of Ibadan. Nnamdi Azikiwe (Zeke), the father of independence, was the main attraction. When it was his turn to speak, the excitement the electricity in the crowd was palpable. A zzzZZZEKE cheer went wherever he did. They cheered and cried for him and for the event that reaffirmed independence. Zeke insisted that the University of Ibadan was our university, free of Londons influence and now part of Nigerias development. It was thrilling the closest I ever came to such intense nationalism.
But on October 14, 1961, most of us had just confronted this intense nationalism for the first time. All of us had experienced student protests in the States. But this was quite different. It was not really about a postcard. We knew there were those who opposed foreigners invading their country and those who would use this incident for their own purposes. Some feared that we would not really be able to help Nigerians if that was how we wrote home about them.
We asked many questions. Do we have a choice, or have our chances of success been reduced significantly? Why try to stay where so many dont want us? Shouldnt we go somewhere else where we are invited and start fresh? Can we continue to live and train at the University where there is such hostility toward us?
And then the counter arguments came. We know Nigeria needs teachers. We can teach. We are not imperialists, nor CIA agents, nor ugly Americans. We know who we are. We can make a difference.
We were agitated but the discussion was mostly calm, always serious. It was hard work that afternoon. Concensus was a long time in coming. I saw my role as the discussion leader. These were the folks who would be on the firing line. They had to decide for themselves.
We were all young
We were all young. The oldest in that room was 34. We were newly transplanted to a very different culture, confronted with a situation for which none of us had any real preparation. But the Volunteers had spirit and maturity.
We continued to try to answer many questions. What are we doing here? Should we leave, or stay and prove that we have something to give? After many hours we made a decision.
We wanted to stay.
Marjories postcard appeared in all Nigerian newspapers the next day. The story was in the American press, too. There were no directives nor advice from Peace Corps Washington or our Embassy. Only one message came. It was from the State Department asking Were there really over 256 words on one-half the side of the postcard?
In coming days and weeks, Volunteers continued to take some meals and sleep in the dormitories, but they were always isolated. One of the Volunteers, Aubry Brown, had training and experience in non-violent resistance. He told the Nigerian students in his dorm that he would not eat if he couldnt eat with them.
Aubry Brown makes his stand
After a while, the Nigerians saw Aubry meant it. When they brought a dinner tray to his room he refused it. Soon the Nigerians invited him to join them at meals. Other Volunteers and students did the same. A dialogue began between students and the Volunteers more valuable than if the incident had not taken place.
The Nigerian-American Society, and organization of Nigerians trained in America, also came to our defense in meetings, through letters to the editor, and with friendship. I remember particularly H.A.. Oluwasanmi, who taught agronomy at the University of Ibadan and later was Chancellor of the University of Ife. His support and advice on how to understand the situation was invaluable.
Richard Taiwo, an engineer in one of the Western Region ministries was a likeable, garrulous supporter, praising the Peace Corps everywhere. He and others organized a party for us at one of the very visible clubs in Ibadan. There was plenty of Star beer and lessons in Highlife.
Another outspoken and effective supporter was Tai Solarin, principal of the Mayflower School which he founded and named for our Mayflower. Had it not been for the support and advice from the Nigerian-American group, it would have been far more difficult to weather the storm. We might not have made it.
The Volunteers behavior after the tumult of the Postcard Affair was special. PCVs remained calm and were not retaliatory with Nigerians who taunted them. These young men and women balanced individuality and group allegiance, knowing that the issues were not personal. They remained reasonably self-confident and able to listen and learn
I assume that there will be PCVs going into Nigeria again soon.
I hope they will be as good as Nigeria I volunteers were. They couldnt be better.
According to Gerard T. Rice in his The Bold Experiment: JFKs Peace Corps, the dropped postcard proved to be somewhat fortunate for the Peace Corps. The relatively innocuous nature of the Michelmore mistake was a blessing in disguise. In later years, there were much more sensational incidents rapes, murder trials, political entanglement but the media paid little attention. To the press and the public, the Peace Corps first set-back was its greatest: a dropped postcard.
Kennedy Didnt Forget
President Kennedy wrote a note to Marjorie Michelmore that he had hand delivered to her when she arrived in London from Nigeria. We are strongly behind you, he wrote, and hope you will continue to serve in the Peace Corps. Later Kennedy would wryly remark to departing Volunteers he met on the White House lawn, Keep in touch . . . but not by postcard!
And what of Marjorie
Marjorie Michelmore did stay with the Peace Corps for a short while, working at the training center in Puerto Rico. In 1962 she left the agency and married a lawyer from Boston.