To Africa, For Culture and Credits

Students outside Marist Brothers Juniorate, a Christian boarding school in southeast Nigeria. Riverdale area resident Faraday Okoro attended the school for his ninth-grade year, a sojourn he says hurt his grades but taught him valuable lessons.
Students outside Marist Brothers Juniorate, a Christian boarding school in southeast Nigeria. Riverdale area resident Faraday Okoro attended the school for his ninth-grade year, a sojourn he says hurt his grades but taught him valuable lessons. (Family Photo)

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007

As the first day of school approached this month, Brian Agugoesi, 13, packed his bags with pens and notebooks. He also included Honeycomb cereal, which is impossible to get at his school, and tablets to fend off malaria, which unfortunately is not.

The Randallstown, Md., boy was packing for his second year at Grundtvig International Secondary School in the Niger River Valley of southeast Nigeria, an institution that, according to its Web site, boasts a water borehole and "network of tarred roads" on a 10-hectare campus. Grundtvig also offers, according to Brian, packed school days and teachers who require rule-flouters -- such as Brian the time he forgot to empty the trash in his dorm room -- to cut the campus grass "until they're satisfied."

Brian's parents, Rita and Charles Agugoesi, chuckled at that story on the recent eve of Brian's flight to Lagos. It is just what they wanted when they decided, like many of their Nigerian friends, to send their U.S.-born child to school in their African homeland.

"Every individual comes from somewhere," said Rita Agugoesi, a social worker. "When you have children, you want them to know where you came from."

Immigrants' journeys to America have long been inspired by educational opportunities for children. But unlike previous generations of immigrants, who often encouraged their kids' full assimilation, today's newcomers strive and sometimes struggle to transmit traditions to children submerged in a high-speed, diverse American culture. For some Africans, many of whom came to the United States for higher education, the answer is full immersion -- in Africa. A few years abroad, immigrant parents say, teaches children about Africa and, even better, some perspective about life in America.

"There are a lot of people over there who are dreaming to come here. They would be willing to have one of their fingers chopped off to come here," said Cosmas U. Nwokeafor, whose elder son spent three years in Nigeria and whose younger son will go there in December.

On a recent night, Nwokeafor, who toiled his way from busboy to Bowie State University professor and assistant provost, stretched out his arms in his spacious, freshly built Upper Marlboro home. "This was not made in a day."

Africans are immigrating to the United States faster than ever, and they are among the best-educated of all immigrant groups. But the African immigrant population, at about 1.4 million, is relatively small and new, so there is scant research on parenting and second-generation integration. No one tracks how many children of African immigrants attend school in their ancestral lands.

Community leaders say the practice is most common among Nigerians and Ghanaians, whose countries offer the unusual combination of relative political stability and established boarding schools with strict discipline and rigorous courses in English. At $5,000 to $10,000 a year, the schools are generally more affordable than American private schools.

Nwokeafor said he and his wife, Catherine, made great efforts to teach their four children traditional Nigerian songs and folk tales about turtles and lions. They took them to Nigeria often, taught them to address adults as "sir" and "auntie," and spoke to them in Igbo, their language.

But they wondered whether it was enough. The children told stories about American friends talking back to teachers and telling their parents to "shut up."

"I don't even know if I could spell my name the next day if I did that," Chinedu, 14, the younger son, said softly on a recent night.


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