From Nigeria to New Haven
Professor's Memoir Recounts a Remarkable Journey
When one is on a journey, Kalu Ogbaa says, one pays attention. His chronicle of his
journey through life – the recently published Carrying My Father’s Torch: A Memoir – reveals the SCSU English professor’s attentiveness to detail as well as to the
big picture, as he tells the story of his odyssey from a small village in Nigeria
to his current life as a university professor in America.
Referring to the title of the book, Ogbaa says the nature of the symbolic torch is threefold: maintaining family tradition, avoiding bringing any disgrace to the family and always striving to achieve in whatever one does. The book fleshes out these three central values as it follows Ogbaa from Umuchiakuma to New Haven. Along the way he lived through poverty, civil war, ethnic violence and “postcolonial malaise” in his homeland, while also struggling with his relationship to his father, whom he calls “both an exacting taskmaster and a beloved ideal.”
Ogbaa explains that he wrote this book largely because he wants to tell the stories of his life so that they live on after he is gone. He has 11 children, nine of whom are in America, and four grandchildren. One son died in 2009. He wanted his children to know more about him and about their heritage, but he intended to present an example to other readers as well. “I left my native land to come [to America],” he says. “I am getting old. Part of my family is in Nigeria and part in this country. Every achievement I have made can encourage not only my family members to strive and succeed in what they do, but also others who read the book. They can adapt the lessons from the book to their own lives.”
Indeed, Ogbaa hopes that the book will be particularly helpful to rapidly Americanized immigrants. He intends for it to be instructive to other young people with backgrounds in poverty, to show them that it is possible -- with hard work and struggle -- to become successful in life. “My Christian upbringing emphasized moral living and hard work,” he says. “My background challenges me to work harder and achieve more.”
In spite of having grown up in poverty and lived through the devastating Nigeria-Biafra War, Ogbaa says the most difficult challenges in his life have come from very personal losses. His divorce from his first wife affected him deeply, and the accidental death of his son, Ndubuisi, in 2009 was very painful. “It was the worst trauma I’ve ever been through,” he says. Yet, Ogbaa adds, “even though he’s not here with me, his memory is with me because he was very close to me. To have had him for the years I did should make me happy that I had him for as long as I did. As a Christian, you learn to live with the happy and not so happy events.”
Although he has published a number of books over the course of his career, Ogbaa says that writing a book as personal as a memoir can be difficult. “You begin to relive painful events that you went through in the past,” he says. “You recall the love and the lessons of life and the sense of direction you received from your parents and friends who are now deceased.” Ogbaa has kept diaries for years, so while he had to research some areas in preparation for writing the memoir, he was also able to go back to the diaries. “When you have the kinds of experiences I have had, the experience is always internalized,” he says, “so you can call it up and give it a form in writing.”
A member of the Southern faculty since 1992, Ogbaa earned his B.A. at the University of Nigeria, his M.A. at The Ohio State University and his Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Austin. His areas of specialization include African literature, African-American literature and modern poetry. He has published several books about Igbo people, Nigerians and Africans, among them A Century of Nigerian Literature: A Select Bibliography, The Nigerian Americans (The New Americans), Understanding Things Fall Apart: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents and Blood and Bravery: Voices of Biafran Veterans of the Nigeria-Biafra War.
Critic Tony Morris, of Armstrong Atlantic State University, wrote of Carrying My Father’s Torch: “From the wrestling matches in which he tussled as a young boy living in an Igbo village where the winds swirled against udara trees during the West African harmattan season, to his early Christian schooling, through the horrors of the Biafra War and his eventual move to the United States where he earned his PhD, Kalu Ogbaa’s memoir . . . is a moving, unflinchingly candid look at the life and times of a Nigerian man living in the country during one of its most tumultuous eras.”
Ogbaa believes he has passed the torch to his children. He speaks with pride of the achievements of his oldest son, Michael, a bank manager in Nigeria; his second oldest son, Ikenna, a medical director at a pharmaceutical company; and his oldest daughter, Nneka, a medical doctor. When he gave the book to his elder son, he autographed it and wrote the message: “The torch is now passed on to you.”