Welcome new students! Welcome Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie!

August 22, 2010

New students arrived on Friday, and we’re in the midst of new student orientation. At our opening ceremony outside on Chase Stage (where we also hold Commencement) Director of Admissions Nancy Sinex reminded the new students who they are, including the fact that 76 of the 367 new students come from homes outside the United States.

Tomorrow (Monday) we’ll have a Convocation for new students.  They’ve all read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun (Random House, 2006), and she will be our guest and speaker for the Convocation.  It’s a moving novel set in Nigeria at the time of the 1960s effort to establish Biafra as an independent country.

Anna Crumley-Effinger, a recent alumna who works on African issues for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), wrote me just before the weekend to cheer the choice of Adichie as an opening Convocation speaker and to remind me of AFSC’s work in that part of the world.

“It turns out that Quakers were playing an important shuttle diplomacy role during the Biafran conflict,” she writes, “and managed to have the confidence of both sides – meeting with top officials in the breakaway region under Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu. AFSC representatives also held meetings with General Gowon and his top aides as well as the Niger President in charge of negotiations for the Organization of African Unity. President Diori of Niger encouraged AFSC to arrange private and unpublicized meetings between the Federal Government and the secessionist Biafra.

“Overall the Quaker representatives provided a critical informal channel of communication between the two parties. Later when political negotiations fell apart and fighting intensified Mennonite Central Committee and AFSC set up emergency food and medical programs to work with refugees. There were dozens of feeding centers, and a few doctors and nurses working through hospitals and outpatient clinics in rural areas in Biarfra serving 300,000 people. In Nigeria there were doctors, nurses, and community development workers involved in meeting emergency feeding and
medical needs.

“AFSC’s/Quaker initiatives, though they were not successful in halting the civil war, were widely acknowledged by participants at the time to have made an important contribution. General Gowon, the head of the Nigerian government, issued a public statement to all relief agency representatives in Lagos to the effect that he wished they could all operate “like the Quakers.” The American Ambassador in Lagos also expressed his appreciation for AFSC’s quiet peacemaking efforts, stating that “of all the relief groups working here, the Quakers are the only ones able to move back and forth as you have done. You are trusted by both sides.””

She goes on to say, “AFSC’s efforts in Africa at this point mainly focus in central Africa after all the conflict in the 1990s but we are also working in southern Somalia with local partners and with refugees from that conflict in Kenya. In Zimbabwe we also have active and innovative work (you should send some Peace and Global Studies [one of Earlham’s larger majors] students our way!) In September after 30 years of work with refugees from the civil war, which then turned into development work, AFSC will turn over the efforts to the local NGO we have shepherded the forming of (which will retain all the staff).

“It’s exciting work to be a part of. Having a rich history of Friends’ witness and service behind us is also inspirational. Adichie’s book gave me great insight into a few lives in the conflict in an incredibly rich way. In my work I’m often trying to share the stories of people in conflict or working with refugees or local community leaders to raise their own voices. It’s lovely to see literature that gets to the heart of an unfortunately common experience of war and violence.”

I look forward to meeting Chimamanda Adichie and seeing her meet our students tomorrow.  And I am very proud of Anna Crumley-Effinger for putting her Earlham education to good use at the American Friends Service Committee on issues of peace and justice.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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