Nigeria: Why I Will Miss Nigeria – U.S. Embassy Official Jeanne Clark

“I will never forget the wonderful music and radio stations here in Nigeria. I really think you are unrivalled and it is another thing that my Nigerian friends and colleagues take for granted…,” US Embassy Press Attache, Jeanne Clarke, says.

The US Embassy Press Attache, Jeanne Clarke, says she finds Nigerian music positive and uplifting. In an exclusive interview with PREMIUM TIMES, Mrs Clarke noted that even though she does not understand what is being said, she will always treasure Nigerian sounds.

The diplomat, whose time in Nigeria ended 11 August, in an interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Chiamaka Okafor, talked about her time in Nigeria, her hope for the country and what she would miss about the most populous country in Africa.

Excerpts

PT: So tell me about your time here in Nigeria, working and interacting with Nigerians.

Mrs Clark: Sure, one of my prime responsibilities as I am sure you are aware is engaging with the media and I am quite proud of the media programming we have been able to accomplish really across Nigeria during this time.

There is nothing more important to a democracy than freedom of expression and we have tried to work very closely with Nigerian media houses and associations to be able to further that conversation, to deeply examine the roles of editors in a democracy. Recognising who gets their voice heard matters a lot in a democracy and it certainly has to be an inclusive space, where the voice of men and women and people of all ethnicity and diversities are encouraged to participate in Nigeria’s vibrant democracy.

PT: Did you live in different parts of Nigeria and how long has it been, I mean your stay?

Mrs Clark: I have worked in Nigeria for almost two years. I have been based in Abuja primarily, but for my final month, I have the opportunity to work here in Lagos. But I have been able to travel quite a bit. We have to realise that COVID really hindered travel opportunities when I arrived, and we really did not travel, we did not engage with the public face to face very much. We kind of became professionals at this kind of virtual game, but I have been able to travel with the ambassador to Kebbi, Sokoto, and I have been really into all four corners, although it was certainly only about half the states or maybe 10 states, but I have to be able to see different parts of Nigeria, which I think makes a big difference.

The different parts of the country are faced with different opportunities and different challenges and until you can hear from the people of those areas, you can certainly not say that you understand where you are. So, I am really grateful for each and every opportunity I have had to travel outside of Abuja.

PT: With your trips to these various locations, how would you describe the Nigerian state and the Nigerian people?

Mrs Clark: The people are always very welcoming. I really enjoyed learning about local customs and food. I am really very passionate about West Africa. This is my third tour in West Africa and I have personal ties as well, so I know the promise of this part of the world and to be hosted by the leader of West Africa. And I always say the house of the big brother has really been so eye-opening to me and such an honour to be able to understand the challenges that there are in such a large country that is so diverse. But also the richness that exists here, the cultural richness and academic richness is truly here. So, I really have felt very fortunate to be able to learn and work with Nigerians.

PT: You talked about being able to experience different cultures and different foods. I want to know what your favourite Nigerian food is.

Mrs Clark: I really love moi-moi, that was a very new discovery for me. It really gave a different dimension and flavour to swallow. So, for me, I really like that. I am not so good with the pepper; the croaker fish I also love, and I never had that before, either. But certainly, the plantains and bananas are really something special here and as are the mangoes. I think they are terrific.

PT: Are these foods you can find in the US?

Mrs Clark: Certainly, we do not find what I would call homegrown bananas or plantains in the US, they are largely imported for us. And so now I am strangely able to easily tell “oh, this was not grown in Nigeria.” So for me, that is kind of a growth. Like I said, I have been to other West African countries, so I like to make groundnut stew and some other stews but I do not think Nigerians would like that because they do not have the peppers for these. But I like the flavour, just sometimes it is a little too much for my palate.

PT: So let’s talk about culture. You have been to Kebbi and Sokoto, you are in Lagos now, South-west. Have you been to the south-eastern and south-southern parts?

Mrs Clark: Yes.

PT: What is the most intriguing or what did you find intriguing about the different cultures?

Mrs Clark: The challenge is that I learn more about the culture and then I want to go back. So I hope someday, I will be able to go back and explore even further. For example, I recently took an Adire class to learn about dyeing and batik. The instructor asked me while we were talking about Kano, “do you know they do natural dyeing in the ground in Kano?” And I was like, no, I had never of course heard of that and now I am like, why did I not know that? So, I would learn more. Also before my arrival in Nigeria, I had never heard of a durbar (an equestrian festival held in several northern cities of Nigeria to mark the end of Ramadan) and I really am intrigued and I would love to go back and visit a durbar during Eid or after.

The whole importance of traditional rulers in Nigeria and their voice to the public is really important and something we respect a lot. And for the quick trip to Nigeria, it is not something you are going to automatically learn, and I certainly have a lot to learn more about it. But I am completely intrigued and I will be doing continuous reading even after I leave Nigeria.

We are very proud of the cultural property agreement that was signed between the United States and Nigeria this year, and we hope to be able to work in a number of different areas from cultural preservation, where we have a history of working with Nigeria preserving her cultural artefacts. We are looking forward to how that will help us move things forward both with our cultural exchanges both tangentially and in creative content.

PT: Great. Is the durbar for you entirely different from polo?

Mrs Clark: Yes, from what I have seen. I mean, well first, I will say, I have never been to a polo event, but it seems to me the clothes and the tradition of parading and dressing up the horses, that does not happen in a Polo match that I have seen. So, there is a whole wealth of tradition and culture that comes with the emirs that I think is just… I have seen paintings in different galleries of the horses and the durbars, but I just recently received some photos from a colleague and it is just really fascinating to see. We don’t have anything like that in the United States. We have the Kentucky Derby, we have horse races but this is something extraordinary, truly.

PT: So you have personal ties with West Africa and with Lagos and I believe by that you mean your husband yeah?

Mrs Clark: Yes, he was born in Togo.

PT: Is he from Togo or was he born in Togo?

Mrs Clark: He was born and raised in Togo, we met in Togo.

PT: So could you tell us a little about this love you found in Africa? How different was it? Cause I would imagine as a beautiful lady growing up you had a lot of white men who were on your case and here you are, the African prince caught your attention and stole you away.

Mrs Clark: I do not really talk a lot about my personal life, but I have a very close friend who we, my family, we all call her our sister, and she was going home to Togo to see her mother and I met Charles (husband). I went with her during that time and I met Charles that way and we stayed in touch, believe it or not, via the internet for a couple of years, then we got married.

PT: When did this happen, what year was it?

Mrs Clark: 1997 we met, we got married in 1999. We have been married over 23 years now.

PT: Based on these ties, and having seen the challenges of people living in the largest country in the continent, what would you like to see differently, if not for anything, for the sake of the personal ties you have with this part of the world?

Mrs Clark: I would just note for your information, I have served in Senegal and Ghana. One thing that I think is important is transparency. During one of our press programmes in partnership with ICIR this year, we really focused on the 10-year anniversary of the Freedom of Information law, and I was really surprised to learn that journalists and media professionals are not the leaders in utilising the Freedom of Information law.

I think recognising the tools that are helpful in obtaining information is really important and using them is even more important. Holding each other accountable, it does not really matter what field you are in. I am not talking at this point exclusively to the media, If you are an educator and working in academia, a university, you also need transparency.

We need to have standards and make sure people meet those standards. From every time we hire someone, we do not look at where they come from, or who they are but what their credentials are and make sure we use professional standards to make our decisions and to hold people to those decisions.

The same is true with local and federal policies. When someone is running for office, we really are advocates for issue-based discussion. What is the candidate for office promising to do? What is the candidate’s position on certain issues? And then how do we share that with the public so that they can be the best informed to say, “this is what I think my community needs and therefore I am going to go this way because of this issue.”

I think that could go a long way in helping to solidify governance here in Nigeria, really empower the citizens and use the tools that they have because the Freedom of Information is but one example but it is really a tool that is underutilised I feel.

PT: In terms of infrastructural development, maybe also climate change which is a front burner conversation now, and every other thing in between, what would you like to see done differently around here?

Mrs Clark: Certainly, talking about climate change, acting on climate change are things that have to change. And I have seen a number of Nigerians take different approaches and angles to addressing climate change in Nigeria. I think definitely, we have in the last two years, we have moved from a phase where it was hotly debated whether or not climate change exists, I think we all recognise that it exists. Certainly, there has been global recognition of the need to move towards zero carbons, and I have seen Nigerians from all over the country, taking individual actions, which are really effective, whether it be from taking action against erosion or publishing about it to upcycling art.

I have seen some fabulous art pieces that were designed from things in the junkyard that have really become high-end art pieces. We have seen youth talking more about using less plastic. There has to be, of course, government discussion about how best to move forward as a national policy, but we can’t discount the individual actors either.

PT: These are your last days, if I may use that phrase, in Nigeria. What would you be missing the most? And what memories would you treasure as you move on to your next post? And would you like to visit again?

Mrs Clark: I am really keen to absorb all the culture I can. I am trying to go hear live music and go to the National Museum here in Lagos as well as the Lekki Conservatory and go to a play. I will never forget the wonderful music on the radio stations here in Nigeria. I really think you are unrivalled and it is another thing that my Nigerian friends and colleagues take for granted because I will be missing the radio a lot.

PT: But there is radio in the United States, is it not as much as what we have here?

Mrs Clark: There is Radio. I am not trying to disparage American radio, but I am particularly fond of the music and the local beat that you have here that is nearly, certainly majority Nigerian music and it is a really positive, lovely beat. It is just something special, it is hard for me to characterise exactly, but the music that is promoted is through many different business plans, but it does not have that kind of beat. I do not always understand what is being said in the music but for me, it is very positive and uplifting and I am going to treasure it.

PT: So would you like to return?

Mrs Clark: Yes, I would.

Chiamaka Okafor is a reporter at Premium Times in partnership with Report for the World, which matches local newsrooms with talented emerging journalists to report on under-covered issues around the globe.

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