Ross Bigelow's Presentation
Peace Corps Nigeria Story –
Ross Bigelow (Nigeria 7)
Friends of Nigeria – Austin, TX – 6/20/2019
We had been warned in training that the English assumed Americans had inferior education and ability. However, we found little difficulty disavowing them of such prejudices. No one ever questioned my geographic knowledge or teaching ability. The only issue seemed to be that Americans had “noisy” classrooms, too many students talking to the teacher. What we took for healthy give-and-take, they took for indiscipline. The tradition of the British was to lecture without interruption for an hour, with students expected to take careful notes in their copy books. Their tests basically assessed the accuracy of the memorization of notes. Americans knew that student participation (noise) was an essential part of the learning process.
America was admirably represented by most Peace Corps volunteers in Nigeria. I would agree with what Country Director Bill Saltonstall’s wife Kathie said, “I came to respect the volunteers as I have respected few groups of people I have known: for their integrity, their courage, and their imaginative efforts to make their students think and to open their eyes to the possibilities and opportunities in today’s world.”* High praise.
We had only been in-country about two months when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Since Peace Corps was only two-years old and was still building its program, most volunteers thought Nigerians would either not know or have little interest in an American President. We were overwhelmed by the response of people hearing the terrible news, so heart-felt and personal. Africans really seemed to identify with JFK. He was a hero for black folks, new hope for overcoming adversity.
November 22, 1963 is a day that I will never forget. Kennedy was killed in Dallas at 1 pm, Texas time. Seven time zones away in Maiduguri, we did not learn of the assassination until we heard speculation of it on the BBC international service, perhaps around 8 pm our time. In disbelief we gathered in the house of one of the vols glued to the radio.
It had already been an eerily strange evening at the secondary school. As we did frequently, we had arranged to get a 16mm American movie from the United States Information Service in town to show outdoors after dark against a classroom wall: Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. The students had set up the chairs and we strung the big reel film onto an old projector. We had all 200+ students and staff in attendance. The headmaster and the Senior Prefect (head boy student) were seated next to us in the front row when the movie began. Around 8 pm the projector bulb exploded and almost all the students bolted, knocking over chairs and running in all directions. We vols stayed seated, as did the headmaster and Senior Prefect, putting on brave faces. Since we did not have a replacement bulb, we sent the students back to their houses and we went home too. Later looking back, we realized that the bulb blew out at about the same moment that Lee Harvey Oswald’s shots were fired in Dealey Plaza.
In a meeting with Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, just before Country Director Bill Saltonstall was completing his time in Nigeria (1963-1965), he received some encouraging words about volunteers and their contributions to Nigeria. “You realize, Mr. Saltonstall, how much Nigeria appreciates the work of your volunteers. But what I most want to say is that while we appreciate them for what they know and can teach us, they are teaching us the importance and the value of imagination, enthusiasm, and hard work. If at the same time they are learning from the experience, both Nigeria and the United States are the gainers.” **
*Katharyn W. Saltonstall, Small Bridges to One World: A Peace Corps Perspective, Nigeria, 1963-1965, [Peter E. Randall, 1986}, Introduction
** Katharyn W. Saltonstall, Small Bridges to One World, p. 202