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Letters from Nigeria by Gretel Clark

Letters from Nigeria

A Young American Observes a Newly Independent Country, 1961-62

by Gretel Clark

Pub Date: June 10th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-942155-13-3
Publisher: Peter E. Randall

Personal missives to family and striking images reveal the daily lives of an American couple living in the West African country of Nigeria in the early 1960s.

As a couple of ambitious graduate students who’d advocated for the creation of a diplomatic “peace army,” even before the election of John F. Kennedy, Clark and her husband, Peter, were more than ready to drop their studies for the opportunity to live in Nigeria. From 1961 to ’62, she sent letters back home to her family members detailing the exotic landscape of Lagos as it underwent major change. She worked there as a secretary for various international organizations while Peter furthered his career in economics and international development, which gave them access to important political events as well as to the intoxicating sights and sounds of local markets. The author relates all of this in great detail in her letters, which she presents here mostly unedited; in them, she wistfully describes such things as the weekends that she and her husband spent sailing or the effect of the hot climate on Nigerian business hours. She also writes of developing a strong friendship with and reliance on their house servant, Columbus, as they tried to better understand their new home and eventually welcome their new child into it. Accompanying all of these reflections are incredible color photos, taken by Peter, that help immensely to illustrate the unique time and place. Clark writes earnestly about her desire to help the Nigerian people and about her discomfort at the class distinctions between masters and servants in society and in her own home (“Peter is always referred to as ‘Master’ and I am ‘Madam.’ Horrible”). However, her point of view throughout the letters is clearly rooted in her position as a wealthy expatriate; accounts of dinners with notable journalists and diplomats and of gossip from around the yacht club pepper the entries. The collection as a whole might have benefited greatly from stronger editing; aside from an excellent foreword and afterword, Clark offers few opportunities for contextualization and reflection beyond the letters’ personal, intimate nature. That said, the collection does offer stylish, enjoyable prose and keen observations on daily life in a fascinating place.

An intriguing historical document, particularly for readers who have a passion for West Africa and narratives of the expatriate experience.