By Farooq A. Kperogi
The idea that there is a white Nigerian American family in America may seem a bit counter-intuitive. But there is indeed one here. And I am not being hyperbolic. The Dunaway family in Atlanta, a white Baptist missionary family, is at once Nigerian and American. The fun part is: their Nigerianness has roots in my hometown.
John and Mark Dunaway, the last two sons of an American missionary gentleman, were born in Nigeria. (According to the Nigerian constitution, people who were born in Nigeria before October 1, 1960 are considered Nigerian citizens even if their parents can’t trace their ancestral provenance to any part of what is now Nigeria). And they consider Okuta in the Borgu area of Kwara State to be their hometown. Their fondest childhood memories are located there. Their formative years were incubated there. And the people they consider their best childhood friends are still there. So that makes them my fellow townsmen, my white Nigerian American townsmen.
Although the Dunaway family left Nigeria in the late 1960s, their legacy endures in our hometown to this day. My extended family especially has fond memories of this wonderful family. I’ve been fed with stories of the Dunaways since I was a child. My dad, a retired Islamic Studies/Arabic teacher, and my granddad, who passed away in 1993 at the age of 125, always had nice stories to share with us about the white American missionary family who were more immersed in our culture than was thought possible for white people at the time; whose matriarch, Mrs. Dunaway, spoke better Batonu than many native speakers of the language.
I had never imagined for a split second that I could ever get to meet any member of the Dunaway family. But by a stroke of serendipity I got to meet John and Mark here in Atlanta!
One day in 2005 while in Louisiana, I decided on a whim to search my last name on Google. And it turned out that one of the matches I got was an article by a John Dunaway. The article made several references to members of my extended family. I eagerly clicked on the link. I think John was recounting his most recent visit to Okuta after a long hiatus. Immediately after reading the article, I went to the “Contact Us” page and sent off an email to the owner of the site requesting that he give me the email address of John Dunaway.
A few days later, I got a response. It turned out that the owner of the site, Anthony Dunaway, was John’s son. I told him I was a member of the Kperogi family that his dad had written about, and would like to establish contact with him. He forwarded my email to his dad who took longer than expected to get back to me. He later told me that when his friends saw his excitement upon reading my email, they cautioned him to be wary of Nigerian 419 scammers. Although he trusted his hunch that I was real, he decided to heed his friends’ advice. He waited to see if I would shoot him another email.
I did—through his son again. I wrote that I was the grandson of the Kperogi who was a friend to his dad. He was convinced. So he responded. From them on, we constantly spoke on the phone and immediately hit it off. As fate would have it, in 2006, I relocated to Atlanta where John and his family lived. He was ecstatic—as I was.
We became family friends and would often vicariously relive experiences growing up in Okuta. I met his wife and son and later his younger brother, Mark, who introduced himself to me as “Sabi,” the generic Batonu name for the second son in a family. Incredibly, John and Mark still spoke the Batonu language and sang our local songs with near-native proficiency.
Rather strangely--perhaps not-- in the times we got together, I felt more comfortable in their company than I ever did with other Nigerians I’ve met here. John would often invite me to their home to celebrate Christmas, New Year, and Thanksgiving. When my wife and daughter visited in 2007 and 2008, we visited each other constantly.
Mark’s first daughter, who was only 12 when we first met, already knew so much about Nigeria and my hometown. She told me her greatest desire was to visit Nigeria someday and see the place of her dad’s birth.
The story of the Dunaway family’s coming to Nigeria is an intriguing one. The older Dunaway was originally from the racially volatile state of Mississippi in southern United States. By John’s account, his dad, like most white Mississippians at the time, nursed a lot of racial animosity toward black Americans. Then one day, he was told that he had been called by God to be a church minister. Although he’d never wanted to be a church minister, he said he had no problems with the call if it won’t require him to minister to black folks in America.
Well, after his seminary training, he was told that he would be sent to some derelict village called Okuta in a malarious African desert in the predominantly Muslim Borgu division of northern Nigeria. This was in the late 1940s. He was devastated. But, John told me, the older Dunaway consoled himself by saying God must be telling him something.
Till he died in Zimbabwe, John told me his dad’s greatest joy was being in the company of black people. (He was denied a visa to return to Nigeria, with which he'd totally fallen in love, because Yakubu Gowon determined that he had sympathies for the Biafran cause). His wife, who was a nurse, also loved black children with a passion. Both husband and wife shed their southern racist upbringing and embraced the common humanity that binds us all.
When the Dunaways returned to the United States in the late 1960s at the onset of the Nigerian Civil War, they were confronted by a different racial reality. John told me he found that he felt more comfortable with black people than he did with his white peers. That’s hardly surprising. He wasn’t only born in Nigeria; he attended elementary and high schools in Nigeria and was therefore blind to the prevailing racial stratification in America.
But he soon realized that the black kids he met in America were different from the ones he left in Nigeria. This was a period when racial segregation was still ruthlessly enforced, when Civil Rights agitations were getting more intense than ever before, and when people feared that America was headed for a catastrophic race war.
He said would often ignore the racial divisions, which didn’t make any sense to him, and go play with black Americans his age— to the astonishment of his white friends. But he was always greeted with hostility and occasionally physical violence. Black American kids his age never trusted his motives. They couldn’t believe he just wanted to hang out with them because he felt more comfortable in their midst than he did in the midst of white kids.
They didn’t trust him. How could they? How could the black American kids have known that John’s best childhood friends were black, that his parents brought up scores of black children as if they were their own biological kids? How could they appreciate the fact that John’s upbringing made him impervious to something as incidental and as superficial as racial differences?
Unfortunately, John couldn’t quite escape this awkward quandary even as he grew older. As an adult, he was also once called a “racist” when he told some black Americans that he was more African than they were in experiential terms.
The significant thing, though, is that the legacy of the Dunaways continues to live in my hometown. The Baptist Primary School in my hometown (which I attended) was built by them. They built the first secondary school in the community (Baptist Grammar School), which I also attended. In fact, the Baptist Hospital in Okuta—where I was born—was built by the Dunaways. So, in more ways than one, I am a “child” of the Dunaways.
This was even more so for my dad’s kid brother, Malam Ismaila Kperogi, who was almost literally brought up by the Dunaways. They sent him to the same schools they sent their kids. After his high school education, they sent him to the UK for higher education. My uncle says the Dunaways decided against sending him to the United States because they feared that exposure to the searing anti-black racism prevalent in the American society at the time would make him hate Americans.
Yet, in spite of the praiseworthy efforts of the Dunaways and their successors, few people in our community converted to Christianity. To this day, you can count the number of Christian families in Okuta on the tip of your fingers. My grandfather was one of the earliest converts to Christianity because of his friendship with the older Dunaway and his desire to give his children Western education. My dad refused to convert because he was actually brought up by my granddad’s relation who was an Islamic scholar. By 1949 when my granddad converted to Christianity, my dad was already a teenager with fairly well-formed views on religion. My dad’s kid brother, Ismaila, reverted to Islam after returning from the UK. Of my grandfather’s 8 children, 3 are Christians and five are Muslims.
So I grew up in an extended family that was multi-religious—in a community that is otherwise over 90 percent Muslim. At home, we celebrated Muslim and Christian festivals in common and had never had any conflicts arising from religious differences. It is this background that explains my tolerant outlook to religion.
Unfortunately, on March 12 when I called John to inform him that my wife had a baby boy whom we have named Adam in honor of my dad, his wife picked up the phone and told me John had died about two months earlier. I was devastated. I cried like a baby.
John was one of the kindest, pleasantest, most gracious human beings I’ve ever had the pleasure to relate with. He was deeply religious but incredibly tolerant and respectful of other people’s faiths. He also loved Nigeria and Nigerians with the same sincerity that his mom and dad did.
He considered himself Nigerian to his death. If I remember correctly, he had a Nigerian passport. Each time he visited his childhood friends in my hometown every once in a while, he told me how he always joked with law enforcement officers who stopped him for identification. He would often tell them he was a white Nigerian. He said he cherished the shock he often saw on the faces of the officers. With his inimitable mimetic skills, he would affect a Hausa- or Yoruba-inflected English accent to tell me how he talked with Nigerians who doubted his claim to being a Nigerian.
His death is especially painful because he and I often discussed the subject of death. He would tell me that considering my granddad died at 125, I had the longevity gene in me and would probably live as long as my granddad did. (Well, that’s not necessarily true; my dad’s immediate younger brother died in his 60s). He said most people in his family don’t live very long. And he died at the age of 57.
Sometime toward the end of last year John told me that he had been struck by partial stroke but said he was hopeful that he would recover. A few weeks later, he told me the results of several tests at different hospitals came back negative. So my anxieties subsided. But on February 3, this athletic, health-conscious, God-fearing, complaisant man just stopped breathing, according to his daughter. And there went a distinguished, if unsung, white Nigerian American.
May his soul rest in peace.