A good man in Africa
On an evening in October 2002, when the days were short and the ground carpeted in pinched, brown leaves, Isidore Udoh hurried through the sharp autumn air into the warmth, shrugged out of his jacket and said hello to his friend. He was looking forward to dinner with her in her north Fargo kitchen, full of the good smells of roasting meat and the oddly comforting sounds of evening news from the television in the next room. A stack of mail awaited him. Udoh sifted through the letters, eager to catch up on the latest news from his family in the Niger Delta. He carefully slit open the top envelope and pulled out a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper, covered with his father's handwriting -- a strong, neat script perfected by years of writing lessons on blackboards for grade-school children. "It is very difficult to tell you this," the letter began, "but so many bad things have happened lately. The worst of them is that your cousin Isaac has died."
Pain shot through Udoh's stomach. He and his younger cousin Isaac Okon had grown up together. They had run along the dirt roads of Udoh's village, kicking the hard green oranges that substituted for real soccer balls. They molded wet sand into the shape of fast-looking cars, using captive fireflies as headlights. Udoh had laughed and clapped when Okon, tall and thin as a branch, entertained the family by moonwalking like Michael Jackson.
Now his cousin was gone. Udoh's heart pounded as he read the details. Okon had moved to the coastal city of Port Harcourt to find work in the oil industry. He had contracted HIV. Too embarrassed to tell his family, he suffered alone for months. When his family finally brought Okon home, he was emaciated and covered with sores. The hospitals in the rural Delta were scarcely equipped to handle a patient with full-blown AIDS, and Okon's family couldn't have paid the bills anyway. He died at age 26.
Tears fell down Udoh's round cheeks and dropped on the letter, smearing the blue ink. The pile of letters sat beside him. Udoh dared not open them. What if they told of more death, more bad news? He was angry and confused. Why hadn't someone told him sooner? He had kept almost constant contact with his family in the last year, frequently exchanging e-mails with his own brother. Yet no one had mentioned Okon's illness. He could have sent money for treatment. He could have done something.
Stories of AIDS in the Niger Delta had circulated for years. Even so, Udoh never thought the disease would take someone from his family. He had been so vigilant about sending prevention information to his parents and siblings, and urging them to educate others. But he couldn't help his own cousin.
Sending money and pamphlets wasn't enough. He had to do something about the AIDS epidemic in the Niger Delta. He knew there were many obstacles to face -- a corrupt government, a very poor population, deeply ingrained cultural beliefs. Another person might have looked at such roadblocks and given up.
Udoh comes from a poor family in one of the poorest regions of Africa. He has stood with young South Africans who sobbed over the graves of friends who died violent deaths. He has bumped down dirt roads in Nigeria in a tiny Toyota to help the poor, only to spend that night sleeping on the floor. He has surrendered the things so many take for granted -- a wife and children, personal wealth, stability -- to help others.
Udoh's life hasn't been easy, yet he traveled thousands of miles to earn a doctoral degree in education. He has begun to parlay that education into important research on the AIDS epidemic in his home country. He wants to use that research and his knowledge to influence Nigerian policy-makers to take action against the pandemic.
Growing up in the Delta
As a child in the Delta, Udoh sometimes saw oil floating on the river. At first he thought the oily residue was something good -- maybe an additive some responsible grownup poured in the river to clean it. Later he learned it was the unhappy byproduct of the neighboring oil wells pumping black crude near his village.
Long before the Delta became a major player in the oil industry, it was a wild and rural place. Located along Nigeria's southeastern coast, the region is a large triangle of wooded wetlands. The largest of its many rivers, the Niger, floods for months at a time. When the floodwater recedes, it deposits a rich sediment that nourishes the farmland. The many bodies of water brim with shellfish and fish. For decades, the heads of Delta households fed their families by fishing and farming.
Half a century ago, geologists discovered a massive oil reserve beneath the Delta. Wells were drilled and deals made with the government. Some villagers danced in the streets when the oil companies came. At last there would be money for better schools and hospitals and roads. Or so they thought.
Today the Delta produces 2 million barrels of oil a day, which makes up 90 percent of Nigeria's export earnings. Yet the Delta's residents remain among the poorest in the world. Corrupt local government officials divert oil money into their own pockets. Irresponsible drilling practices have tainted the area's water, killed its fish and destroyed vegetation. Even more disturbing are the giant gas flares that burn outside oil flow stations day and night. Long ago, company officials found the natural gas that accompanied oil pumped to the surface was too expensive to capture, liquefy and transport. They've burned it off into the atmosphere ever since. The gas flares heat up the already tropical environment, roar like the Niagara Falls and fill the sky with acrid smoke. Many nights, residents cannot see the stars.
Gas flaring is so wasteful and environmentally devastating that it's become a rare practice in most places. But more gas is flared in Nigeria than anywhere else in the world. Reports vary widely on how much gas is flared in the Delta, but some sources claim it's the energy equivalent of 360,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Pressured by environmental groups, oil executives have vowed to follow a "flare-out" date, after which gas flaring would be illegal. But the flare-out date keeps getting postponed, and government officials don't seem overly concerned. Meanwhile, the flares cause acid rain and corrode the corrugated zinc rooftops of residents' homes. Many claim the pollution from the flares causes women to miscarry more frequently, their children to develop asthma and their men to urinate blood.
Oil on the water
Forty years ago, no one discussed such things. Oil wells were as common as the mangrove trees that poked their stilt-like roots into the swamps. They were simply part of the landscape.
This is the world Udoh entered 41 years ago. A middle child in a family of eight, his father taught grade school and his mother traded agricultural products. In their village of Ikot Oko, the Udohs were a curiosity. Plenty of other families were better off financially, but they spent their money on houses and motorcycles and Peugeots. Udoh's family put everything they earned into education. His mother stretched the family budget by selling peppers, fish, beans and yams at the village market. His father sold off land and palm trees he'd inherited from his own father to pay for boarding school costs. Their only mode of transportation was a bicycle, which they sold to pay for one child's tuition.
They lived in a modest house with red mud walls and a thatched roof until 1986, when Udoh's parents finally saved enough money to build a real house with concrete-block walls and a zinc roof. Even then, they hung fabric over the empty windows and slept on the dirt floor until there was enough money for proper flooring and window glass.
From an early age, Udoh's intellectual gifts were obvious. His father was his teacher, and he expected much from his bright son. Once, when Udoh ranked second academically in a class of 150 students, his mother scolded him publicly. He never came in second again. At night, when he'd finished feeding the chickens and goats, he sat cross-legged on the dirt floor and studied by the glow of kerosene lantern for hours.
When Udoh later went away to school, he would come home for holidays. But "holidays" at the Udoh home were for anything but leisure. Each child was required to read at least one book during the break, then to stand in front of the family and summarize it. Before long, Udoh had read and re-read all the titles in the house. He studied novels by African and American writers, books of poetry, and read about European, African, American and Chinese history. He lived in a village of 300 people in an isolated region of Western Africa, yet was as well read as an elite prep student.
Udoh's parents had noticed something else about their son. Not only was he intelligent, but he was likable and honest and good-natured. In fact, he was just plain good. He cared about others, and others seemed drawn to his generous spirit. To devout Catholics like the Udohs, his path was obvious. Udoh would become a priest. He was sent to his first seminary school at age 12.
He would never live at home again.
Time with a holy man
Udoh attended a series of seminary schools -- exacting institutions where the students wore white and black uniforms and risked a good caning if they didn't obey. But the schools were excellent. At the Queen of Apostles Seminary, 100 miles from his home, the teachers were priests from across the globe. Three of them had graduated from Oxford, and all but one had doctoral degrees. In this environment, Udoh gained a view of a world far beyond his village.
At the seminary, even among the top students of Nigeria, Udoh excelled. He could read, write and speak in several languages, including classical Latin. Showing a precocity for French, Udoh was one of a select few students allowed to take his high school examination a year early. He aced the test, but stayed on for the final school year anyway. Just for fun, Udoh retook the exam again the following year.
Even as Udoh's education opened his mind, it set him apart. When he went home to visit his family, he used words his village friends didn't recognize. His musical tastes ranged from the twangy sweet vocals of Dolly Parton to Tchaikovsky and the pop group ABBA. He talked of exotic lands, thousands of miles from the swamp forest of the Delta. His old friends shook their heads. Crazy Isidore. He might as well be talking about the moon.
Back at school, Udoh felt at home. He attracted friends with his contagious grin, good mind and willingness to help others. When he graduated from seminary school as a star student, he was asked to stay on as a teacher. He was just a few years older than his pupils, but they liked and respected him. They came to him for advice.
He pursued his college education at several seminaries, ultimately graduating from Pontifical Urban University in Rome with degrees in philosophy and theology. After college, he dedicated himself to good works. At one point he interned with Nelson Mandela's office, although he rarely saw the legendary leader. He spent time in South Africa, counseling college students who had seen friends shot down for protesting apartheid. Most importantly, he worked with a holy man named Dominic Ekandem.
Ekandem had once been the Udoh family's parish priest, but had risen to the rank of bishop. His health was failing, and he needed help. Udoh became his aide. For the next few years, he accompanied the bishop everywhere. He drove his car, took notes at important meetings, even recorded his autobiography.
Ekandem was one of the most powerful religious leaders in West Africa, but he lived like a pauper. When the church offered him a limousine, he instead chose a small Toyota. When the government built him palaces, he chose to live in a two-bedroom apartment instead. Presidents of countries came to visit him in the modest flat.
For two years, Udoh slept on the apartment floor every night. You must learn to live like this, the bishop told him, so if you have a position of responsibility in the future, you don't forget where you came from.
The bishop built a home for pregnant teenage girls who were thrown out of their homes. He launched programs for Muslims who lived on the streets. He worked late and slept little, even though diabetes was overpowering his body and he had to walk with crutches. He refused to be flown overseas for treatment; instead, he insisted that money be used to house street people and abandoned children.
Ekandem died in 1996. Udoh never forgot what the great man taught him. Don't forget where you came from, Isidore.
Out of Africa
Udoh is a natural at networking. He likes meeting people from all backgrounds, and he counts many as his friends. While still in high school, he became pen pals with a cardinal in Connecticut. That cardinal knew Bishop James Sullivan of the Fargo Diocese. They began talking about bringing Udoh, this outstanding young seminarian, to the United States. And that's how a young man from Nigeria's rainforests came to America's Heartland.
Udoh lived and worked at Holy Spirit Catholic Church. While at a church function, he met a bubbly widow named Barb Zacher. She offered Udoh use of her kitchen for cooking his beloved Nigerian specialties. They hit it off immediately. After that, Udoh sometimes came to Zacher's place to cook fish soup. She couldn't stand the smell of the fish, but she liked the company.
One day out of the blue, Udoh called and asked if he could come over to her house. He sounded a little lonely. "Sure," Zacher said. Her kids were grown and her beloved husband gone. She sometimes got lonely too. Zacher was surprised by how tired Udoh looked. He was always so upbeat, so ready to let loose with that full-bodied laugh that made you want to chuckle too. She invited him to stretch out on the recliner in the family room and nap while she made dinner. As she clattered around the kitchen, she glanced at her young guest. His eyes were closed, and tears ran down his face.
"Isidore," she asked. "What's wrong?"
"I miss my family," he said.
"I'll be your family," she said.
On that day, Zacher unofficially adopted Isidore. He moved into the second-floor bedroom of her home. She became his support system, giving him a place where his Nigerian family could stay when they visited, financial help when needed and, for the first time in years, a real home.
The two are an unlikely pair. An outspoken woman with a thick-as-knoephla German accent and a polite Nigerian man who has traveled the world. But they are alike in ways too. Both are devout Catholics. Both have good hearts. And both needed someone.
The stability Zacher provided helped Udoh try different things. He questioned if the priesthood really was for him. He briefly attended North Dakota State University, then relocated to Washington, D.C., to earn a licentiate degree in canon law from the Catholic University of America. He returned to the Midwest to work as a pastoral assistant at the diocese in Crookston, Minn. He was working at a Catholic church in Moorhead when he received the letter that changed his life.
Anatomy of a pandemic
As the shock over his cousin's death eased, Udoh took action. He had picked up information here and there about AIDS in the Delta, but didn't fully realize how grim the situation was. Now he devoted all his spare time to learning about the pandemic. The average HIV-infection rate in Nigeria is among the highest in the world -- 5.6 percent. But in certain parts of the Delta, infection rates soar to 15 percent. Before Nigeria became a democracy in 1999, the military government denied there was any AIDS problem at all. And so people continued to contract the disease and die. It's now believed that 3.6 million people have been infected, and 55 percent of the infected are female.
Experts have many theories why the Delta is such an HIV hot spot. Udoh's own theory plays out like a deadly domino effect. He believes the oil companies abused the land and environment, making Delta residents sicker and poorer. The government refused to use oil earnings for health care, social programs or education to alleviate the crisis. Volatile relationships among the local tribes kept communities from working together. The women, undervalued by the culture, had no education to do anything but farm, fish and raise families. When the soil went bad and the fish died, they turned to prostitution to feed their children. The local men migrated to urban oil centers to find work where, isolated from their families, they visited prostitutes. The oil industry brought workers from all over the world to the Delta. They also patronized prostitutes.
Udoh wanted to help the people from his home country, but he didn't know where to start. He was just a Nigerian scholar without money or influence. So he brainstormed with Nigerian friends on what he could do to help Delta residents. Together, they decided Udoh needed more education. He needed to learn about adult education and disease control and research methods. He had to adopt the language and training of a public health expert if he wanted to make a difference. Maybe then people would listen.One day, he decided to take a walk through NDSU's campus to clear his head. On a whim, he dropped by the Department of Human Development and Education. He asked the woman at the front desk if the department happened to offer an education doctorate.
Why yes, she said. We just started one last year.
He became one of the first students admitted into the program.
'Dr. Udoh,' at last
Barb Zacher's home is a modest, blue-and-white bungalow with Cape Cod touches. Blue shutters frame the windows, and two dormer windows -- which belong to Udoh's attic room -- jut out from the roofline. She loves to garden. The brick flowerbeds in front of her house are meticulous. Rose bushes -- which produce heavy, red blooms as the summer progresses -- flank the front steps.
The red flowers give Zacher's house a patriotic touch. That's no accident. She hangs an American flag outside every day, unless it's raining or snowing. Today, on Udoh's graduation, she's tied red, white and blue ribbons on the yard lights. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
The house is packed with well wishers, here to help celebrate Udoh's big day. A professional couple from Dickinson, N.D. An antiquarian -- that's a collector of rare books -- from Winnipeg. Even Udoh's younger sister Esther, who attends nursing school in Detroit, has made the trip.
The antiquarian, a bearded man named Jim Anderson, speculates why Udoh touches so many lives. "He is charismatic. He attracts people. I wouldn't say he's Christ-like, but he's accessibly humanitarian. He seems above the small things in life. It's more of a moral code. He works tremendously hard at humanitarianism, even though he's not endowed with fabulous wealth."
A priest friend snaps pictures of Udoh in the crowded family room, which is decorated with family photos and religious memorabilia. Guests squeeze around a table packed with deviled eggs, cold cuts, cut up fruit and sandwiches. A very large cake, edged in green frosting, reads: "Congratulations Dr. Isidore Udoh."
Zacher is front and center, beaming and imploring people to eat. "I'm the momma," she announces. "When they said, 'Parents stand up,' at the graduation, I was right there."
Udoh still wears the gold, green and blue hood of the doctoral student. He jokes he'll sleep in it that night. He has every right to be proud. He finished the three-year program in two years, often studying until 4 in the morning to do so. He has already been chosen by Columbia University to work as a postdoctoral fellow at its HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies. And he is the first person in his village to get a doctoral degree. When Udoh called his mother to share his achievement, she wept with joy.
Today's guest list also includes his professors. His adviser Ronald Stammen sees great things for his advisee. Scholastically, Udoh has it all -- intelligence, focus, a worldly perspective. Many international students are outstanding scholars, Stammen says. But some who come from rigid, authoritarian school systems struggle with the self-directed flexibility of the Western graduate degree. Udoh thrived. Other students came to him for help on the best and most efficient way to study.
Stammen also believes Udoh's determination to fights AIDS is more than naive idealism. He points to the young man's incredible drive, his unflagging work ethic, his understanding of Nigerian culture. Columbia's faculty interviewed noticed it, too. Udoh has the intellectual gifts and the training, but he is no data-spewing wonk. He is warm and genuine and people want to talk to him. Such virtues could come in handy for a field researcher who might interview anyone from a New York street junkie to an African tribal chief.
Udoh himself speaks enthusiastically of persuading his Columbia colleagues to do studies on the Niger Delta. He knows such work is just the beginning. Besides doing important research on AIDS, he talks of literacy programs and health centers in the Delta and countless other projects. He says it in a way that you believe him, and you want him to succeed. For Udoh doesn't want to be famous or powerful or rich. He just wants to make a difference for the people of the Niger Delta.