A Nigerian academic and naturalized American citizen has written a book to advise his fellow immigrants in the United States about how to avoid divorce. Dr. Ernest Ndukwe says moving to the US from Africa often places great strain on a marriage. He’s done intensive research into the factors leading to the breakdown of Africans’ relationships in the United States. Dr. Ndukwe’s book offers reasons for what the academic describes as a “divorce plague” among his fellow African immigrants in the US. In the third part of a series on informative books by Africans, VOA takes a look at the publication, entitled Is Marriage Doomed in America?
With an academic background in geology and environmental studies, Dr. Ernest Ndukwe readily acknowledges that he isn’t a likely candidate to pen a book on divorce. Nevertheless, having himself endured a separation three years ago, and being convinced that the experience of being an immigrant to the US contributed greatly to the failure of his marriage, Ndukwe’s convinced he’s qualified to write on the subject.
“Thousands of books have been written about divorce,” says the part-time lecturer at various American academic institutions, “but during my research I realized that very few have been written about the unique stresses and strains that the marriages of immigrants – and especially Africans – suffer when they settle in the United States. I have tried to fill part of this gap.”
Ndukwe’s also a senior environmental quality analyst at the State of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. He arrived in the US in 1977 and married in 1999. The union ended six years later but produced three daughters. Ndukwe says they, and another daughter from a previous relationship, provided further motivation for his book.
“Right now, (my kids) are still very young, ranging from five to ten years old. I had to write this book because I wanted my children to know what happened. Eventually when they grow up and they’re able to read and understand, I wanted them to know what happened between me and their mother,” Ndukwe says, and then explains further, “When a four-year-old kid is saying ‘Dad, why don’t you love me?’ it really hurts. That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the book – not to attack their mother, but to try to explain that when people get divorced, it’s not because they don’t love their children. It’s because they themselves can no longer get along.”
Ndukwe, who grew up in the district of Onitsha in south-eastern Nigeria’s Anambra State, emphasizes repeatedly that he didn’t write the book in order to “take revenge” on his former spouse.
“I really have no bitterness…. I wrote the book not from a selfish point of view…. I wrote it in an attempt to make people understand the reasons why two people who are from other countries come to the US and then begin to grow apart, for various reasons. Immigrating to a new country, and adapting to a totally new culture, is very traumatic and sometimes marriages do not survive that trauma,” he reasons.
As regards divorce rates among immigrants in the US, and especially Africans, Ndukwe says the news is “not really very encouraging…. Their divorce rate is really increasing.”
Africans in US don’t have family support
Ndukwe says very few Africans are comfortable with discussing divorce, which is “highly stigmatized” across his home continent.
“Given the cultural background that I come from, divorce is not something that anyone really talks about. It’s very, very rare (in Africa),” he maintains. “Over there in Nigeria (and in many other parts of Africa), people will do just about anything possible to make sure that divorce doesn’t happen.”
Mostly, says Ndukwe, this “saving of collapsing relationships” is undertaken not by registered marriage counselors, as in the US, but by family members who “lend support and do their best to mediate between the spouses.”
But immigrants in America don’t have access to their extended families, and so he says “everything breaks down and divorce is often inevitable.”
Ndukwe knows what he’s speaking about. He has eight brothers and sisters and what he calls a “massive” extended family.
“Coming from such a large family is something that as an African I cherish. This is something that I value immensely, and it’s helped me through dark periods in my life, having the support of my brothers and sisters. But when my wife and I moved to the US, we could no longer count on this. This, I believe, was a major factor in the breakdown of our marriage.”
Ndukwe says divorce is “very easy” in the US, compared to Africa, and this also contributes towards rising incidences of official separation among immigrants in the US.
“In Africa, it takes a long time for someone to organize and go through a divorce. Over here, someone quickly runs to a lawyer, hands over money, and gets a piece of paper and next thing you know, you are in court and your family is breaking down.”
He explains further that the scenario in America, with both spouses often having to work in order to “just make basic ends meet,” also contributes to divorce among African immigrants in the US.
“You have the husband and the wife working, and they have to work so they can make a living to support their family. Many times the (immigrant) families don’t have the luxury for just one person to work. That creates a lot of pressure, a lot of stress, on the families,” he says.
“In Africa, the wife (mostly) stays at home, makes a home and looks after the kids…. Things are more stable, and marriages survive more.”
In the United States, the family unit is often forced to split up because of “necessity for economic survival,” Ndukwe says, and babysitters take care of small children until they’re ready to go to school.
“Africans find this situation very difficult to deal with, and they often think they are failing their family, and it leads to the parents fighting all the time and eventually divorcing,” he explains.
Greed and money
For his book, Ndukwe researched marriage and divorce among immigrants in the US from all parts of Africa, but says he “naturally” concentrated on Nigerians living here.
He says, “Based on what I studied, Nigeria has one of the highest divorce rates among all the immigrants in America.”
Ndukwe thinks Nigerians especially seem to “really mourn the loss of their culture and are really affected by it and their marriages deteriorate.”
But he also suggests other reasons for a particularly high rate of divorce among Nigerians in the United States.
“Money. Greed,” he states emphatically. He says Nigerians in particular seem “very attracted by the materialistic side of American culture…. They seem more mercenary than others, placing higher value on money.”
Nigerians in the US, Ndukwe asserts, are especially prone to falling into what he calls the “trap of materialism.”
“My research shows that greed is a major reason why immigrants divorce. In Africa, while materialism is definitely growing, it is not even close to what it is in America. Some Africans…are greedy. They take their eyes away from the essence of marriage, and they put their eyes on materialism and material things.”
Ndukwe also takes note of the “cultural habit” among African men living in the US returning to their home countries to marry someone there and then immediately returning with their new wives. This, he says, also “often results in marital problems” when the wife struggles to adapt to her new surroundings.
This is what happened with regard to his own marriage, Ndukwe acknowledges.
“We stay here (in America), and we go (back to Africa) and within a month or two or six months, we just marry somebody (there). The person doesn’t really know us, and we don’t know the person. That’s a major issue,” he explains.
The new arrivals in America, says Ndukwe, often struggle to adapt to a “totally foreign culture,” as well as having to become accustomed to married life.
“For many immigrants, there is an additional stress that has to do with getting used to the American culture – what is called ‘acculturation.’ That is a problem for many people.”
Africans show love through action… not words and flowers!
In elaborating on the phenomenon of acculturation, Ndukwe refers to the preface to his book, where he writes that the three words “I love you” are “very strange” to most Africans.
“When Africans first arrive here in the US, they are indeed struck by the fact that Americans seem to find it very easy to tell one another, ‘I love you,’” Ndukwe explains. “Growing up in Africa, people don’t go around saying, ‘I love you.’ In the African culture, love is not something you just talk about; it’s not something that you just say; it’s really meaningless (to talk about it). The most important thing is how you demonstrate that love: How you take care of yourself, how you take care of your children, how you take care of your family, how you take care of your parents.”
He says most African immigrants he spoke to for the purposes of his book are “amazed” at the great emphasis Americans seem to place on husbands often giving flowers to their wives.
“Again, this is one of those cultural differences. In Africa, I don’t see men giving women flowers all the time – maybe once in a while, like on Valentine’s Day, and that’s that. But here, giving flowers and things like that – and always saying ‘I love you’ – are big deals in relationships.”
As Ndukwe’s book explains, rifts are caused in many immigrants’ marriages in the US as a result of these cultural differences.
“Often, the wives expect the husbands to behave exactly like the American men, and the African men refuse to do so. The women then say their men don’t love them, and then the marriages suffer…. And before you know it, they are using those cultures to divide themselves. And they forget the culture from where they came….”
Just because most African men don’t often give their wives flowers and purr ‘I love you’ in their ears, Ndukwe asserts, that doesn’t mean they don’t love their women. “We just show our love in other ways, like providing for our partners,” he repeats.
He certainly advocates that immigrants in the US do their best to adapt to American culture but also urges them to retain the “positive parts” of their African heritage.
“Like I said in the book, I’m hoping that they don’t use those aspects that are not part of our culture to destroy their relationship. I just wish that couples coming from Africa will realize that they should take what is best from the American people, and from the American system, and take what is best from the Nigerian or from the African culture…. And meld them together to make their families grow.”
In his book, says Ndukwe, he stressed how important it is for Africans living in America to keep their ties to their home countries “through regular visits home,” and also to maintain their “self-esteem as Africans. Not by rejecting American culture; no. But by assimilating the positive aspects of both African and American culture.”
A strong theme running through the Nigerian academic’s book is a repudiation of violence against women.
“Unfortunately, some African men I have spoken with still seem to think it’s quite okay to use force against women; they think it’s their right as husbands, that their culture allows them to do it,” Ndukwe says.
He adds that while husbands who assault their wives back in Africa “more often than not” escape punishment, this is not the case in the US.
“Whereas you can get away in some African contexts with using violence against women, in the US you will not get away with it. You will be punished severely. This is of course how it should be, even throughout Africa. No matter how angry a woman makes a man, he should never lift his hands against her,” Ndukwe advises.
All through his book, he counsels battling spouses to do their best to treat one another with kindness and respect, “as difficult as it may be.”
He says, “It is bad enough divorcing, without having all the remorse attached to knowing that you were mean to the mother or father of your children.”