Josephine Osakwe

Transcript of Josephine Osakwe
Interviewee: Josephine Osakwe
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren
Place: Chicago, IL
Date: September 24, 2014
Transcriber: Dorothy Nygren
Time: 40:50

Copyright © 2014 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Today is September 24, 2014. I’m Dorothy Nygren of the Edgewater Historical Society with Howard Clauser. We’re at the home of Josephine Osakwe. Josephine has graciously agreed to do an interview regarding her life experiences. Josephine, we’ll start by asking you to say your name and what country you come from.

JO: My name is Josephine Osakwe and I’m from Nigeria.

DN: Josephine, could you tell us a little bit about your early childhood experiences; how many brothers and sisters you have; what city or village you came from in Nigeria; a little bit about your parents and playing with your brothers and sisters; going to school – those early remembrances that you have.


JO: Hmm. It was quite fun growing up in Nigeria. I was born in Lagos, which is the main city, the capital city at the time of Nigeria. I have five, no six, because we lost one. I have six sisters and a brother. Along the line we lost one. Now we are five girls and one boy. Or one male I should say because he is a man now.

My growing up years were fun, really fun. We have a very wonderful father who was a disciplinarian but really really loves his children. He brought us up the old school way. What I mean by the old school way is he’s a disciplinarian. He doesn’t accept children going out of line. He wants rules to be kept. You really strictly have to abide by his rules and regulations. He was such a loving father. He wanted the best for his children. He gave each and every one of us a sound education, though some decided not to pursue. But the ones that decided to pursue really came out wonderful. Right now the majority of us are graduates.


DN: What did your father do? What was his job?

JO: My father worked for the government most of the time. He was in the civil aviation, even though the government of Nigeria had to send him out to train in London. He was in London for awhile. When he got back to Nigeria he was instituted into a position that was called the Chief Fire Officer. So he was in charge of the firehouse, so when I see the firemen operating here, I say, “OK,” because that was my dad’s area of reign. He was a Chief Fire Officer until his last days on earth. And he was very good at what he did.

DN: And your mother? Was she a stay at home mother with all the children?

JO: Yeah, she was a stay at home mom. Although when we lost my dad, she had to take the bull by the horns and she started doing business and trading. She put her hands in a lot of pies just to see that her children graduated.

DN: How old was your father when you lost him?

JO: He was forty eight years old.

DN: Oh my. How old were you at the time?

JO: Now it’s telling. I was ten.

DN: That must have been very hard.

HC: Hard for the family?

JO: Very… It was hard for the family because he was the breadwinner. The wife was totally dependent on him; all the kids. When he left, it was…we had to do a lot of adjustments. Well, God solves a lot of challenges we faced; it’s true. It was all right.

DN: But your mother sounds like she was very enterprising and resourceful at managing.

JO: She was resourceful. She was…. The good thing was….I would say my father saw ahead….kind of…. So she was able to take some of the resources that were left behind. I would not like to get into details. She managed very very well. She used to bring up her kids and saw that they get a good education to the point she could. Where she could not go on, we the kids took over from there and we, on our own, managed to complete our university education and just pursue our lives.


DN: When Howard and I came we saw a beautiful photograph of you in a wig. Could you tell us a little bit about that aspect of your professional career?

JO: OK. That photograph is me being called to the bar. I took it in the full legal regalia, which is demanded of every lawyer in Nigeria. You cannot go to court and appear before the judge without being robed. We called it “being robed.” It consists of a wig, a black gown, and a bib, because our legal system is patterned after the British legal system. That is the way the lawyers appear in court. [in Nigeria] We just took after that pattern. My profession…. I so much love that profession. I have a strong deep rooted passion for rights. Even as a young kid, I fight for other peoples’ rights. I mean, not even mine. It’s always been in me. I hate being cheated. I hate being brushed aside when it comes to issues of my rights although right now I’m more refined about some things than I was as a young kid.


What I’m trying to say is this: when you go out of your way to fight for other people…. It’s not fair what you did to that person; it’s not fair how you are dressed up. I mean it’s something that gets to me. I feel OK [I need to step in]. It’s just a profession I wanted to go into. I just made up my mind I was going to be a lawyer. As I kid I was going all over the place with that in mind. The realization that it was going to happen never ever dawned on me until I saw myself being called to the bar. I was called to the Nigerian bar in January of 2001. I have been a lawyer ever since. Before coming to the U.S., I loved working as a legal practitioner. I was into the general practice of the law. At that point in time I went into my passion, which is a criminal aspect of law.


What made me go into that aspect of law is this. I go to a church where I am in the legal department of the church. So we do pro bono work. Pro bono means gratis. You don’t get paid. It is volunteer work. We are preaching that people need to be given a second chance. The criminal justice system in Nigeria needs a lot of overhauling. There are people that are in there, behind bars, in incarceration not because they deserve to be…. Some deserve to be. Don’t get me wrong, but some are there because they don’t have anybody to fight their legal issues, their legal battles. Some of them come with the kind of offense that you would require them to pay a fine, probably a meager fine of five hundred naira. If converted, it’s probably ten dollars or less here, probably. You find them in incarceration. There’s no one to fight their legal battle. So for them, I have a yearning; my heart goes out to them.

Because my church is interested in this kind of scenario and helping out people who actually committed an offense, and people who did not commit an offense, or find themselves there, or people who do not have anyone to help them fight their legal battles, they set up the legal department [for these various categories]. Now my charge [as head of the legal department] is to and to send those lawyers out. We go to the prisons. There are about three different kinds of prisons then in Lagos, Nigeria. We interview the proposed clients, the potential clients. We interview them; get to know how they got in there. And then at the end of the day, we see the ones we can really sift out and represent in court. Okay, like these people are worthy to be represented. We take up these matters and then we just represent them. I can say we’ve had probably 75-80% success stories of those we have represented that their case got dismissed; they got released from incarceration. All their cases just got completely thrown out of court for non prosecution. You’d be shocked at how many people are in there like that.


DN: I think there are a lot of social justice issues with people that don’t have access to money or education, that don’t know what to do when they get caught up in the system like that…

JO: Absolutely.

DN: …and it’s really great for me to be interviewing you because of your passion for this.

JO: Thank you.

DN: Could you tell us what motivated you to come to the United States?


JO: My motivation first and foremost [was] I wanted to go further with my education. I wanted to have a Masters. My dream has always been either go to the U.K. or go to the U.S. But what prompted the U.S. journey was I applied for a visa. I got a two years visa. I thought, “I haven’t seen my brother for a long time.” My brother is in the U.S. He’s in Atlanta, Georgia. He used to live in Chicago. So we have a strong appreciation for Chicago. We’ve spoken on the phone. We’ve talked all the time. But I’ve not seen him physically for a long long time. The last time I saw him was… I think about fifteen years from the time I saw him again until I came to the U.S. So I thought I better take this opportunity to do this. That was what started the ball rolling. I got into the U.S. I saw my brother and that was….Okay. I want to go to school. I want to work. One thing led to the other and that was it.

DN: So you came on an education visa?

JO: No. I came on a visitor’s visa and I saw my brother. We were together for about two months. I came to Chicago and you know how things roll. Before you know it, I had met somebody and within that period of time got married. And it was one thing after the other and one thing led to another and that was it.

DN: So you went to Georgia in what year?


JO: I came into the U.S. in 2007, March.

DN: So are you still on a visa now, or are you…?

JO: No, I became a resident.

DN: A resident now? When you first came to the U.S. from Nigeria, could you describe a little bit about coming from Nigeria and your experiences in the U. S.? Did things seem strange or uncomfortable when you first came here?

JO: Well I have a friend who was coming here for a long time and then I had my brother who also prepared me. And of course I’ve read a lot [about the U.S.]. But coming into the U. S., I had my mind prepared. I came….I think when winter was just going to wrap up, because it was the first of March. I went with my friend to the United Nations. When I came into the U. S. there was this program going on in the United Nations which we signed up for. It’s called C.S.W, Commission on the Status of Women, at the United Nations. It was supposed to run about two weeks or so. We came into New York, because my friend’s mom stays in New York. She was a resident. I think she must be a citizen by now, but then a resident. So we stayed with her because New York is very close to the United Nations and my friend’s mom was staying in Brooklyn. So we attended the program. It was two weeks and I think we stayed about a week and a half in her house. By the time the program was wrapping up…. We didn’t stay for the last four or five days. I thought, “Look! I have to go to Georgia because I have to see my brother.” But the program was very amazing. It was based on the status of women all over the world. It’s something we engaged in and we really participated in. We brought our own little input about what we know to be the status of women in Nigeria and all that.


So coming into New York, I was already prepared, because that’s your question; prepared for the weather; prepared how to dress. I brought some thick sweaters that I thought would cut the cold. But I was in for a shock about how cold it really was, because the sweaters I brought in did nothing for the cold. My friend’s mother had to borrow me a coat with my sweaters. I was putting on both because it was my first visit. No matter the preparation, it did not prepare me enough for what I found on the ground [weather wise] for what I experienced when I came into the U.S.

DN: Are you involved in women issues too besides the social justice issues? Are you interested in women issues too?

JO: Generally I am interested in human rights. In fact that’s what I went to DePaul [University] to study; human rights generally; international human rights. Human rights that have to go with gender, that’s gender based; human rights that are politically based, and then human rights generally. Everything about human rights gets my passion, because going to the prisons to interview inmates, it’s also about their rights; how their rights are violated, what rights were actually violated. Are they in the right or in the wrong? Can it be ameliorated? Can we get them out? The sentence they got, was it the kind of sentence that suits the kind of offense they committed? Did they actually commit that offense? Can it be proven that they committed that offense? Did they get a good and sound trail? We don’t have a jury system [in Nigeria]. Did they get a good and sound representation in court? Or did they not get any at all? Was due process followed? So those are those issues that drive us to go and do that. Going to the United Nations for the status of women program is part of what we do. When I say “we”, I belong to about four human rights organizations. I belong to the Christian Lawyers Fellowship of Nigeria [CLASDON]; they also fight for human rights. I belong to the African Women Lawyers Association, Nigerian Bar Association, Ikeja chapter. I was affiliated to Women Consortium. These are organizations that in their own different ways fight for the rights of people in incarceration, for abused women and children and other human rights violation issues, for most of those organizations are for women.

DN: Because as individuals we can do something, but as a collective group we can do much more. When did you come to Edgewater, and why did you come here?


JO: Okay. I used to live in Rogers Park. I left Rogers Park because I got separated from my ex. And I thought I didn’t want to stay in Rogers Park anymore. Besides I didn’t think ahead I’m going to come to Edgewater, because I didn’t know there was any place like Edgewater. I was so green about Chicago then. I just felt I needed to go get an apartment, to look for a cheap place, so to say, a less expensive place that I would be able to afford. I started my apartment hunting on Sheridan. The first place I actually stayed was on Carmen. I stayed there a year. It was too expensive. I got introduced to that apartment by my pastor. I stayed there a year and I thought, “Oh my God, this is too expensive. I cannot afford it. I need to get out.” So when my lease expired, I decided to start looking for another apartment. As God would have it, I was on the train one day heading for the Loop and I saw this apartment building and I saw this huge phone number and sign, “If you want an affordable apartment, call. “ So I wrote it down and I called them. Of course I had told my pastor, ‘I’m apartment hunting,” because I want a less paying apartment, I mean cheaper. The wife gave me the same number. I said, “This is the same number I called.” She said, “Go ahead.” So I set up an appointment with them. I met the building manager. She interviewed me. I came in and she showed me and it was really really cheap compared to my former place, unbelievably cheap. I felt I don’t have lots of money to pay for a very expensive apartment for one year. In the interim I had to stay with a co- worker for two months who was so magnanimous to allow me to stay. I got this place. I started with a studio. I stayed there for three years long and I told them, “I wanted a bigger place.” What I had in mind was… I am so prudent….to get a bigger place; get a roommate to split the rent to make it cheaper. But the one bedroom were all gone. The manager put me on the waiting list. Last year she came back. She said ‘You know what? There’s a one bedroom open if you still want it.” “I still want it,” because I was still trying to cut down expenses. I got it.

DN: It’s lovely. Do you think there’s very much difference, aside from the cost of housing, between Edgewater and Rogers Park? Especially in regard to the diversity of the people, or are they the same? I mean, in Edgewater you have a huge diversity of people.

HC: Just tell us about the differences that you see?


JO: Well, in Edgewater, I think…. Do I see much difference? Yeah, I do. In Rogers Park, it’s kind a very closed community, like people are more reserved into themselves. The outgoingness I see in Edgewater I don’t see in Rogers Park, although I only stayed there a year and a couple of months. Here in Edgewater, I think the people are more outgoing. They got out of their way to make friends. In Edgewater no, [she means Rogers Park], I don’t see that kind of friendliness that I see here. But generally I just want to say that people are the same. People are people, but not totally. I have stayed here long enough to determine that there are differences. There is this gayness around here. There is always a festivity or one thing or other going on around in. But in Edgewater [Rogers Park] I don’t believe that. Sorry in Rogers Park, you know, it’s not like that.

DN: Not so lively?

JO: Not so lively. And I think that. I don’t have the statistics through. And I want to say that probably the older folks live there.

DN: No, we’re just asking for your opinion and that’s great. I also wanted to ask you: you’ve been here for a number of years, but for the most part you’ve grown up in Nigeria. Now do you feel like your identity is as a Nigerian or do you feel you are more like an American now, or do you feel like both? Do you want to go back to Nigeria or do you feel like you want to stay here? What’s your feeling of identity right now?


JO: Well right now I want to say I’m a Nigerian. But I’m transitioning to being an American. First of all I have to have the transition up here, in my mind. Because I see that it’s a whole different ball game here. People have a different cultural background. We are from different settings culturally. Our values are not the same. The values I grew up with, I don’t see here. Because I cannot say here I am among African [values]. The values here are those of the white man.

DN: Could you say what are important values from Nigeria that you think are very important?


JO: One of the important values that I hold very dear is respect. In Nigeria we believe a child is not brought up by just the parents. The child is brought up by the community. Now during my growing up years, if I want to be outdoors as a young girl, probably 7 pm, and if grown up neighbors or my mom’s friends; she’s not my mom biologically but I see her as my mom, she will want to know what I’m doing outside at that time of the day. They (the older folks in the community setting) are very strict. At that time of the day, you have to explain yourself. How come you are out there at this time of the day? What are you doing? And you must have a very concrete explanation, or else you are going to be in trouble. In growing up, we have friends that are male, not boyfriends, but just friends that are male. And if you are talking to them just by the side of the street, “Oh really, who is that?” They want to know. So you, on your own part, you are left to explain if that person is a classmate or if there are strings attached, you understand. People take it upon themselves to look after and watch out for the children of other people.


On the issue of respect, children growing up, you cannot afford not to respect your elders. That respect must be there. When I wasn’t driving, I was always on the train or the bus. I see young people sitting down and then old people standing. I get up from my seat to offer the elderly people a seat. Some take it from me. Some decline. They tell me, “Oh, I am just getting off at the next stop.” But I offer it anyway. I see young people sit down with all the impunity, like “Who cares? The old people are holding on to the back of the seat, shaking while the bus is going along, trying not to fall, and the young people don’t care. In my society, where I’m coming from, that is just not acceptable.


HC: What are some other differences?

JO: Well there are other differences like the fashion. Some fashions are just outrageous. There are things your parents would not see you in. That is why when I start talking, I said I was brought up the old school way. They just won’t see you in such revealing stuff. And I know it’s become so acceptable these days. Nobody bats an eyelid at those kinds of dresses any more. But back then the reverse was the case. That is the way I was brought up. I am trying to remember (more differences), but nothing is jumping out at me right now.

And then (another difference is) the manner of speaking, the approach. I was on the phone the other day and I was trying to pay a bill. The lady, probably a young lady from the tone of her voice, was saying, “Hey you.” I said, “Excuse me. My name is Josephine. I’m not even asking you to call me Lady Josephine. My name is Josephine. Don’t “Hey” me. I’m not a pet or a dog. Respect is reciprocal. In all our discussions so far, I have addressed you with the upmost respect and I deserve the same thing.” At that point I guess it dawned on her. I said, “If you are getting angry, keep it in. Be professional, but also be respectful.” I see that on the street. Young people just don’t know how to talk back to you. It doesn’t matter to them. I must say this does not happen back home. But there’s a cautionary issue that goes into effect here. You want to be careful because of ‘rights’. You have no right to talk to my kid like that. Rights, here and over there, are very different.


DN: Are there other differences you can think of in terms of values? People here seem so fast and so enamored of consumer goods.

JO: When it comes to that, it’s the same thing. A lot of things I don’t know despite being in the U. S. My nieces and nephews, my sister’s kids, were asking me the other day, “Hey auntie, are you on WazApp?” I said, “What’s WazApp?” Here in America? I don’t know a lot of stuff like that?” So she started explaining to me that WazApp is a kind of application on your phone that you can use to send photos, video and whatever. I said, “Ok. I’ll get it,” because they kept talking about it over and over again. I’m here. But they are far ahead. You won’t believe it. China has brought in so much to the African countries that technologically the youth are getting things like that ahead of we that are here. So there are a lot of things the teenagers don’t have in the U.S. that the teenagers in Africa have already.

DN: That’s very interesting. I’d like to get back to fashion because you have on the most beautiful dress. Can you talk a little bit about the traditional dress of Nigerian women and the importance of that?


JO: We hold traditional dress in very high value. We hold it in high esteem. But I have to tell you we don’t always do traditional. If you go to Nigeria you will probably find most of the ladies dressing like the ladies here; in short gowns, jeans and whatever. But when when it comes to special occasions; those occasions are like weddings, the Christening ceremony, which we call Naming ceremony, graduation, what else, an artist ceremony, at a birthday party… you find a lot of the ladies and the men dressed to the nines with a traditional outfit because some of those occasions are kind of, shall I call it historic… something that goes down (in your family history). You don’t want to lose out on what you put on. You want it to be on record that you are dressed to the nines. So people take advantage of those kinds of ceremony to wear traditional outfits. Now going to church on Sunday some people would wear a traditional outfit rather than the Western fashion, because it’s the one day of the week when you are able to rest and go out to worship and you just want to be in your element if you feel like it. So the time to really show up in your traditional wear is festive occasions, like I’ve just mentioned; or the celebration at the end of the year, or the New Year. So people really want to put on because they are not everyday things. A lot of people don’t put it on every day. Once you get the opportunity, you really want to go all out and flaunt it like we Africans do in the U.S.


DN: Does your hat have any significance as part of the costume, because I know in other countries, for example, in China there is the traditional costume the women will wear, but they don’t wear the hat. And the hat is so beautiful.

JO: Thank you. It’s not really a hat. It’s head gear, [gele] because I wrap it up. It’s just a strip of material, but I fold it into this. If you look at that photo on the wall over there, I have something similar, but in a different way. So the head gear, we believe, completes a traditional outfit. When you don’t have the head gear on, it’s as though your outfit is not complete. A lot of people, a lot of Nigerian ladies, African ladies will put on the traditional outfit and then the head gear to go with it to complement it. And then the accessories, being the shoes, the bag, the necklace that would complement the head gear. It could be a contrasting color. So they bring in their own fashion sense in that way. And there are different types of traditional outfit. We have the buba and the iro, that’s from the Yoruba speaking part of Nigeria. And it’s so common now all over Nigeria. The three main tribes in Nigeria are the Yoruba, the Igbo and the Hausa. They all wear the buba and iro at one occasion or the other. What I’m putting on right now is Senegalese attire. It was made in Senegal. It was made of Nigerian fabric, but it was made by Senegalese tailors. They put it together.

HC: Is the design of the dress Nigerian, or is it Senegalese, or is it a combination? For example, I’m looking at the embroidery on the front. I’m looking at the ends of the sleeves, as well as the bottom of the dress, it’s not a straight hem all around. And also I’m looking at all the things that are so unique; the yellow shapes on the front of the dress. Is that Senegalese? Is that Nigerian? Where does that come from?

JO: The designs on the clothes? All Senegalese. But the material itself is from Nigeria. A lot of people buy the printed materials. They call it Ankara, but it actually means a cotton material that has been painted on with different designs. So what they do is to buy the materials in Nigeria and then take it over to Senegal, where there are very fast tailors. And then those tailors design and sew these outfits and they bring it back to Nigeria to sell as a finished product. So the material itself is Nigerian, but the design in Senegal.

DN: Now did you get that in Nigeria or did you order that when you were there?

JO: Oh, my sister does the business so she sent one to me.

DN: Oh that’s very close. Do you see your future as being here or going back to Nigeria?


JO : Well at this point I’m very open to whatever God has for me. I’m a strong believer in God’s plan and destination. There are things he wants you to do that you might think you don’t know much about. But in time it unfolds and it becomes clearer. Right now, I enjoy being in the [United] States. But I see myself going back actually because when I went to DePaul they asked me stuff like that and I wrote on a paper on that subject matter for them. I want to go back and teach in a higher institution. I want to impart some of my knowledge to the young and upcoming. Again I want to have a firm; a law firm that could operate here as well as in Nigeria. Those are my dreams. If the hand of destiny says it will be, it will.


DN: In the meantime, do you feel at home in Edgewater?

JO: Absolutely. Absolutely, I do.

DN: Now Josephine, this is your story. So we’ve covered a lot of different questions. Is there anything else you’d like to share that we haven’t asked you?

JO: Yes, I actually enjoy living in Edgewater. When I first moved in, I saw the Chase downstairs and I said, “Wow. The bank is right next to me.” And then I walked down the street one day, one Bryn Mawr, I actually counted the restaurants, the eating places. I think there were eight or nine. But I think there are now probably ten. And I’m fascinated.


As if that isn’t enough, right downstairs right in the building where I’m staying, there’s a store where I can get some favorite groceries. I like the grocery store. Sometimes I get little African stuffs from there, and I’m “OK. Great.” I love plantains and they have plantains there. So I can shop; I can do my banking; I can enter a restaurant when I don’t feel like cooking and I’m still within the vicinity of where I live. And that really got me. Maybe that’s the reason I’m still here. I don’t feel like moving. I don’t know if I’ll be moving in a long while.

DN: Well we’re very happy that you’re here and that you gave us an opportunity to have this interview. Howard do you have any ….?

HC: …No. Yes thank you so much.

DN: It’s been really lovely.

JO: You’re welcome.