Former United States Ambassador to Nigeria, Walter Carrington, speaks about his personal life and devotion to advancement of human rights in America and Africa.
Can you relive your first visit to Nigeria?
Yes, when I first came to Nigeria in 1959, the year before independence, I came with a group of students on a programme called the Experiment in International Living. We lived with families all around the country. We lived with a family in Lagos, Ibadan, Port Harcourt, Enugu and Kaduna.
I remember that in Ibadan we went out to see this new university. I was absolutely impressed with it and was so proud to see such in an African country. It was such a modern structure and it impressed me very much. It was such a beautiful place. But when I returned about 40 years later, I remembered going off to Ibadan and driving on to the campus, and just seeing the place, I could not believe my eyes. Everything seemed to have fallen apart. Upkeep was poor, repairs not done. It disturbed me so much that this university that had been a source of joy was in great disrepair.
Then I went to visit the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan, very close to the university. There the grounds were well kept, it was just beautiful, and it looked like what the University of Ibadan should have looked like. There was no reason why there should have been that kind of mismanagement. It is just a waste of resources; I was very, very disappointed that I wept.
Isn’t it a coincidence that your wife studied at the same university?
Yes, she graduated from the University of Ibadan in the 80s. When we met and got married, I told her about what I saw before I met her. I usually teased her about what her university had become. In fact, we discuss it often. But I think that what happened to the university at that time was a metaphor of what was happening in the country generally. There was no culture of maintenance. A lot of money was being spent on all kinds of things, all kinds of structures but then, these were ill-maintained.
You served in the US Army, and studied law, which of those fueled the activism in you?
The United States Army enlistment was not a voluntary thing for me; I must clarify that. At that time in the US, they had to draft every able-bodied person into the Army including me. So when I finished from the law school, I was drafted into the army and I was there for two years. Then I started my law practice and was appointed by the governor as the commissioner of the Commission Against Discrimination, Massachusetts. By that appointment, I became the youngest commissioner the state ever had. I was 27 years old then. At the commission, we were in charge of enforcing laws against discrimination in housing, planning, education, and so on. It made me step on the toes of many powerful people. It was a very challenging but interesting duty for me.
How is it being the only surviving child of your parents?
It has been very touching. My parents had a boy and a girl. So I had a younger sister, but she is no more. I miss her very much. She was the person I have known all my life. I am her older brother by two years and she was always very supportive, she was an activist especially in the health field. She tried to fight for equality of health services, so that black people could get quality. She was very active in that and she stayed in our home town. I left her there and was gone for a long time. It is a great loss that she is no longer here with me.
You still keep tight schedule at 83?
I am very fortunate that I have my wife (pointing at Dr. Arese Carrington) here who has kept me healthy. She is a Medical Doctor and Public Health Consultant. She is currently the Vice President of Africana Consultants. She previously worked as the Associate Director of the Harvard School of Public Health’s AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria.
This is a woman who has done more for Nigeria than most people know about. From the Abacha days and always, she ensures that I do the right and healthy things to keep fit. When we were here as ambassador, she proved to be indispensable in my being able to do the things I did, for which people applaud me today. She was always encouraging me to go on.
Those Abacha days, when some Nigerian activists were thrown in the prisons, she went to visit their families, she was very outspoken and deserves a lot of credit for everything. I wouldn’t have been able to do all that I did without her.
How did you get hooked to your wife?
That is the most fortunate thing that happened to me. I met her during the very first diplomatic function that I attended when I came in as ambassador to Nigeria. Because when you arrive in a country as an ambassador, you are firstly restricted to your community until you present your credentials. So after I presented my credentials, I went to attend my first diplomatic function and saw this beautiful woman. I had gone there with a friend and I said to him, ‘did you see that girl.’ And the rest is history. It is true in my case, that most black Americans come to Africa to seek their heritage. I came and found my destiny.
Has anything about her ever turned you off?
No. Except that she is Nigerian and Nigerians are known for what they call ‘African Time’ but we black Americans also have what we call ‘Coloured People’s Time or CPT.’ Although, I don’t think it is as late as the African Time syndrome (speaking cynically). So that’s it.
How do you relax?
As a kid, I loved to watch horseracing and got very enthused whenever my mother took me to watch the race. I am still very interested in horses and that was my attraction to the Race Course here in Lagos in the 1950s. Talking about how I relax, I must say that I have never really felt stressed. For some people, travelling could be stressful, but I can relax with it, I love travelling. We watch movies, we read books, especially now, I read a lot of eBooks. I try to live as stress free as I can, even when something bad happens. It is one of my guiding principles in life.
I don’t allow things that are disturbing to stay on my mind. I insist on going to bed with a free mind, no troubles of any kind. That is a principle that I has kept all my life and that is why I can sleep anywhere and at anytime. I can sleep on the plane, on the train, anywhere. I can relax.
Looking back, do you feel fulfilled?
Yes, but I don’t think anyone has ever achieved all they wanted to. But you do what you can although the challenges are enormous. However, I feel fulfilled about the end of apartheid in South Africa, I feel fulfilled about the return of democracy to Nigeria, but there are still so many things that I wish I could still change around the world. So I am not going to sit back and watch. I am going to remain an activist for as long as I am physically able to. Youths must develop a sense of purpose early in life; they must stay guided by it so that eventually, it will give them a sense of fulfillment when they look back later in life.