His Life

Chapter 6 - Cleveland


Abide With Me, Fast Falls the Eventide

Joseph’s journey became reflective of the older adult experience in his adopted country.  The caregiver now needed care and his wife still needed care as well.  Services to support them in their home in Maryland were not easily accessible or easily monitored by their children.  Doctor appointments were harder with his reduced mobility and his two youngest children were finding it harder to be caregivers – Joseph now needed 24 hour monitoring.  He was having trouble identifying where he was and how to find anything.

So Joseph and Faith moved back to the state where they had spent many summer vacations in their younger married life visiting Faith’s family.  They moved to Cleveland, Ohio to be close to their oldest child – a daughter. 

While in assisted living Joseph’s physical needs – meals, laundry and medication – were met.  His Ohio family made sure he went to various doctors (over 8 of them!) regularly.  But his dementia was progressing rapidly.  Since he could not communicate when he was in pain or discomfort, he was regularly in and out of emergency wards for treatment.  And after a week’s stay in a hospital he would be even more disoriented – away from the familiar and unable to maintain a schedule.

Even in this environment, there were glimpses of Joseph’s essence.  He began to watch TV in the assisted living lounge and listened attentively to resident’s problems.  He could not respond as he used to, but he could look attentive and wise and this drew people to him!  Even during his gerieatric assessment, he tried to comment on the state of aging.  After continuous prodding:  “Are you happy?” “Are you happy?” “Are you happy?”  Joseph finally responded:  “Are YOU happy?   I cannot tell what happy is.  You tell me how I should be happy.”  And above all, despite glaucoma and memory loss, he was still a reader.

Joseph’s last emergency visit did not end well.  He was happy to go home but on the way home he blacked out.  He was then taken to a different trauma 3 emergency room in the closing urban hospital of Huron Road in East Cleveland.  He spent 3 days in ICU and 4 days in a recovery ward.  And it became apparent that without intervention, his blood pressure would drop, and there was no solution modern medicine could find to identify and solve what was happening.  The team at Huron Road was absolutely amazing.  Nurses, doctors, technicians went out of their way to support Mr. Joseph and his family.  They were clear about what they could do, and what could not be done.  It became apparent that interventions to keep Joseph with his loved ones were taking a toll on his body and on his spirit.

Joseph’s last trip was to Hospice of the Western Reserve.  His family held on to hope that he would stabilize and graduate to go home soon.  It was not to be.  Joseph spent his time from his bed outside his room staring at the horizon.  The Hospice team allowed the family privacy and respectfully showed them how to share in Joseph’s care.  They shared information as needed about end of life signs.  Joseph slowly withdrew from communication with his family.  On his own terms, he started his final journey without them.  On August 9 at 9:08PM, held by his children, in the midst of a big storm, Joseph went home.

His children said, “It makes sense that there was thunder when Daddy left us, there is one more trouble maker in heaven.”  A tribute to his refusal to accept status quo.

His grandchildren said:  “It’s ok.  Grandpa will see his mother and father.  He will be happy.”  A tribute to his love of family.

His wife said:  “It was his time.”  Even the fighter knew when to turn away.

Join us in wishing Joseph a good journey home.  He made so many trips in his life, but this one he makes alone.  We believe his spirit has journeyed to heaven and his physical body is going to his childhood home.  But as always he goes with God.


Chapter 5 - Hyattsville


Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me...

Joseph’s time in Maryland again was very different than his last stay.

He became a full time caregiver for his family, and faced with his age and need for schedule flexibility, he ended up as a pizza delivery person.  His family has seen him as a professional, a farmer and small business man, and now they would see him apply the same work ethic and community nurturing to his fast food family.  He made friends, gave advice and could always be there for his wife.

His younger children tell of many times he came home and said, “I was held up at gun point today.  And again I said take the money, this is not worth fighting for.”  He was teaching them that even a fighter knew when to back away.

Joseph took this time to take on a wider ethical international battle.  He felt that progress was eroding the traditional values of respect, collaboration and learning that drove so many older cultures.  He saw through his unique lens as a common man that the lessons of feudalism, capitalism, socialism and democracy were not being leveraged in developing countries.  He flet strongly that a new dynamic social development process needed to emerge before African countries could be equal players on a national stage.

In his commitments to his church at St. John’s in Mt. Rainier Maryland, in the founding of an Igbo church in the Maryland area, in his continued support of the Anambra Association, he tirelessly talked and looked for evidence of new thoughts and actions among associates and individuals.  More often than not, he was disappointed.

He was uplifted by the support and inspiration that allowed him to write and publish two books:  Towards a Dynamic Social Development (1990) and Philosophy of Balanced Reasoning (2001).  In much part a self taught man, Joseph would always believe in the power of words.  As “onyenkuzi” to his children, extended family and anyone who would listen, he constantly pointed out that reason and action should be reflective.  He himself had a quick temper and used his sometimes quick actions as what could be the result of imbalance between reason and action.

During this time in the DC area, he visited home several times.  The last two were in the company of his sons and his wife.  His second son accompanied him on a trip to see his new house in Ihiala.  This was an important trip for Joseph since he wanted to instill pride of origin in his children and especially in his sons. His last trip to Nigeria was perhaps his most important.  Accompanied by his oldest son, at some level Joseph knew it would be his last trip home.  It was a symbolic passing of the torch from one oldest son to another.  After he came home to the US, he was to say quietly to his children: “I am here but make sure you bury me in Ihiala.”

Joseph was a serious man.  He was shaped by the loss of his parents at an early age.  The loss of beloved sisters taken too young.  The loss of his whole family age group, lost in an explosion during the Biafran civil war.  He took his role as caregiver, husband and father very seriously and rarely laughed.  But his grandchildren did and could make him laugh.

Chapter 4 - Ihiala and Enugu

Ride On! Ride On in Majesty!

In early 1977, Joseph received news from home that his sister Emily was very ill.  He saw this as a sign that it was time to return home and take care of his two families at once.  His sisters Emily and Dada Rhoda were farming the family land, taking care of the family compound while each raising two children of their own.  Joseph felt it was time to take his education and family back to Ihiala.

Joseph and Faith packed up everything, sold everything, said good-bye to Faith’s family and “went home.”  After they arrived, Joseph soon determined that like many small farms, his poultry and piggery needed additional resources before it would produce the kind of return that could be possible.  He and Faith began to look for work in the Ihiala area.

Two things became apparent.  The farm needed Joseph to be present 100% in a managerial and labor capacity.  And there was no laboratory or research work for Faith in Ihiala.  The net was cast wider to the nearest large city – Enugu – at that time capital of Anambra State.  Faith found work at University Teaching Hospital (UNTH) and the family now had two residences. 

Joseph resided during the week in Ihiala with his sisters and two oldest children and was a farmer fulltime.  Right after the weekend, he would be in Enugu for a couple of days to be with his wife and youngest son; and represent and advocate for Ihiala at the Poultry Association of Nigeria and the Water Board.

Eventually, the two older children moved to Enugu for better high schools and the family was joined by another child - a girl.  This was the only one of Joseph’s children to be born in Nigeria.

As the years past, Nigeria was wracked by democratic unrest, rising inflation and general unrest.   Joseph found it hard to maintain his stock and meet orders for product with embargo’s and constant government intervention.  He fought hard to communicate the importance of the small business owner in a growing economy.  He wrote editorials, letters and in no way kept his opinion to himself.  He welcomed references to himself as a trouble maker.  His view was that he had God and his family; he would never pull back from pointing out illegal activities.  Joseph prided himself as an African who never took or offered a bribe. 

Joseph’s trademark was well known in the circles where he served as an advocate for small business and family farms – locally, on a state level and nationally.  When he took off his glasses, and started with the phrase “Actually speaking…”, he was going to point out some issue that everyone would rather not talk about.  Joseph could not compromise if he felt the issue at hand was immoral or illegal.  He answered only to God.

Joseph left Nigeria to support the two things that always took precedence.  He was confident that he went with God no matter how and where he travelled.  He returned to the United States to get better care for his wife, who had a chronic and now life long illness and to get the best education for his children.  He had examined the health care system and high education system in Nigeria and because of student and worker unrest, he found them wanting.

He and his family took up residence in Prince Georges County, Maryland.

Chapter 3 - Washington DC and Maryland

My Song is Love Unknown, My Saviors Love for Me…

Joseph graduated from Oberlin in 1963. He moved to Washington DC to work on a Masters in International Affairs and one exam short of a degree (he had trouble passing the French multiple choice), he took a paid teaching position at Michigan State teaching Igbo to Peace Corp Workers. At that time, Michigan also had a partnership with the University of Nssuka in Nssuka Nigeria. Hoping this might be an avenue to get home, Joseph returned to the cold Midwest. However, he was disillusioned when the administration made it known that they wanted him to make tapes so that an existing, tenured professor could teach using his tapes.
Amongst this first of many of Joseph’s career battles for equality, he met his life partner. It started out very practically. Faith and Joseph were both coming off of relationships that were not going anywhere, and they wanted company. Their first dates were meals. Faith was grateful to have someone who always wanted to go out for a meal (she was literally a starving graduate student), and Joseph was impressed that Faith always cleared her plate. They enjoyed each other’s company so much; Joseph volunteered to teach her to cook Nigerian meals. On the day Joseph learned he finally passed his French exam, he had a diamond ring in his pocket. Faith said yes!
It is worth noting that Faith’s family was more progressive than most. Their only objection to what at the time might seem risky – Marriages across different races was illegal in 16 states in 1966, until in 1967 the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Loving v. Virginia that anti-miscegenation laws are unconstitutional – was that the couple had no money. Faith’s father wanted the couple to wait until they had at least $5,000 in a joint bank account and commented he would not pay for a wedding until that was done.
He miscalculated Joseph’s determination and Faith’s commitment. They both moved to Washington, living together to save money (scandalous in those days) and paid for their own wedding. Faith’s father was absent, and they could not post banns in their home church for fear of reprisals. They could not have married in Maryland – it would still be illegal to perform a mixed race marriage in Maryland until 1967. Joseph said later that his family had very little reaction. He was in his late 30’s and they were pleased at the prospect of a family, finally.
And finally in short order a family came. Adaora, Jide and Chika were born during these years. Joseph did not give them English names. He knew he would be going home and he wanted these children to be proud of their mixed heritage.
In Washington, Joseph was active in founding and serving the Nigerian and Igbo community in the region, starting the Anambra State Association and sponsoring many new students coming to get their education in the United States. His doors were open and during these years many students called his home their home.
He worked first as a Financial Advisor to the National Planning Organization in DC and then in a similar capacity for Prince Georges County. But he continued to think about linking his education and planning capacity with his farming roots. In his home in Maryland, he planted tomatoes, corn, kale, peanuts, potatoes and zucchini; constantly experimenting for more yield in the next year.

Chapter 2 - Oberlin

Praise my Soul the King of Heaven...

Joseph left for Oberlin in 1959 from his home country and village. It would be 13 years and a civil war later until he would be able to visit.
At Oberlin he made lifelong friends through his now mentor Dr. David Anderson and his family and other new families. He remembered that his social center was Christ Episcopal Church. Never one to hold back an opinion, Joseph felt nourished and supported in his Oberlin community. He was still a hard worker – with a steady job on building and grounds during breaks and weekends.
He remembered being taken aback by the free spirit of students. Some of the students in his dorm left cider out for a week to ferment. Oberlin was a dry town. His house mother, the late Doris Morton merely chuckled as she made them throw it away. Joseph adopted some of this free spirit and joined the school’s soccer team. He quickly became a player of note and just as quickly his grades began to drop. He remembered his father and all the people relying on him. 
He only played college soccer for one school quarter at Oberlin. His wife Faith recalls that at his 40th college reunion, some alumni still remembered him as the soccer player.

Chapter 1 - Ihiala

When Morning Gilds the Skies, My Heart Awakening Cries: May Jesus Christ be Praised.

Joseph Okechuku Nzelibe was born between 1921 and 1929 in the Igbo village of Ihiala in eastern Nigeria, West Africa. He was baptized on May 10, 1929.   He was from a loving family of entrepreneurs. Joseph’s mother Mary was an accomplished seamstress and his father Ezekiel was an early adapter and visionary. Ezekiel determined that the future of his village and country would be determined by purveyors of education and religion and he saw value in both. As a founder of St. Silas Church, Ezekiel and his wife Mary adopted English names and took as a surname his father’s name Nzelibe.   They gave English names to their surviving children Rhoda, Emily, Fanny, Ruth and Joseph. When Mary died in childbirth when Joseph was approximately 5 years old, older sister Rhoda (or Dada as she was to be known) served as the children’s surrogate mother. Sisters Emily, Fanny (later Fanny Anozie) and Ruth were playmates and always spoiled and praised their baby brother.   After Joseph completed the 4th grade, Ezekiel sent him away from home to serve as a helper in various teachers’ households to continue his education. He was lonely but had begun to share his father’s belief in education so he worked hard. Once walking home at age 10, he saw his father and called to him. The man kept walking, so Joseph thought he was mistaken. When he got home, a man on a bicycle arrived to tell him his father had died suddenly. Joseph was later to say from this time on he believed that his father and the Lord would always be with him.   After his father died, Joseph continued to work towards an education. His sisters were his moral support and he worked hard in service to other families to earn money to pay for school and materials. His cousin, now the Ven. Prof.  Edmond Ilogu, was travelling abroad pursuing his own career and education and asked his friend and relative to keep an eye on his family while he was gone. On a visit to the United States, Ilogu heard of a scholarship to Oberlin through a new friend – a fellow priest and a professor at Oberlin College – Dr. David Anderson. Ilogu knew that his cousin had passed his General Certificate of Education and while he could look forward to a career teaching, he knew Joseph wanted more. When Ilogu told Joseph about the scholarship, he warned him that it did not include the funds to get to the United States. Joseph had been saving every penny, he had the money.