Nigerian earns Howard University doctorate at 73

The Nigerian Civil War undoubtedly leaves a sour taste in the mouth and bitter memories in the hearts of many who witnessed that unfortunate era in Nigeria’s nationhood.

But it also provides a window to see and learn invaluable lessons for the present and the future – for those who care to look closely enough and who are determined to make a change.

Florence Nwando Onwusi Didigu experienced the Civil War firsthand as a young lady of 23. She not only survived it, she lived with the memory, and today she has turned that experience to advantage and a fount of knowledge for others.

At 73, Ms Didigu has earned a doctorate from the prestigious Howard University, United States of America – reliving her Civil War experiences!

Her doctoral dissertation (which she hopes to turn into a book) to earn a Ph.D. in Communication, Culture and Media Studies, ‘Igbo Collective Memory of the Nigeria-Biafra War (1967-1970): Reclaiming Forgotten Women’s Voices and Building Peace through a Gendered Lens’, is a reflection of the Igbo women survivors of the war.

And it’s her fourth degree. Age is, indeed, nothing but a number.

Earning the doctorate was by no means a walk in the park for Didigu, though.

She says of the experience: “In my second year at Howard, and very close to my screening test, I lost my mother and my father within months. I had to return to Nigeria each time to perform the demanding burial ceremonies for each. I was completely deflated, both physically and emotionally, but I persevered because my father always wanted me to be a ‘Doctor’.”

She also battled shingles, which paralyzed the right side of her face, and she lost her voice.

“I was unable to speak clearly. This was the greatest tragedy of all, since I was teaching a sophomore research course! The day I started speaking again and was discharged from the hospital was a special life moment,” she recounted.

On the daunting task of earning a doctorate at that age, despite the many pressures, Didigu said: “The day the Nigeria-Biafra War ended, I, like everyone was wallowing in anxiety and fear about what would happen to us as the vanquished. A very optimistic gentleman came over to me and asked: ‘Why are you so sad; can’t you see you have survived this terrible war?’

“I stood up, even though the Nigerian Airforce was on its last bombing raid, and leapt up in the air in mad glee, repeating to myself and others: ‘Yes, I have survived, I am a survivor!’

“This powerful survival instinct in me, which I call daring, and God’s help are what made me overcome all personal challenges during my doctoral programme and get to where I am today!”

In reflecting on the end of the war, Didigu said that she was filled with “anxiety and fear” — until a stranger approached and reminded her that she had plenty to be happy about.

Florence, the eldest of five sisters, once worked as a producer and writer at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), as well as a broadcast regulator at the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC).

She plans to become a book author, continue research and scholarly writings, as well as mentor students to inspire and educate “the future generation that will move this discipline forward and tackle the communications-oriented challenges of the future.”

Didigu’s advisor and chair of the Communication, Culture and Media Studies doctoral programme, Carolyn Byerly, says “she embodies endurance and intellectual determination.”

Dr Byerly said of her: “I admire the way she delved inside the most painful period of her life to find the focus of her research on women, war and peace. While a personally-driven project, she maintained the highest level of integrity and never made the research outcome about herself.

“Florence received the Sasakawa Peace Foundation Fellowship in her last year to conduct interviews with 10 female survivors of that war, and she used feminist standpoint theory to interpret their stories. It is a beautifully researched, theorized and written dissertation that demonstrates exceptional Howard scholarship.”



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