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Lost Nigeria: The Found Photos Of A Nurse With Wanderlust

Mar 25, 2013
Originally published on March 26, 2013 8:32 am

In the 1960s, a young nurse from rural California named Emily decided to pack up, move to a newly independent Nigeria on a Christian mission and work with leprosy patients. She met a Nigerian preacher and married him, took the surname Akpem, and they had kids. To an outsider looking at her life in photos decades later, it all seems pretty exceptional.

But to her son, designer Senongo Akpem, it was regular family life. "It's always hard to describe your parents as exceptional," he says. "To me she was just Mom."

Growing up in Nigeria, Akpem had obviously heard stories from his parents about their early days. But it wasn't until very recently that he could see them. His father found some old film slides, a family friend scanned them, and Akpem has been culling through them from New York, where he's now based.

First, he's focusing on his mother's story and has posted a few mini-chapters of her life to his website, Lost Nigeria. It's a poignant filmstrip of personal, daily life — but the photos also expose a chapter of Nigerian history you don't often see.

"Even if it's personal, it is relevant for everyone," Akpem says. "The history of leprosy in Nigeria is not a very happy one. A lot of [the patients] were left to die in huts and secreted away in communities. So the church decided that would be a great way to show their worth."

Just looking at the photos, there's a lot we'll never know. But they reveal a lot about this young woman's character. It's written in her body language — the way she would lovingly cling to people. More subtly, the portraits of her patients, trusting and relaxed, reveal that they were more than just patients.

It's also fascinating to see Akpem's family photos from back in the U.S. The jarring contrast from rural Africa to Yosemite was the reality for their multicultural family.

"I can only imagine how utterly foreign this all was to my father," Akpem writes in one caption, "in the same way that Nigeria was for my mother."

"Yosemite still isn't a place where many African-Americans go as their birth-rite vacation," he says.

Akpem himself seems to drift between worlds. He was born in the U.S., was raised in Nigeria, spent seven years in Japan and is now back in the States.

"I don't know that I actually feel home anywhere in the world," he reflects. But that doesn't seem to concern him. Maybe that's something he inherited from his mother.

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