Sharing Stories from Across Cultures

Friday, March 20, 2015

RobinReneeSandersBefore Robin Renee Sanders D’10 left the Nigerian village of Ogidi, one of the women she would later call “legendary” had a parting request. “Take my official photo,” said Eziafo Okaro. “I want to be remembered when I die.”

Among the Igbo people of Nigeria, Eziafo earned her legendary status by keeping alive a cultural practice called Uli. Pronounced “OO-lee,” it is a tradition of adornment, traditional religion and customs, and painting symbols that convey meanings that transcend mere decoration, but don’t quite fit the definition of a language. 

Now, in a place where Christian churches are often the center of community life, Uli has begun to vanish as the last of its matriarchs pass on to join their ancestors.SandersBook

“I have a really soft space in my heart for Nigerian women, and African women writ large,” says Sanders, the former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria. “They’re the farmers. They’re the ones taking care of the home. In the conflict areas they are the ones that suffer the most — women and children.”

In April of last year, Eziafo died. But she and 21 other women are remembered, celebrated and, perhaps most importantly, explained in a one-of-a-kind book by Sanders, Legendary Uli Women of Nigeria. Sanders met the Uli women while working on field research for her Doctor of Science in Information Science and Communication, a Robert Morris University degree program that draws mid-career professionals and diplomats. Her extraordinary research paper on Uli became the basis for a book that has had launch events in both Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city, and in Washington, D.C., at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and the World Affairs Council.

Frederick G. Kohun, Ph.D., the professor who founded the doctoral program, says Sanders broke new ground in her dissertation about the combination of symbols, customs, religion, and artistic motifs she encountered in Nigeria, classifying Uli as a "communication expression," something that has the virtues of language without formally being one.

So what is Uli? In many respects, it is a way of life practiced by women of the Igbo community, with a combination of symbols representing everything from lizards and snakes to the kola nut. In some instances, it also venerates traditional deities — a tie that has caused its rejection by devout Christians among the Igbo. In one town the fragility of Uli’s future was evident. Five young women had been decorated with Uli symbols as part of a welcoming ceremony for Sanders, but as she is careful to note, these were adornments only. The young women, all Christians, do not practice Uli, and they would not go near a local shrine that elderly women decorated with Uli symbols.

Sanders’s foreign service career stretches more than two decades, and took her around the world. Prior to Nigeria, she had served as U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Congo. The child of a career military man, Sanders was born at Langley Air Base and raised in various parts of the country and overseas before attending historically black Hampton University, where she majored in communications. She later earned two masters degrees — communication/journalism and international relations/Africa studies — from Ohio University.

Her connections to RMU began with a letter — seemingly out of the blue — from Kohun, who was seeking out successful professionals seeking to add to their skill sets. “I really didn’t pay any attention,” she recalls. “Then I got another letter from him again, saying they were coming to Washington.”

While enrolled in the doctoral program, Sanders was named Ambassador to Nigeria, so she had to complete her dissertation while in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. But her cohort — the group with whom she studied and bonded — stayed close to their cyber classmate. One weekend when the cohort was meeting on campus, Kohun was in the lobby at the nearby hotel where students were staying, and noticed three or four of them having a glass of wine and talking to a laptop computer. “Then I look and there’s Robin, in Abuja,” says Kohun. A day later, Robin’s classmates lugged the computer to lunch so she could join them again.

Robert Morris is not merely a degree to Sanders. It is a second calling. “I make sure it’s always front-and-center in whatever I do,” she says.  Now a member of the university Board of Trustees, she delivered the graduate commencement address in 2011, and on the night of this interview she was playing host to Kohun and his team as they sought out the next class of doctoral candidates in D.C. While her meeting for prospective RMU doctoral students took place at a hotel, the university now hosts prospects at the Army and Navy Club, one of Washington’s most storied private clubs, where Ambassador Sanders is a member.

Since leaving the State Department, her emphasis on Africa has continued. Today she directs FE3DS, an advising firm, and the FEEEDS Initiative as part of an advocacy effort to promote food, environmental, economic, and political security in sub-Saharan Africa. Sanders is also working on a book about her life as a diplomat. She recalls the words of one of her RMU advisors, who said, “You have at least four books from this dissertation.” 

Written by Dennis Roddy

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