Daily Picture Show

Lost Nigeria: The Found Photos Of A Nurse With Wanderlust

  • Designer Senongo Akpem has built a website from his mother's photos called "Lost Nigeria." Images like this one document her early years as a California nurse living in Nigeria — where she stayed and married a Nigerian preacher. Later photos of their family vacations to the U.S. are a striking contrast.
    Hide caption
    Designer Senongo Akpem has built a website from his mother's photos called "Lost Nigeria." Images like this one document her early years as a California nurse living in Nigeria — where she stayed and married a Nigerian preacher. Later photos of their family vacations to the U.S. are a striking contrast.
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "A hospital patient with my mother in 1961. Her hand grips the arm of her patient. Among the Tiv people of Nigeria, this is seen often, and signifies friendship and kinship. For me, this picture is deeply symbolic. In a gesture, it maps out what her future will be in Nigeria. Her embrace of the Tiv people was constant," Akpem writes.
    Hide caption
    "A hospital patient with my mother in 1961. Her hand grips the arm of her patient. Among the Tiv people of Nigeria, this is seen often, and signifies friendship and kinship. For me, this picture is deeply symbolic. In a gesture, it maps out what her future will be in Nigeria. Her embrace of the Tiv people was constant," Akpem writes.
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "The sign at the entrance to BLS (Benue Leprosy Settlement). Even as a child, I remember this sign well. I spent my summers in and around the hospital, so we drove past it almost every day."
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    "The sign at the entrance to BLS (Benue Leprosy Settlement). Even as a child, I remember this sign well. I spent my summers in and around the hospital, so we drove past it almost every day."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "An unintentional self-portrait, perhaps. Her beehive haircut is visible in the shadow from the setting sun."
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    "An unintentional self-portrait, perhaps. Her beehive haircut is visible in the shadow from the setting sun."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "Two women pounding yams. Yams are the staple food among the Tiv people, and around the whole country. ... Coming from a farm family, my mother must have been fascinated. The farm life of 1960s California was far removed from the farms of 1960s Nigeria."
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    "Two women pounding yams. Yams are the staple food among the Tiv people, and around the whole country. ... Coming from a farm family, my mother must have been fascinated. The farm life of 1960s California was far removed from the farms of 1960s Nigeria."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "A young girl holding a baby. Note the large crucifix on the baby. By this time in Nigerian history, Christianity was making serious inroads to the south and center of the country."
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    "A young girl holding a baby. Note the large crucifix on the baby. By this time in Nigerian history, Christianity was making serious inroads to the south and center of the country."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "A man stands with two children. My mother always loved colorful Nigerian cloth, so it's little wonder why she took this photograph."
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    "A man stands with two children. My mother always loved colorful Nigerian cloth, so it's little wonder why she took this photograph."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "Two women, most certainly leprosy patients, stand outside their homes. Both of them are wearing a beautiful blue duck-patterned wax-print cloth. The thatch-roof huts were the standard home style in those days. Mud and thatch are still used in rural Nigerian homes, but concrete and tin are favored because they last much longer."
    Hide caption
    "Two women, most certainly leprosy patients, stand outside their homes. Both of them are wearing a beautiful blue duck-patterned wax-print cloth. The thatch-roof huts were the standard home style in those days. Mud and thatch are still used in rural Nigerian homes, but concrete and tin are favored because they last much longer."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "A group of men posing for the camera. The looks on their faces are striking. There was great novelty in a white woman coming into their community, asking them to pose for pictures. They seem to be reacting accordingly."
    Hide caption
    "A group of men posing for the camera. The looks on their faces are striking. There was great novelty in a white woman coming into their community, asking them to pose for pictures. They seem to be reacting accordingly."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "A woman with a prosthetic leg at the Benue Leprosy Settlement. The hospital provided vital medical services for amputees and lepers who had lost feeling in limbs. In some cases, amputation was considered preferable to simply going through the course of leprosy drugs."
    Hide caption
    "A woman with a prosthetic leg at the Benue Leprosy Settlement. The hospital provided vital medical services for amputees and lepers who had lost feeling in limbs. In some cases, amputation was considered preferable to simply going through the course of leprosy drugs."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "Men standing outside the hospital."
    Hide caption
    "Men standing outside the hospital."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "A baby is helping to sweep the yard. The strange color of this photo is due to the poor quality of the slide film, but it does add a strange sense of nostalgia to it. I wonder where this child is now."
    Hide caption
    "A baby is helping to sweep the yard. The strange color of this photo is due to the poor quality of the slide film, but it does add a strange sense of nostalgia to it. I wonder where this child is now."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "This young woman most probably worked as a maid to the missionaries, perhaps even my mother. Young people were chosen as house help for a variety of reasons: they came from a broken home, their parents could not feed them, or perhaps they were especially gifted and their parents requested the white man's schooling."
    Hide caption
    "This young woman most probably worked as a maid to the missionaries, perhaps even my mother. Young people were chosen as house help for a variety of reasons: they came from a broken home, their parents could not feed them, or perhaps they were especially gifted and their parents requested the white man's schooling."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
  • "A lion on the tarmac. This picture was most likely taken while my mother was on safari in Kenya. On one hand, the lion fits the idealized Western image of Africa, but it lies in a thoroughly modern environment."
    Hide caption
    "A lion on the tarmac. This picture was most likely taken while my mother was on safari in Kenya. On one hand, the lion fits the idealized Western image of Africa, but it lies in a thoroughly modern environment."
    Courtesy of Senongo Akpem

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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.

Akpem's father and sisters on the beach in California with cousins. i i

hide captionAkpem's father and sisters on the beach in California with cousins.

Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
Akpem's father and sisters on the beach in California with cousins.

Akpem's father and sisters on the beach in California with cousins.

Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
Akpem's Nigerian father with California in-laws looking out at Yosemite. i i

hide captionAkpem's Nigerian father with California in-laws looking out at Yosemite.

Courtesy of Senongo Akpem
Akpem's Nigerian father with California in-laws looking out at Yosemite.

Akpem's Nigerian father with California in-laws looking out at Yosemite.

Courtesy of Senongo Akpem

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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