2020 Howard Grad Earns Ph.D. at Age 73, Reflects on Surviving Nigerian Civil War

On April 26, 2020, Florence Nwando Onwusi Didigu, 73, defended her dissertation to earn her Ph.D. in Communication, Culture and Media Studies. Her dissertation and future book titled, “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 who, like herself, survived the war. Didigu, who is the oldest of five sisters, is graduating from Howard University with her fourth degree as a prestigious Sasakawa and Annenberg Fellow. She is thankful to have made it across many hurdles.

“In my second year at Howard, and very close to my screening test, I lost my mother and my father within months,” said Didigu. “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.’”

Didigu also battled shingles, which paralyzed the right side of her face and she lost her voice. It was symbolic, because its her life’s work is to elevate more Igbo women’s voices too. “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.”

Yet, what she overcame 50 years ago, the Nigerian-Biafra War, a civil war between the Igbo people and the Nigerian government, is one challenge she will never forget.

“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 leaped 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 program and get to where I am today!”

She was once a producer and writer at the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), and a broadcast regulator at the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) in Nigeria prior to 2000. Upon graduation, Didigu plans to enter the professoriate and become a book author. She recently took courses at Howard in the Preparing Future Faculty (PFF) program. She plans to continue research and scholarly writings, as well as mentoring students to inspire and educate “the future generation that will move this discipline forward and tackle the communications-oriented challenges of the future.”

Carolyn Byerly, Ph.D., Didigu’s advisor and chair of the Communication, Culture and Media Studies doctoral program, noticed the excellence within her, noting that “she embodies endurance and intellectual determination.”

“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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