“Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable” by Zain E. Asher (Amistad)
As she recounts her family’s struggle to continue after her father’s unexpected death, Zain E. Asher has written a handbook of hope when nothing seems possible.
Asher’s face is known all over the globe as the anchor in CNN International’s “One World”. The same goes for her brother, actress Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of the Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave” and praised for writing and directing the Netflix movie “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” Their sister, Kandibe, a doctor, and brother, Obinze, an entrepreneur, have distinguished themselves in their own fields.
The star of Asher’s memoirs, “Where the Kids Take Us,” is their mother.
Obiajulu Justina Ejiofor was raising a family in London when a car accident killed her husband, Arinze, a medical student, and the critically injured son Chiwetel, then 11. With a baby on the way, she had to cope with the loss of her childhood sweetheart, running a neighborhood pharmacy and , most importantly, the care of their young children. Grieving and exhausted, even with the help of relatives, she feared she was failing them.
But Obiajulu had faced challenges before. As a child, she lived through political and ethnic divisions during Nigeria’s bloody civil war, then moved with Arinze to London as an 18-year-old with little more than a desire to build a life together. While working at a laundromat, she was inspired by another Nigerian woman to explore further possibilities. Soon, Obiajulu set her sights on getting a pharmacy education, getting a loan and opening her own business, all thanks to the first “uplift” in her new life.
In the wake of the tragedy, Asher’s mother became the uplifter of her family by carrying the firm hand of a parent who would not allow her children to fail themselves. Even after long days at the pharmacy, Obiajulu would monitor their studies, engage them in a book club at noon, and put the baby to bed. She established the commitment to move forward in the world through education and intense discipline.
Asher was often the only black child in his classes, and at times felt unwanted as an outsider in terms of race and class. As a 9-year-old, her mother sent her to live in Nigeria with her grandparents to learn strength and resilience the old-fashioned way.
The “emergency course in survival” lasted almost two years. By cleaning the yard, scrubbing the toilet, balancing buckets of water from a river a mile from their village, Asher mastered what she calls “the art of breaking endurance.” In school in Nigeria, she learned how to gain the respect of her classmates and teachers. She returned to London, better able to adapt to adversity and exclusion.
Asher was pressured to visit Oxford University as a 13-year-old, and her mother pointed to students and told her, “It could be you one day.” When her studies lacked Oxford-worthy grades due to the distractions of television and the telephone, Obiajulu took the TV away from her and installed a pay phone in the hallway. In time, Asher was admitted to Oxford – and later to Columbia University to study journalism. The lessons from her mother helped her create a successful career in television news.
“You’re not competing with them,” her mother said as Asher talked about rivals and the will to move on. “Prepare as best you can so you can be your best, not their best.”
Her brother Obinze once remarked that Asher was put to death when she was accepted at Oxford, noting how she had achieved the unthinkable given their circumstances. He assured her, “There’s nothing you can do now.”
With “Where the Children Take Us” everyone can learn from Zain Asher, whose memoirs add his name to the latest of uplifters.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).