“Where the Children Take Us: How One Family Achieved the Unimaginable” by Zain E. Asher (Amistad)
In recounting her family’s struggle to carry on after her father’s unexpected death, Zain E. Asher has written a handbook for hope when none seems possible.
Asher’s face is familiar around the globe as the anchor of CNN International’s “One World.” So is her brother’s, actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of the Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave” and praised for writing and directing the Netflix film “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.” Their sister, Kandibe, a medical doctor, and brother, Obinze, an entrepreneur, have made marks in their own fields.
However, the star of Asher’s memoir, “Where the Children 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 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. Grief-stricken and exhausted, even with help from relatives, she feared she was failing them.
But Obiajulu had faced challenges before. As a child, she lived through political and ethnic division during Nigeria’s bloody civil war, then moved with Arinze to London at 18 with little more than a desire to build a life together. Working at a laundry, she was inspired by another Nigerian woman to explore further possibilities. Soon, Obiajulu was setting her sights on earning a pharmacy degree, obtaining a loan and opening her own business, all thanks to the first “uplifter” in her new life.
In the wake of tragedy, Asher’s mother became her family’s uplifter by wielding the firm hand of a parent who would not allow her children to let themselves down. Even after long days at the pharmacy, Obiajulu would oversee their studies, engage them in a dinnertime book club, and put the baby to bed. She established the commitment to get ahead in the world through education and intense discipline.
Asher was often the only Black child in her classes, at times feeling unwanted as an outsider in terms of race and class. At age 9 her mother sent her to live in Nigeria with her grandparents to learn strength and resilience the old-fashioned way.
That “crash course in survival” lasted nearly two years. 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 back-breaking endurance.” At 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 pushed to visit Oxford University at 13, her mother pointing to students and telling her, “That could be you someday.” When her studies fell short of Oxford-worthy grades because of the distractions of television and telephone, Obiajulu took away the TV set and installed a pay phone in the hallway. In time Asher was accepted into Oxford — and later to Columbia University to study journalism. The lessons from her mother helped her forge a successful career in TV news.
“You aren’t competing with them,” her mother said when Asher talked about rivals and the drive to get ahead. “Prepare as well as you can so you can be your best, not their best.”
Her brother Obinze once remarked that Asher was set for life when she was accepted at Oxford, noting how she had achieved the unimaginable given their circumstances. He assured her, “There’s nothing you can’t do now.”
With “Where the Children Take Us,” all can learn from Zain Asher, whose memoir adds her name to the newest of uplifters.
Douglass K. Daniel is the author of “Anne Bancroft: A Life” (University Press of Kentucky).