Scotts Valley grandson of a Nigerian chief visit Africa for funeral celebration

SCOTTS VALLEY — Like many students at Scotts Valley High School, Samuel Udo spent the winter break with his family — except he had to travel 8,000 miles to a remote village, and he had never met many of his relatives, including a half-sister.

Samuel is the grandson of a Nigerian village chief, who died last summer at age 103. The 15-year-old made his first trip to the African country to attend the funeral celebration with his brother, Ben Udo, and father, who inherited the chief position.

“In most of Nigeria there’s not enough power, so it’s on for about three-four hours every day,” Samuel said. “You can’t drink the running water. You have to buy bottled water.”

Samuel’s father, Umoetuk Umo Udo, who now lives in Oakland full time, is from the oil-rich Niger Delta region, which has been rife with political unrest since the 1990s. The U.S. Department of State warns travelers to limit unnecessary travel to Akwa Ibom, the state where Samuel spent Dec. 6 to Jan. 6.

“I had no way to contact them,” said Sara Rigler, Samuel’s mother, who is divorced from her sons’ father. “They can call me, but there’s no e-mail. Yeah, I was worried.”

But from the looks of the videos he shot on his trip, Samuel was safe. Brotherly arms welcomed him at his cousin’s house in the city of Calabar, where they had a friendly bench press competition in the upper-90s heat.

“Help him, help him, help him,” one cousin says in the video, filming and motioning for
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the others to relieve Samuel of a 100-pound dumbbell after he’d finished a few dozen reps.

Nigeria, with a population half that of the U.S., is just a third larger than Texas at roughly 356,000 square miles. About a quarter of Africans are of Nigerian descent.

Scotts Valley High School’s world studies class spent a unit on Africa last fall, and Samuel had a chance to listen to a peer’s research paper on Nigeria. But that was the extent of his pre-trip knowledge of the country, other than the traditional goat meat dinners he eats at his father’s home, or the times he’s heard his father break into his native language of Ibibio.

“I wanted to try to experience everything new,” said Samuel, who was born in Berkeley and got dual citizenship in Nigeria on his vacation.

The Nigeria Rigler visited about 20 years ago wasn’t the same her sons saw: For one, the city of Eket got an airport. It took more than a full day by boat, bus and motorcycle in 1991 to travel the same distance her sons recently flew in 45 minutes, Rigler said, from one part of the country to another.

His African family was eager to share their language and culture, Samuel said, and presented the brothers with white long-sleeved outfits to wear for the funeral celebration. The weeklong affair boasted two large parties, a marching band that played traditional peppy Nigerian tunes, policemen — large gatherings become a target for car thieves, Samuel said — and many Christian funeral traditions. Samuel and his brother, who are Jewish, stayed mum about their own faith while overseas.

“[In Nigeria] they’re very, very religious, and they talk about Jesus all the time,” Rigler said. “It’s a big, big part of the conversation.”

The brothers watched as their father, the eldest son of 32 siblings, threw the first shovels of dirt into their grandfather’s coffin. Samuel had never met chief Umo Udo Akwaowo, but one of his wives — his paternal grandmother — he knew well. She moved to the U.S. in 1995 to take care of the boys, and they reunited during the trip.

She’s nearly blind now, Samuel said, but still recognized them as teenagers.

He also met his half-sister for the first time, now in her mid-30s.

“I’m also an uncle, too,” Samuel said with a smile, holding up a snapshot of a woman with two small girls.

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