Onitsha History, Kingship and Changing Cultures

About the Authors

Dick at 24 Mba Road, Onicha, January 1961
Helen at 24 Mba Road, Onicha, January 1961

[Note:  Click on any image you may want to enlarge.]

Richard Neal Henderson attained his B.A.. in Anthropology at the University of New Mexico in 1956 and his PhD. in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley in 1963.

Helen Kreider Henderson attained her B.A. in Anthropology at Syracuse University in 1958, her M.A. in Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley in 1960 and her PhD. in Anthropology at the same institution in 1969.

Richard (Dick) is the author of  the text that follows in this “about” page (and of most of the materials contained in this website, aside from the Chapter presenting Helen’s PhD. Dissertation and some other works of hers).  I will make additions to these materials as I see fit during the development of the website.  Some of these introductory comments may later be extended in subsequent chapters of the text.  The entire production is part ethnography, part history, and part memoir, since in my view the memoir aspect is a necessary complement to the other two (though I did not full grasp this when I began my career as an anthropologist, see further below for transformation details).

Here I provide an addition to this text in light of Helen’s death (April 12, 2017):  in Chapter Nine of this website — “Helen Henderson’s Volume” — I have provided a page at the end, titled “Learning Feminisms with Helen Henderson”, which presents in some detail the progressions of Helen’s life, together with mine after we met.  This page provides details that in part complement what I say here below.

Helen and I met at Berkeley as graduate students in August 1958. We soon became close friends, then lovers, and were married in August 1959.1   We went to Nigeria together in 1960 under Dick’s Ford Foundation Research Grant.  It’s perhaps worth noting that our fieldwork in Onitsha (where we lived for two years at 24 Mba Road, Onitsha Inland Town) was not well-prepared as a research project ahead of our arrival there, indeed the choice to go to Igboland was a rather abrupt one (Last-Minute would be a better term; I had devoted my plans to study among the Yoruba).  In those days the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley adopted what might be called a “sink-or-swim” policy for field research conducted by us social/cultural anthropologists, and in our case both of us had managed to become social-science “dog-paddlers” at best by the summer of 1960.

We did after a fashion learn to swim in the wonderful2 milieu of that part of what was then labeled Eastern Nigeria, but I will not elaborate on those immersions here3, except to state one remarkable fact:  Helen spent entire days beyond counting, sitting at her typewriter in the halls of the Onitsha Native Court, sorting through and recording a massive array of court cases (pretty much verbatim, given the termite-ridden state of the documents), the results of which have immeasurably enhanced whatever quality of literature readers may find in the these pages.4

In the fall of 1962, we returned to Berkeley, where I completed my dissertation in August 1963 while Helen served as cook, bottle-washer, and social/psychological protector of a resident madman, then we drove our 1950 Ford sedan5 east to take up a job (for me) at Yale. (That vehicle’s Wyoming license plates created some astonishment there at the time, most easterners had never seen a bucking bronco on the backside of a car..)

The New Haven Years

Helen with Igbo Egwu and Lads New Haven 1971
Dick with Michael (L) & Kevin New Haven 1971


I  taught Anthropology at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut from 1963 to 1972, while Helen worked on her dissertation, giving birth to twin boys Kevin and Michael in February of 1969, then finishing her dissertation that same June.  She then taught Anthropology as an Assistant Professor at Wellesley College near Boston, commuting there from New Haven while I tended our lads at home (with the help of a hired Nanny), mentored (and was mentored by) various colleagues and students, and worked up the research materials that eventually culminated in my ethnohistorical  book The King in Every Man: Evolutionary Trends in Onitsha Ibo Society and Culture6.



Our New Haven years were both immensely exciting and very challenging.  As I pursued my interests in both the ethnographic and historical materials and the contemporary politics of Nigeria as well, the collapse of the Nigerian Government in 1966, followed by the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967-70, became times of great trauma for us.  We knew that many of our Igbo-speaking friends were directly involved in this disaster, but could not contact them.  Meanwhile the considerable number of Ndi-Igbo students who had been attending Yale (and who inevitably became our friends, some of them also my aides in research) dwindled to zero, and of course the news of the War became horrific. We tried political action but were ineffective7.  This war became a time of considerable anguish and depression for all of us academics who sought justice for the Igbo-speaking people of Nigeria during that ruinous time in global history.

Two defining events transformed my experience during those years, and influenced my subsequent life course. A later one occurred in 1967 as the Biafra secession evolved.  First, to relate this to more recent times:   in 2012 I was surprised to see an essay by  Oliver Sachs, revealing his extensive experimentation with psychedelics during the early phases of his academic life, and the creative self-transformation that led him to pursue his distinctive subsequent research.8. Having lived during my own early career in chronic states of hypertension, anxiety, work-compulsivity, and self-dissociation, I chose a path similar to Sach’s  during my Yale/Biafra years.  Though my experience was far less extensive than his, it was similarly self-transforming.9. I broke through states of dissociation into awareness that was at least temporarily deep-centering, and more permanently, was able to go forward through a life that became much less tense, angry and anxiety-ridden.  It influenced my concern with the culture of consciousness and identity that appears in The King in Every Man, and enabled me to recognize and accept my own limitations and to proceed along an academic career for which I at first perhaps considerably over-achieved but was at best only marginally suited.

The other defining event occurred much earlier, during the late-1950s years as a student at Berkeley that culminated in the choice of Onitsha as my research project.  Discussing this remains difficult for me even today, but such personal facts are relevant for grasping the dimensions of my research career.  In certain ways, throughout my academic career my powers of recognition of patterns of meaning have been occasionally exceptional (leading me to obtain valuable insights, and hence grants and university degrees and research/teaching jobs of unusually high quality), while relative to those powers my abilities to recall information obtained through reading have been much more mediocre in quality.  I was always a rather slow reader, meaning that keeping abreast of current literatures was a largely insurmountable task, and my weakness in remembering what I had read led to a repetitive process of taking notes, taking notes about these notes, and so on, creating an archive that was messy enough to become an obstacle course in itself.10  Largely this problem in the realm of literature-recall led my academic output in publication to be much less and perhaps lower-quality than it should have been, given the circumstances of my employment.

The problem was compounded in 1959 by a certain callowness and shyness  of character in an individual approaching 30 years of age, who, as a “star” in the firmament of graduate students in anthropology at Berkeley during that time was so clumsy in working up a research project to be conducted among the Yoruba of Western Nigeria that permission to do that work was denied and my star faded drastically11, but my trusting mentors supported me strongly at that time and I was encouraged to choose  Onitsha as a research focus instead of the Yoruba12.   So  they.sent me forth with my new wife on a well-supported research trip to the east bank of the River Niger.

Therefore, and consequently, I had to learn most of the background material that one should have done prior to the fieldwork itself while we were  in the field, and this “preparation” work had to be pursued ever afterwards. Chinua Achebe, talking with his son Ike, once observed of The King in Every Man that I appeared to have “pieced the whole thing together”, and he was exactly right.  The piece-making encompassed more than a decade during and after our time in Onitsha, including my entire time of teaching at Yale (and it continues to this day).

I write all this in a page called “About” not to wallow in my own subjectivity, but to enable  readers to anticipate that the writer of most of these pages stumbles from part to part and does not always command the various literatures available on relevant subjects as well as he should. Looking back on a career I regard as having accomplished a distinctly modest record of ethnographic anthropology overall, and since in many ways my interests run toward historical accounts, I must also admit I am no more than an amateur in that field as well (as opposed to a qualified professional historian, e.g. Jan Vansina).

Respect for my potential readers dictates some candor in all this regarding the overall circumstances of my work.  That said, I also affirm here that I have deep respect for truth, and I try to be as faithful to that as I can be. I haven’t made any of this up, it’s built out of our experience. (There are no novelistic touches in these pages except where they are clearly labeled as such.)

The Tucson Years


When I received a full Professorship at the University of Arizona in 1972, we moved across the country to Tucson and Helen also had to begin reconstructing her career in that location, directing both her research and teaching interests strongly into problems of gender and international development.  First working with the Office of Arid Lands Studies at the UA, she did research in Niger, then (with the Consortium for International Development) in Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta), and (with various food, agricultural, and urban planning research groups) in Egypt, Mauritania, Botswana, Chad, Kenya,Tanzania, Senegal, Morocco, and Mali.  She became Project Director for the Women in Development Program in the Bureau of Applied Anthropological Research at the UA (with its Consortium associates), working with many colleagues and research assistants.  She published a welcome volume on problems of gender and agricultural development13 and until her retirement in 2001, she taught very popular courses on Gender and Development at the University of Arizona and advised many students both inside and outside of the Bureau.  She was very highly (and warmly) regarded by her colleagues, staff, and students at the University of Arizona.

During the succeeding years, I struggled through a meagerly-productive academic performance in the UA Department of Anthropology and retired from teaching in 199614, turning attention sharply away from academia and  toward the ecological realities of the Sonoran Desert15. By the turn of the year 2000 I realized that Helen was developing early stages of a type of dementia that her mother had previously suffered.16  For Helen, both powers of recall and recognition (and then, of physical mobility) waned sharply as her Alzheimer’s disease progressed, and she could no longer speak for herself academically or otherwise (which is why this text was begun written solely by me instead of by both of us). After living for three years in the excellent Pacifica adult care home in Tucson, she died April 12 2017.  We held a friends Memorial for her May 14 and the University sponsored a Symposium in her honor at the School of Anthropology on September 8, 2017.17, with (back row, from left to right) our son Kevin, his wife Anne Helwig, our son Michael, and his wife Margaret McClelland.  As I write this we who survive live in Tucson, including my sons and their wives.

American Gothic Tucson 2011 (Photograph by Arni Sveinsson)

“Striking for the gentle, striking for the kind,

Striking for the guardians and protectors of the mind,

An’ the poet and the painter far behind his rightful time,

An’ we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing”

 (Excerpt from Bob Dylan, “The Chimes of Freedom Flashing”, In Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964)


  1. Thanks to the late Judge Homer and Nita Kreider of Harrisburg Pennsylvania, and to the late Hugh and Ted Henderson of Casper, Wyoming; my mother was called “Ted” by all her friends; she detested her given name, Lurene, and would only reveal it under pressure. []
  2. O di egwu, as Onitsha people would say, “It is wonderful”, an expression of utter amazement (though not necessarily entailing the positive qualities implied in the English translation. []
  3. See the other chapters for scattered examples of our dippings. []
  4. To get a sense of it, see that part of our archive digitized by the University of Arizona’s Express Documents Center, led by Deborah Quintana and copied to Igwe Nnaemeka Alfred Ugochukwu Achebe, the Obi of Onitsha. []
  5. Containing in its backseat our large plywood home-made hi-fi speaker cabinet, thanks be prayed to my father and his willingly-administered carpenter’s skills. []
  6. Yale University Press, 1972; Lightning Source Edition, 1996, front cover shown below at right. []
  7. See Chapter 7 for more details. []
  8. Sachs 2012: The New Yorker pp. 40-47; he later published a book on the subject, see Hallucinations, 2012, and for further revelations regarding his life, 2015. []
  9. Given my own limited experience with Marijuana, LSD and Psilocybin, I found the range and quantity of Sach’s drug experimentation very surprising.  My own self-research was limited to these three drugs, and I consumed them in much less quantity and frequency than Dr. Sachs describes for himself. But the results were similarly important, and I have since openly advocated  measured and socially-involved experimentation with them, particularly at times of personal crisis. []
  10. This rather substantial paper archive, roughly contained in three four-foot-high filing cabinets, is now being preserved for future access — see footnote 4 above — and I must decide how much of this repetition should go in it.  It’s a work in progress. []
  11. I have always suspected that during this personal collapse, I had a mini-stroke of some kind,  since I subsequently suffered from an agnosia condition that I had not previously experienced.  Something eventful definitely happened in my brain. []
  12. Thanks primarily to the legendary James Coleman, who interviewed me regarding the Ford Foundation Grant. This was a most fortunate alternative, because I would have been quite personally unsuited for dealing with the Yoruba world at that time. []
  13. 1996:  Gender and agricultural Development:  Surveying the Field (with Ellen Hansen): University of Arizona Press. []
  14. in retrospect, “completely burned out” was an appropriate self-designation. []
  15. Regarding these new commitments, see these websites: http:www.saguaro-juniper.com; http://sanpedrorivervalley.org; http://cascabelconservation.org ; http://sweetwatercenter.org []
  16. The Physical Anthropologist Sherry Washburn made the observation at  Berkeley in one of our 1958-9 classes that the power of recall in the human mind is much more expensive of cerebral cortex than is that of recognition. As of 2017 (the Now of this writing), I feel I fully understand the meaning of that comment. []
  17. I can provide illustrative materials for those who request it; my email is rhenders@email.arizona.edu.)

    Below, a picture of the Henderson-Kreider Clan taken on November 24, 2011 (the eve of Dick’s 80th birthday).  The pose I struck for this image  was mock Grant Wood “American Gothic” ((I’m holding a Chiapas Iron Cross, thanks to a gift from Barbara Voorhies,  in place of the pitchfork brandished by Wood’s stoic farmer. []

Scroll to Top