Thursday, Feb. 2, 2012
Hail the chief: Myra Gordon's good works earn her chieftancy title of African village
MANHATTAN -- At Kansas State University, Myra Gordon has many titles. She's associate provost for diversity; she's adviser to the Black Student Union; she's chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Observance Week Committee; and she's on or heads several other committees.
But her newest title is one she earned several continents away. Gordon was recently named a chief of the northeast Nigerian village of Alayi. She was nominated for the honor because of her many contributions to Africa, including creating a school for children in grades K-12, working to strengthen the University of Lagos and more.
Gordon calls her chieftaincy the most important honor she has ever received.
"This is quite something. Never in a million years would I think I would receive an honor such as this," she said. "This is one of the statements of my life."
Gordon was presented with the title at a ceremony on Dec. 29. It was part of the village's coronation of a new king, Eze J.C. Eke. Gordon sits on the village's Council of Chiefs -- where she is the only female chief. She said chiefs are a traditional form of government in Africa that work with local and state governments on concerns of their village.
"There's a saying that a chief anywhere in Africa is a chief everywhere in Africa," she laughed.
Chieftaincy is more than an honorary title. It provides Gordon with citizenship and privileges. It also comes with responsibilities that she takes seriously.
"I definitely plan on playing a part in improving the quality of life for people in the village," she said. "Now I am both an official and an official part of that family."
At the ceremony, Gordon received a chief's fan, hat, certificate and coronation booklet. The fan is an important symbol of chiefdom, she said, and is used to acknowledge a chief's people, fellow chiefs and the king. Gordon's fan is inscribed with the words: "Chief Dr. Myra Gordon, Nne Oha I of Alayi." In English, Nne Oha I means "Mother to All." They're words that Gordon treasures.
"Nne Oha I is one of the highest titles any woman can achieve in civilian African society," she said.
These words describe Gordon's role in Africa, at Kansas State University, and in life where her unflagging compassion for and commitment to multicultural students has made her like a mother to so very many.
Gordon began her journey of service and impact in Africa nearly 25 years ago. Always active in African-American movements in the U.S., she decided it was time to explore the African side of her heritage.
"I have always wanted a much better sense of what being an African-American really means, so I've been coming to and working in Africa since 1987, mainly with capacity building in higher education and gender equity issues," Gordon said.
A clinical psychologist, she also has studied indigenous West African approaches to diagnosing and treating mental illness at the Traditional Medicine Hospital of Keur Massar.
Gordon has visited Africa at least twice a year since 1987, often through fellowships and grants. She's also led many faculty and student groups on tours in Senegal and the Gambia. When she and an African colleague were struck by the lack of access to quality education by some of the poorest families in Dakar, Gordon decided to start a school -- the Angela Davis School. The school emphasizes elite academics, leadership development and political awareness.
"I developed the school as demonstration project," she said. "Today it serves 450 students in grades K-12 and provides jobs to teachers. We've had much success: Our students' results place them at the top of all classes. I'm going to use my resources and resourcefulness to build a similar school for my people in Alayi."
For all her visits to Africa, she calls her latest one the best by far.
"I had the privilege of attending other coronations, but I never thought I would be part of one," she said. "Seeing one is wonderful enough, but being part of one was even better."
Gordon, who joined the university in 2002, earned a master's and a doctorate in psychology from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a bachelor's degree from Cornell University. Prior to joining Kansas State University, she was an associate dean at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.