Finding a Path to Purpose: A Service Member's Journey from Nigeria to the U.S. Air Force

By Master Sgt. Michael Matkin

“My very first experience in Nigeria was masquerade season,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Akintunde Akintewe, of the 114th Expeditionary Space Electromagnetic Warfare Combat Detachment A, commander.

“A lot of the Yoruba cultures celebrate their ancestors by dressing in these masks; it’s a party for months. Every time we went somewhere, there was a parade, and the masquerades would come out. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly towards us, I thought [the masquerades] were a party for me. I thought everyone was celebrating my arrival. It wasn’t until later that I realized they do this every year. This has nothing to do with me at all.”

Akintewe was born in Takoma Park, Maryland, while his parents were in the U.S. on student visas. His father received a bachelor’s in business administration and a master’s in marketing, and his mother received a bachelor’s in business administration. They could have applied to stay in the U.S, but his father wanted to bring the American style of governing to Nigeria. So, after they graduated, they returned to Nigeria when Akintewe was five years old.

Akintewe said food was one of the most difficult adjustments he had to make with the move. His family had eaten African food in the U.S., but not strictly African. However in Nigeria, they only ate African food; plus, there wasn’t any American fast food there at the time.

“What eventually helped me with the food was my mom explaining the symbology of food in Africa,” said Akintewe. “In most African cultures they don’t just eat – eating is a spiritual thing. They believe foods of certain colors nurture certain parts of the body.”

It is believed that the color of the food matches the same color in your body. Brown porridge is good for your liver. White yams are good for your eyes and eating food simply because it’s red will nourish the heart.

As he learned the different languages of food between the U.S. and Nigeria, Akintewe also had to adjust to the way actual languages were used in the different countries.

“I thought everyone had a language they spoke at home and spoke English when they were outside of the home,” said Akintewe. “When I asked kids what language was spoken at home, they’d just stare at me.”

In the U.S., his parents spoke Yoruba at home and English outside of the home. Although his parents spoke English to Akintewe and his brother, they learned a lot of Yoruba from simply hearing them speak it to other Nigerians. When the family moved back to Nigeria, the kids in his first grade class were just learning English and spoke Yoruba at home.

Akintewe said he struggled with this change and felt isolated in school. Especially because, in the U.S., he didn’t feel different at all. Ms. Nancy Olsen, his kindergarten teacher at Thomas S. Stone Elementary (who made such an impact on him that he still remembers her name), created an inclusive classroom – pointing out and celebrating each student’s uniqueness; however, in Nigeria, he said he would go whole days without saying a word in class.

“It was tough making friends,” said Akintewe. “I don’t remember having friends in 1st grade. It really defined me and I think I’m always looking at life through that lens, which is probably where I get my empathy too. I assume people may just be unfamiliar with the situation. I don’t assume people have had the same experiences – they aren’t looking at something the same way as I am.”

He said this is how his leadership is defined as well. He believes that just because someone has had the same exact training, leaders shouldn’t assume their subordinates will attack the problem the same way. He said it’s sometimes more about speaking someone’s culture then it is their language.

“Nobody is 100% in alignment,” said Akintewe. “When it comes to leadership you are managing that as well. Show people you can accommodate their different perspectives. You have to acknowledge it and make allowances for it in your decisions. That’s how you build trust … In the end, everyone here knows we are setting aside things to accomplish the mission.”

Having a strong desire to complete the mission is a trait he said he learned from his dad. After Akintewe’s father’s political aspirations came to an end, he went to work in the government. Although a government career doesn’t have the best pay, he said his father felt rewarded by accomplishing projects. Similarly, Akintewe said he seeks out the special projects and enjoys seeing the projects through, from the beginning to the end of them.

“I don’t just want to be a participant in a project, I want to be the force - the driving factor,” said Akintewe.

Having the desire to be an active participant in both projects and life is partly why he joined the U.S. Air Force after moving back to the United States. He said he “was trying to find a path for a purpose.” One could even interpret it as his path having been literally written for him, since his name Akintunde, as in “Akin,” is a military name. It means “warrior,” “brave” or “valiant,” depending on the context.

“They give you a name they expect you to live up to in our culture, so it was natural for me to join the military,” said Akintewe. “My brother was in the [U.S.] Army and he didn’t want me to precisely follow in his footsteps and I wanted my own identity, so I joined the Air Force.”

Now, deployed to Niger with the U.S. Air Force, Akintewe hopes his fellow service members will learn to find their own identity and how they fit into the world after their deployment to Africa. He wants people to be more aware of Africa and what goes on here, and how Africa fits into their own history. He said people often look at their lives and the history that goes along with it in a linear view; however, people should look at their own history and ask questions, examining the ripple effect of United States history and how it affects continents such as Africa.

“If everyone can become aware how Africa fits into their own history, I think that would be a plus, especially to those in the military,” said Akintewe. “We don’t often ask the question, ‘What influenced that particular event and what was going on in the rest of the world?’ To learn about Africa, [it] helps to understand the U.S., and the world as a whole.”

Just as Akintewe misunderstood why people were wearing masks when he moved to Nigeria as a child, once we remove the masks and seek understanding of one another, Akintewe thinks there’s a lot more similarities in people than differences.

“We like to say people are different, but there’s a lot more similarities,” said Akintewe. “It’s just that our differences are more perceptive to sight. Even those so-called differences [in culture], if you look at them or study them, they become indistinguishable after a while.”

How the USO is Supporting Service Members Deployed to Niger and West Africa

When you hear the word “deployment,” Niger might not be the first location that comes to mind. But for many American service members, Niger, located in West Africa, is their home for nine months to a year – and it’s a challenging one, at that.

Even in the middle of winter, temperatures in locations such as Niger can reach well over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The places where these service members are deployed to have extremely limited resources in terms of entertainment or even basic amenities. There is also, of course, the high-pressure nature of these undisclosed locations, and the missions service members are undertaking on a daily basis, all while separated from loved ones and the comforts of home.

Photo credit U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Thomas Jamison

A base in Niger experiences a sandstorm in 2018. Service members deployed to undisclosed locations in Africa must deal with extreme heat and weather that is very different from what they may be used to back home.

That’s why, with the support of the American people, the USO has stepped in to help.

Although locations in Niger and other parts of West Africa may be too small or too dangerous to house a permanent, brick-and-mortar USO center on-base, the USO is still making sure deployed troops are feeling the support of our organization.

This means that USO expeditionary teams travel for weeks at a time to these locations, delivering USO programs, events and snacks to boost morale and keep service members connected to the things they love. Over the holidays in 2022, USO teams brought seasonal, home-cooked meals and activities to get troops in the holiday spirit, in a place that feels decidedly different from home.

After months with little to do in your downtime between missions, with little to no internet access to contact home and few resources to turn to, these small moments of fun can have a huge impact on our nation’s service members.

-This story was originally published on DVIDShub.net. It has been edited for USO.org.

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