Finding A Path To Purpose
by U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Michael Matkin
January 17, 2023
“My very first experience in Nigeria was masquerade season,” said Maj. Akintunde Akintewe, 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, Md. while parents were in the U.S. on student visas. His father received a bachelor’s in Business Administration and 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 had the desire to bring the American style of governing to Nigeria. So, after they graduated, they returned to Nigeria when he was five years old.
U.S. Air Force Maj. Akintunde Akintewe, 114th Expeditionary Space Electromagnetic Warfare Combat Detachment A, commander, with Old Glory flying to his left at Nigerien Air Base 201 in Agadez, Niger on January 12, 2023. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Michael Matkin.)
Akintewe said food was one of the most difficult adjustments he had to make with the move. He said they ate 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.
Learning the different languages of food between the U.S. and Nigeria, he similarly 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 they moved 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, by being honest about it. For example, when someone says to you, ‘We are being told to do this thing. How do you feel about it?’. You have to be honest, because if you are not, people will recognize the inconsistencies. 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 his 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 projects and life, is partly why he joined the Air Force after moving back to the U.S. He said he “was trying to find a path for a purpose.” This path was literally written for him though when he was given the name Akintunde, as “Akin” is a military name. It means warrior. It can also mean 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 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.
Finding one’s own identity and how they fit into the world is something he hopes service members will have learned from deploying 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 such as, “How did the Great Depression affect 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, 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, 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.”
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