Monday, August 17, 2009

African guest

In August 1962 a young man from Africa arrived in Danvers as a guest of our family. He was on his way to Bowdoin College, but first he spent a month "homestay" with an American family (us) to get used to American customs. I've written about this special guest for this month's column: A guest from Africa becomes family

Onye and Jean, 1976
My sister Jean was the one who oriented Onye to Danvers. She had her drivers license and drove him around during the days while our parents worked. [At right see Onye and Jean years later, in 1976, standing in the sunken garden in Danvers.]

I was away the summer of 1962 working as a chambermaid at the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island, off the coast of Portsmouth, N.H. Onye made one boat trip out to Star to meet me. He was favorably impressed with the place and applied to work there the next summer. We worked there together in 1963.

This summer I returned to the Oceanic Hotel to attend a week-long conference, and I took a "behind-the-scenes" tour. One wall in the employee area is today covered with old photos of past summers --including a group shot from 1963, in which Onye and I appear!
Below is a more recent photo of us, taken in 2004:

Onye and Sandy, 2004
Remembering Danvers
7/29/09  (published in Danvers Herald in August 2009)

by Sandy Nichols Ward

"Sun without heat!" exclaimed Onyeonoro Kamanu as he stood on our front lawn in Danvers, looking up at the August sky with a puzzled expression. Onye had just arrived from Lagos, Nigeria.   He was a young scholar about to attend an American college under the African Scholarship Program of American Universities (ASPAU). My parents had signed up with ASPAU to host a student for a "one-month home stay" designed to acquaint African students with American family life and customs.   

My mother was eager to share the bounty from her garden and to show Onye the plants from which our food came. This was a mistake in one instance.  Had she simply served the home-made rhubarb dessert, he might have enjoyed it, or at least tasted it.  But she made a point of showing him the large plant from which the rhubarb stalks came.  Onye then would not touch the dessert; his mother had taught him to avoid that poisonous plant!  Of course, both mothers were right: rhubarb leaves are poisonous, only the stalks are edible.

Onye thought our food was bland.  He often added hot pepper flakes from a jar he kept handy.  We were astonished that he added these to almost every dish.  My father tried to join him one day, adding a few of Onye's flakes to ice cream, figuring that ice cream was good under any circumstances.  But the hot pepper was too much for my father.

I'm sure Onye learned much from us, but we also learned much from him. My sister and I learned to dance to the Highlife records he had brought with him. Onye came from a large city and was in many ways more sophisticated and world-wise than we were. We lived a country lifestyle in north Danvers surrounded by woods and fields. He valued cities, while we valued nature. He dreamed of going to beautiful places in America, like Los Angeles! We tended to avoid cities, rarely going even to Boston. He wanted to go to a university he had heard of, but his ASPAU scholarship was for Bowdoin College, in Maine, of all places. He feared the winter cold and the isolation of such a place. I responded by knitting him a big green sweater that was thick and warm. He wore the sweater often, and graduated from Bowdoin in three years. He stayed in New England a few more years, earning a doctoral degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. Obviously he adapted to the world of sun without heat.   

We accepted Onye as part of our extended family. Our guest room became "Onye's room" as he came home to join us each holiday and vacation period for many years. One summer he and I worked together at Oceanic Hotel on the Isles of Shoals. When Onye married in 1966, my parents stood in the church with him as parents of the groom. (His original parents were no longer living.) My mother, the letter-writer in the family, maintained contact with Onye and Lillie for years. When my mother died in 1976, Onye returned to Danvers for her memorial service. Unfortunately, for the next 25 years, we lost track of each other as we each changed addresses and were busy raising children. In early 2001 a chance encounter with a Nigerian visitor at the college where I was working prompted me to speak of Onye and ask if this man had heard of him. Yes, he and his wife had recently had dinner with Onye and Lillie! Within hours Lillie responded to my email, saying that Onye would be sad to have missed me; he had just flown from Boston to Nigeria! A few months later Onye, Lillie and I arranged a joyful reunion and resolved not to lose contact again. In 2006 my sister and I traveled overseas for the wedding of their eldest daughter. Onye's family and friends welcomed us warmly. We, the "American sisters," were happy to be with our "African brother" again.