Son of Augustana Alumnus Finishing Father’s Memoir
Thursday, July 29, 2010
In early September 1961, the average Midwestern college freshman was listening to Elvis and Chubby Checker on the radio, watching Wagon Train or Perry Mason on TV, and working his or her hair into a tight pompadour or beehive, respectively.
Halfway around the world, in Kenya, Amos Odenyo was busy preparing to start his freshman year at Augustana College in Sioux Falls. Excited and nervous, the 26-year old former assistant inspector of police spent an evening packing everything he owned in two suitcases – two suits, four shirts, a pair of shoes and a few other items. In his briefcase, he carried some documents and an English-Swahili dictionary.
The next evening, he waved good-bye to his family and boarded a flight bound for New York City as a member of the Kennedy-Mboya Airlift Program, a 1960’s-era initiative that steered hundreds of Kenyans and East Africans to the United States for college studies.
He was the first member of his family to travel on an airplane, the first to leave East Africa and the first to attend college.
Nearly 50 years later, Odenyo’s son, Odera Odenyo visited Augustana while conducting research for “Staring at the Nyanza Sun, A Kenyan-American Memoir,” a book he’s writing based on more than 20 hours of interviews with his late father, and his father’s journal entries.
For Odera Odenyo, chronicling his father’s life was something he felt he had to do.
“I found my father’s life so inspirational. He’s been the greatest influence on my life. To go from basically nothing – barefoot until age 19, to where he went in life is incredible. My father didn’t take anything for granted. He also didn’t talk about his successes because he was so modest. If I don’t tell his story, it will never be told,” he said.
After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Augustana in 1965, Amos Odenyo earned a master’s degree in sociology from the University of Wyoming in 1967 and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Minnesota in 1970. He died in 2007.
He spent 35 years working as a professor of sociology at York College in Queens, New York, and served as chairman of the Department of Social Sciences until 1994. He was also a member of the Board of Trustees of World Education, Inc.
Odera Odenyo said his father’s experiences at Augustana were life-changing.
“It was here that he really developed an appreciation for and an understanding of multicultural society – it was at Augustana where he learned how to understand people from diverse cultures, and began to understand how Americans understood him – a Kenyan.”
Amos Odenyo’s journal entries speak about two Augustana professors specifically – Dr. Orville Westby and Dr. Alfred Hotz. Both played a significant role in shaping Odenyo’s views on the world.
“Professor Westby gave me a systematic introduction to the world of human behavior. I began to realize that my behavior and values as an African were only one of many possible human patterns of interaction. Such a conclusion came as a revelation to me. Like many foreign students, my interpretation of events was based exclusively on my African background. ..in my junior year at Augustana, I began to interpret society, culture and religion on a more functionalist basis. I also declared a double major in sociology and political science,” Amos Odenyo wrote in his journal.
“Augustana was pivotal in my father’s decision to study sociology. Initially, he wanted to become a journalist. Through understanding how he fit into American society, he developed a love for social science. He chose sociology as a career because of the social analysis he experienced at Augustana,” Odera Odenyo said.
His peers at Augustana also played a role in shaping Amos Odenyo’s future.
“His first year here, he felt lonely – lonely for his culture. He spent his first Christmas alone in Solberg Hall. He didn’t go out into the snow because he had no boots or winter clothing,” Odera Odenyo said. “Eventually, students donated some winter clothing, a janitor gave him some boots, he became friends with his roommate.”
Later, Amos Odenyo would meet his future wife, Mayone Dahlk of Grove City, Minn., at the Mikkelsen Library.
As Odera Odenyo writes, the real audience for his book is his father’s descendants.
“Both his grandchildren, whom I know, and their grandchildren, whom I will never know. For them, this book is a gateway to their past, as well as a roadmap for their future. If there is one single theme that Dr. Odenyo’s descendants should pick up from this book, hopefully it is the realization that the biggest determining factor in their success is personal character. Compassion, self-determination, respect for education and inspiration were the key elements that defined my father. My hope is that Dr. Odenyo’s descendants, as well as children throughout the world, will embrace these values, incorporate them into every aspect of their lives, and create a better life for themselves, their family, and for their community.”