Books to Africa

Hood River turns pages over to Nigeria

Hood River Valley High School students saw how words connect continents, and it had nothing to do with the Internet.

Old-fashioned textbooks now link Hood River to a city in the west African nation of Nigeria, thanks to the collective efforts of students and citizens in this community, and a Gresham man.

Nigerian-born Ken Onyima came to HRV last week in the final stop on a literal, and literary, pilgrimage. Onyima, 43, thanked students and others who helped donate books for a school in Owerri, Nigeria. He matched news of how the effort helps education in his developing country, with a message for the American kids on the value of learning.

Last spring the high school, Westside Elementary, and Friends of Hood River County Library helped Onyima collect textbooks and other materials for students in Owerri. The effort filled a shipping container that is now on its way to Nigeria.

"This is the climax of our project, a fulfillment to see these kids and thank them," Onyima said. He dressed in colorful Nigerian garb as he spoke to about 250 students and showed them slide photos of his homeland, including the metal-roofed school where children attend without shoes.

"I'm giving you a tiny window into my world," said Onyima, who was educated in the United States -- after his extended family contributed money for several years -- and now serves as senior planner for the City of Gresham.

He grew up in the oil-rich coastal area of Nigeria, one of the world's top petroleum-producing nations.

"The gas you put in your cars -- I bet you'd be surprised how much of it comes from Nigeria," Onyima told the students. Growing up, he got to know Americans working in the oil industry. They told him a college degree was the only way to succeed.

"It's a long, long process," said Onyima, who once taught third grade. "But you are all making the greatest step you can do, to stay in school and go on to college. High school alone does not cut it any more," he said.

Each year he returns to Owerri with donated school items from the United States.

"I can't sit back and eat cheeseburgers and say, `I've got it made'," he said. "There are still lots of people to help out."

Retired HRV teacher Jean Harmon heard about Onyima's efforts in another city and got in touch with him. She asked county library director June Iverson for her help, and the effort spread to the schools.

"This has been our most interesting way to get rid of excess materials," Iverson said.

"A huge favor," is what HRV assistant principal Martha Capovilla called the Owerri project. "We are so glad to have found a useful place for an entire roomful of books we could no longer use.

"Those kids (in Nigeria) are thrilled to have any textbook," she said.

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