Unicycle may help reunite family

Mid plans ocean ride to raise funds to bring friend's kin to U.S.

March 31, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

When James Tanyi waved goodbye to his family at the Yaounde airport in Cameroon four years ago, he vowed to save every extra penny during his next four years at the Naval Academy in Annapolis to fly his parents to his graduation.

What he remembers most about the Swissair flight was the tray of airplane food, which he thought he had to share with his fellow passengers. In his 20 years, he had never seen a meal so big.

Despite saving more than half of his $130 average monthly stipend, forgoing hundreds of outings and activities, the soft-spoken Tanyi, who covers his mouth when he laughs and speaks with a slight British accent, knew by last summer he didn't have enough.

But Tanyi wasn't the only one with a plan, and an unexpected friendship is helping to bring together his life in one of the poorest countries in Africa with his life here. On a hot night in July, Tanyi's friend and fellow midshipman, Jeff Greene, who grew up in a suburban home outside Buffalo, N.Y., wandered into his room while the two were serving an internship at Los Alamos Laboratories in New Mexico. Green asked Tanyi why he was so down.

Tanyi told him he believed he had failed his parents because he didn't have the $4,000 he needed to bring them to Maryland by bus, train and plane.

Greene began thinking about how he might help. At first, he kept his plan to himself, knowing his friend might be uncomfortable accepting the benefits of a fund-raiser. He waited until last month to tell Tanyi.

This morning, after weeks of soliciting pledges from his classmates, Greene will set off from the Naval Academy sea wall and ride a unicycle 92 miles to the Atlantic Ocean. Because Greene, despite his daily practices, has never ridden a unicycle more than five miles, Tanyi and two other classmates are joining him to run dozens of miles along the route with him. Greene is calling the event the Tanyi Trot.

If all goes as planned, Greene says he thinks they will make it to the ocean by tomorrow morning, and Tanyi will have enough money to buy the tickets.

"I know we can do this," Greene said this week during a meeting with Tanyi to talk about the route. "It's doable. I know we'll get there."

"I figured there needed to be something to get somebody's attention, to get people interested," he says. "Everybody knows James and what a good guy he is."

A big smile crosses Tanyi's face, but he looks down at the ground to hide it. He attends the academy through the school's foreign nationals program, which brings several dozen foreign students to Annapolis who then serve their countries' military. He had never used a computer, but Tanyi was so skilled in math and physics from reading old textbooks in his family's small home that he was 2 1/2 years ahead of his class when he arrived for the start of plebe summer in June 1997.

Tanyi and Greene found they have a lot in common - both are senior physics majors at the top of their class and seem to approach life with the same diligence.

Greene learned to ride the unicycle in November, part of a strategy, he says, to become more outgoing and comfortable talking to people. He's also learning card tricks and juggling.

But the two could not come from more different backgrounds.

Tanyi was born in the village of Akak-Manyu in Cameroon. His family moved to the city of Buea when his father enlisted in the army. He was taught to study for hours at night in a nation where most young men are either unemployed or working on farms.

Tanyi graduated from high school with highest honors. But for more than a year after that, he drifted, unable to find work or a college he could attend for free. He waited in line at the U.S. Embassy one day to find a program, academic or otherwise.

"There was this nice lady there," he says. "She asked if I was interested in military science. I said I couldn't afford any fees. ... I said I was worried about my English. I didn't have any history. After she looked at my records, she handed me the [Naval Academy] forms and said, `Just fill these out.'"

But Tanyi did have to pay one fee. He needed a $45 check drawn on a U.S. bank to take the SATs. It took his father almost six months to raise the money.

He also ran into another problem - the academy's physical readiness test. "Back home, we don't know what push-ups and pull-ups are," he says. "You're very skinny at home. You have to walk everywhere because transportation is too expensive. You don't exercise."

So he practiced, and in May 1997 he was accepted.

Greene had also received his acceptance letter. After excelling in science in high school, he decided to apply to the academy after stumbling upon a brochure in the library while researching a project.

The two met at the academy through physics, a challenging major that only 16 other classmates chose. They became friends during their internships in New Mexico.

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