Closing the distance

James Tanyi has helped his family cross the vast physical and cultural divide between Cameroon and Annapolis so they could attend his graduation from the Naval Academy.

May 24, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

The two brothers stand inside an Annapolis ice cream shop, one a regular who always orders French vanilla, the other a novice who has never seen two dozen flavors in one place. The novice runs his hand down the long freezer, pausing at names like "Moosetracks" and "Muddy Sneakers."

Ice cream cones in hand, the two step outside. The older brother, James Tanyi, turns to say goodbye, shakes the younger brother's hand and winces in pain. "Ah, you can't give me that grip," he chides Philip. "My hands aren't so strong anymore."

James has spent the last four years at the Naval Academy, using his hands to strengthen his body, master rifle drills and excel in physics. Philip has spent these years in the brothers' West African town of Buea, Cameroon, where wood is chopped with an ax, grass is cut by machete and clothes are scrubbed on a wash board.

As they stand in front of the ice cream shop, surveying each other for the first time in more than four years, they first seem as distant as strangers.

But then James reaches out to Philip, tugs on the 21-year-old's borrowed sailing jacket and eyes his brother's new clothes - khaki pants, tennis shoes, a fleece pullover. "You are getting good at dressing like an American," says the broad-shouldered midshipman.

Philip beams - he's been here only three days.

That Philip Tanyi is standing on the brick-laid streets of this historic waterfront town amazes James, who never thought he would see family members in this world so far from home. Since his arrival at the Naval Academy four years ago, James has been dreaming of this day, saving his Navy pay to bring his family to Annapolis for tomorrow's graduation. And, with the help of his Navy buddies, namely his best friend Jeff Greene, a 92-mile unicycle fund-raising drive and donations from hundreds of Marylanders, the day has come.

From ice cream parlors to shopping malls, this has been a week of firsts for Philip and his mother, Cecilia Tanyi, as James has tried to guide them through the trappings of his new life.

The first time on an airplane. A first breakfast of French toast. A dizzying ride along their first expressway.

Cecilia, a diminutive woman with neat curls clustered above her shoulders, grins widely each time she see James coming toward her, the oldest of her five children, sharply dressed in his Naval Academy whites. Her eyes follow him closely - emotion and displays of affection are private matters in Cameroon.

On a rainy morning this week, she sits in the bleachers alongside a grassy field at the Naval Academy where 4,000 midshipmen march in parade formation. A raincoat covers her traditional dress, a purple swath that wraps around her body. The 43-year-old mother, accompanied by her Annapolis hosts, scans the crowd of midshipmen.

But where is James? No one can spot him. Heads keep turning. Cecilia looks straight ahead, more than half a football field away, and a deep smile crosses her face.

Softly, quietly, she whispers a greeting to her first-born son: "Hi."

For the week, Cecilia and Philip are staying in the home of Paul and Sue Mikulski. The couple was so moved by the efforts to unite James with his family (his father arrived last night) that they offered to host the Tanyis at their two-story split-level.

Paul, a marina owner, made his famous homemade oatmeal and spaghetti sauce, full of spices of which his guests had never heard. Sue, a pediatric nurse, explained how a washing machine works.

"Their culture seems much slower," Sue says. "It's not the high-paced East Coast culture we're used to. What a great week this has been for us. We've become so wrapped up in all of this. It has been so fun to be a part of something so exciting."

The Tanyis speak English, as do most natives of the former British and French colony. But they are more comfortable speaking their tribal language, Ejagham. They are polite and reserved, preferring to keep their suitcases packed so as not to impose on their American hosts.

But in the comfort of the Mikulskis' living room, in a big easy chair, Cecilia Tanyi laughs easily. She looks at pictures of James taken by Sue on her digital camera and giggles at her son's silly expressions. Cecilia then shares photos of her three younger daughters.

During a shopping trip to Marley Station Mall, Cecilia walks quietly along the corridors, marveling at the array of stores and the vastness of this indoor space. At JC Penney, the $20 cost of a wallet seems excessive to her. At home, James says, you shop to buy food. Clothes, you make.

"We ask all these personal questions - how are you, what do you think, what do you do - that are very invasive questions to many cultures like theirs," says Susan Burkhart, James Tanyi's sponsor mom who has watched him become more outgoing over the past four years. "The traffic here surprises them, having dogs in houses, the huge stores, just the abundance of things.

"It has reminded me of how much we have and how much we take for granted," says Burkhart, a retired school teacher.

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