From Where the Lion Roars: The Hunt for an American Education in Binghamton

Dr. Kitonyi’s grandmother took him to a school run by missionaries at the age of 9 and it was then that he began to view education as key to his future.

kitonyiA library friend of mine asked if I were familiar with a book called From Where the Lion Roars: the hunt for an American education in Binghamton by Peter N. Kitonyi. It is in the Local History room of the Albany Public Library. From the book information, Kitonyi attended Binghamton North High School, the “other” public high school besides Central in my hometown, back in the 1960s.

I was not familiar with the surname or the book. But I posted the information on a few Binghamton-based Facebook pages, and while no one remembered him, one person found an article in the Ithaca Journal, Ithaca being a small city about 50 miles from Binghamton, about how the American Civic Association helped him, as it has assisted immigrants for many years.

The ACA was familiar to me. My late father spent time volunteering there, and sometimes the family would be with him. My 16th birthday party was at that venue. And unfortunately, it was the site of one of those terrible mass killings in 2009.

The article read:

Kitonyi…was a teenager living in Kenya when he came across a letter in a magazine from a Binghamton resident, a letter that discussed the need for better education programs for disadvantaged children.

Kitonyi wrote to the author, expressing his desire for an American education. The ACA, along with the Rotary and Lions clubs and local churches, rallied around the cause, and Kitonyi came to the United States in 1961 at age 17.

The ACA worked with Kitonyi even while he was still in Kenya to find a host family for him.

“The ACA was instrumental; they really played a role,” said Kitonyi, who works in Albany in correctional education. “Because of their experience in knowing how to place families or children or refugees, they were in a position to help the Rotary Club and Lions Club to determine what neighborhood was good for me, what family would be good for me.”

Once he arrived in New York, the ACA continued to assist, helping with his paperwork and providing a social environment where he could meet other immigrants coping with adapting to life in the United States.

“Being an immigrant, it doesn’t matter what nationality you are – we were all undergoing the same assimilation process,” he said.

Even though Kitonyi dived into his studies, that process of assimilation wasn’t always easy. About a year after he arrived, he felt homesick; he missed his parents. Sometimes when he was feeling down, he’d go to the ACA. There, he’d talk with a volunteer – the same woman who signed the very first letter he’d received from the organization, back when he lived in Africa.

“It was a place to go if my chips were down,” he said. “I could go there and say what was going on. The door was open … and everybody knew I was Peter.”

I Googled the book title, and found several references to it, apparently out of print. But then I came across a RESOLUTION COMMEMORATING BLACK HISTORY MONTH 2013 AND HONORING THE EXTRAORDINARY CONTRIBUTIONS OF AFRICAN-AMERICANS TO THE NATION AND THE CITY OF ALBANY. This is something that has happened annually here, though I don’t know for how many years. On page 17, I come across this:
WHEREAS, residents of the 7th Ward are proud to nominate and honor Dr. Kitonyi during Black History Month for his many years of exemplary community service. Dr. Kitonyi’s remarkable story begins with his childhood in the 1950’s and early 1960’s in Kenya, Africa. During this period, Kenya was a British colony that practiced racial discrimination. Many Africans worked on coffee and sisal plantations in deplorable conditions.

A civil war, the Mau Mau Rebellion, was underway in the 1950’s and according to Dr. Kitonyi, many innocent people were unjustly incarcerated or killed. He and his family lived in fear for their safety. Dr. Kitonyi’s grandmother took him to a school run by
missionaries at the age of 9 and it was then that Dr. Kitonyi began to view education as key to his future. Child labor was the norm in Kenya, however, and Dr. Kitonyi was working full time by the time he was a young teen.

He would stop at a U.S. Information Service Library in Nairobi on his lunch break from work and it was then, browsing American publications, that he learned about life in America. Dr. Kitonyi’s native language is Swahili and, though his English was limited, he began corresponding with individuals from Binghamton, N.Y….

Though Dr. Kitonyi only had the equivalent of a fifth grade education and spoke limited English, he persevered, graduating from high school in Binghamton and then, college, at the State University of N.Y. at Delhi. Dr. Kitonyi studied agriculture while in college and after completing his associate’s degree went back to Kenya for five years to assist people in his homeland by teaching basic, subsistence farming skills in rural areas.

Dr. Kitonyi returned to the United States, to work and go back to school. He received a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Oneonta and pursued both master’s and doctorate degrees at the State University of New York at Albany. Dr. Kitonyi’s long career in public service in New York State included years at the Division for Youth, the Department of Education, and the Department of Corrections, retiring in 2012. During his years of public service, Dr. Kitonyi taught vocational skills to incarcerated youth and adults, and administered numerous educational programs…

Dr. Kitonyi continues to assist people in his homeland through programs such as Eyes for East Africa, a program that helps destitute individuals with various medical afflictions to their eyes, and programs that improve access to water in impoverished and drought-stricken areas of Africa.

Dr. Kitonyi and his wife Yolanda are proud parents of four adult children. Their two sons are police officers in the Albany Police Department. Residents of the 7th Ward are grateful for Dr. Peter Kitonyi’s many years of service to our community and believe he is most deserving of this honor…
OK, so this guy spent time in Binghamton; maybe my father even knew him. He’s lived in Albany for a number of years, which explains why the book is in the ALBANY collection, but, despite his accomplishments, I was totally unaware of him.

I’ve reached out to this man through some Africans in the area; it’s a tight-knit community, even though they came from a number of countries, to see if anyone knows him. Whether or not I meet him, I need to read that book.

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