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Kenyan Comes to the U.S. in Search of Better Game : Young Tennis Player Is Also Learning About Racism While Attending Chapman College

March 25, 1985|KELLY CARTER | Times Staff Writer

The moment is not one Paul Wekesa savors. After flying 28 hours from Nairobi, Kenya, Wekesa landed at Orange County's John Wayne Airport only to be greeted by the Chapman College soccer team.

One problem: he came to the private school in Orange to play tennis, and though the members of the soccer team were hospitable, he felt lost.

Welcome to the New World, where his culture often is misunderstood and his identity often mistaken.

If Kenya's No. 1 junior tennis player had a rather portentous entry into the United States, what he has experienced in the six weeks since has been downright disappointing.

"When I tell whites I'm from Africa, they sort of laugh," Wekesa said. "They think they're superior or something because I'm African. They sort of look down at you. They think it's such a rundown place, so when they hear you're from Africa they say 'How did he come here?' and stuff like that. I don't care what they think."

Wekesa faces the cumbersome task of enduring a society ignorant to his way of life. He often is asked if he lived in a bamboo-grass hut and fended off the jungle's most heinous wildlife.

The truth is, Wekesa comes from a well-to-do family. His father, Noah, a veterinarian in Nairobi, owns a 2,000-acre farm near Kitale, a city in western Kenya close to the Ugandan border. But Wekesa is no farm boy. He said he seldom goes to the farm, though his parents spend a lot of time there. He was reared in the country's capital, Nairobi, one of the most European-flavored cities in Africa, and has studied abroad in England.

Kenya, one of East Africa's most prosperous countries, was a British colony until 1963. It is bounded on the south by Tanzania, on the west by Uganda, northwest by Sudan, on the north by Ethiopia and northeast by Somalia.

"I think Americans see things about Ethiopia, and they think the rest of Africa is like that because that's all they get on TV here about Africa," Wekesa said.

Wekesa's teammate, Terry Davis, a black transfer from Compton College, said: "White people always have their little comments about the brothers from Africa. Jungle bunnies and all this other stuff and so forth. They only thing they associate Africa with is jungle and tribe. But they just really don't know what Africa is all about."

Said Chapman tennis Coach Mike Edles, who first met Wekesa last December at the international Orange Bowl tennis tournament at Miami: "In Orange County, these kids are just so sheltered and all they know about Africa is what they see on Wild Kingdom."

Kenya is a country plentiful in lions, tigers and snakes, which the country's tourist bureau advertises to attract visitors to its vast national parks and wildlife preserves. But it also is a sophisticated country, internationally known in athletics for its outstanding distance runners.

Said Vicky Koerner, the director of the Chapman international students program: "Orange County is quite provincial, and that's the attitude of most people on campus. I don't think the Africans stand out as a group because there are a lot of blacks. So, the white students look at them as being the same."

But it takes time to blend in, and Wekesa still is adjusting to the quintessence of Southern California life: fast-food restaurants and driving on the opposite side of the road from Kenyans. Also, Wekesa says academic standards are much more lax than he faced at the Hillcrest Secondary School in Kenya and at the Millfield Boys School in England.

Like most Kenyans, Wekesa graduated from secondary school at age 16. Afterward, he took a year's hiatus. When he started at Chapman six weeks ago, he expected a rough time with his studies. With a major in biology, he even skipped a tennis match against USC in order to attend classes during his first week. Now he realizes he needn't worry; his classes are much easier than he anticipated.

"Americans seem to take academics more easily," he said.

But Wekesa, 17, came to the United States to learn tennis, a game the Americans are well schooled in. Tennis is in its embryonic state in Kenya, which is to Wekesa's advantage in the rankings. He was taught by his father, who has played a major role in getting him into a U.S. school.

"Paul is playing good tennis, considering he doesn't have one-tenth the coaching these kids get," his father said in a telephone interview from Kenya. "I think the college game will shape him up a bit."

Wekesa started receiving informal tennis lessons from his father at age 7. He hasn't had an instructional coach until Edles this spring, although he has attended camps in England.

Because Wekesa was a virtual unknown on the tennis circuit, his father had difficulty in convincing U.S. collegiate coaches of his son's merits. He tried for three years to get Paul a scholarship, but has failed--Wekesa is playing at Chapman as a walk-on.

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