October 12, 2016

From African orphanage to St. Kate’s

Jacqueline Mosio ’67 (left) and Maria Nhambu ’67 at the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women. Inset: Nhambu's book, Africa’s Child. Photos by Pauline Oo.

When Maria Nhambu ’67 speaks of her childhood, she tears up. So do most of the people who gather around her to hear her talk. Nhambu captures the highs and lows of life in a biracial orphanage, in Africa’s Child, her recently released first book of a three-part memoir.

“It took me 25 years to write it,” says Nhambu, who spoke in the Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women last week (Oct. 6). “And I’m still getting used to sharing it publicly. Usually when I come to talk about my book, I bring a box of tissues because this is a very personal story… mixed race children were not accepted in African society at that time, and obviously not in white society as well. We were very often hidden; some of us just lived and died without seeing
the light of day.”

To help tell her story in print — of beatings, an inner counselor and consoler whom she drew strength from, and a yearning to be better educated when advanced schooling wasn’t widely available to women — Nhambu called on St. Kate’s English major Jacqueline Mosio ’67 to be her editor.

“We met in our second semester, sophomore year, and it was an instant click,” says Nhambu, who was known as Mary Rose Ryan when she came to the University. “We’ve been friends every since.” In fact, Mosio is also the godmother to her two children.

Mosio, a St. Paul resident, is currently working with Nhambu on her second book to be released in spring 2017. America's Daughter begins with her years at St. Kate’s.

So, how did an African orphan from Tanzania with no means get to the United States?

Well, the full story is in Africa’s Child. But, here’s the abbreviated version: Catherine Murray Mamer ’61 helped her get a four-year scholarship to St. Kate’s, and essentially became the mother Nhambu never had.

“That was the turning point in my life,” notes Nhambu. “She was my English teacher at the first school for girls in Tanzania, which was run by American Maryknoll nuns. I was 19 and she was 23… she took a chance on a lost child.”

Nhambu went on to study French at St. Kate’s, marry a Norwegian national, teach African Studies at Central High School in south Minneapolis — yes, Prince was her student! —and create Aerobics with Soul ®, a fitness workout based on African dance.

“I wrote the book because I wanted to share my story, and I wanted people to get whatever they need from it,” she says. “I also wrote it for all the orphans whose lives amounted to nothing; 75 percent of the children I grew up with are now dead.”

For Samsam Farah ’19, the mere mention of children without parents was reason enough for her to buy Nhambu’s book — and to stand patiently in line to get an
autograph, and a hug.

“I’m from Somalia but I grew up in Kenya, and I’ve always wanted to work at a orphanage because my mother raised three orphans with us," says Farah, a respiratory care major at St. Kate's. "I want to be like her and help kids who don't have a family, and give them home and hope. I was touched by [Nhambu’s] talk, and I can’t wait to read her book.”

Africa’s Child (Dancing Twiga Press) is available from major online booksellers and in St. Kate’s bookstore for $24.95.

By Pauline Oo