Sonny Omatseye '79

 

colby in the delta

%827%left%One day at his home in Warri, Nigeria, Sonny Omatseye '79 was watching CNN via satellite when he recognized a familiar face.

On the television was a man he knew well,Professor Sandy Maisel, who had taught him government decades before. Now, his former teacher was being broadcast to all corners of the world, including Nigeria's rich, but troubled, Delta State, an embattled region of Africa's most populous country.

It isn't often that Omatseye sees a familiar Colby face, but he says the influence of his Mayflower Hill education has been lasting.

After college and a year in England, Omatseye returned to Nigeria to work in his family's business,a shipping company that services the most important industry in West Africa: oil. The Nigerian Delta exports two billion barrels a day. Today it sees strife and violence, as various groups fight for control of the wealth that comes up out of the ground. This winter multiple kidnappings occurred in the area, and the unrest was blamed for an increase in the worldwide price of oil in February.

%828%right%The region went through some especially hard times during the reign of the dictator Sani Abacha, who executed the writer Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. This dark chapter ended in 1998 with Abacha's mysterious death. According to Omatseye, things are getting better now.

"A lot of things went wrong," Omatseye said of those times, in an interview in Lagos, where had traveled on business for the day. "But now the government is trying to straighten them out. There is a lot of opportunity. I see a good picture for the country. What I like to say is, 'Nigeria is still a new place.'"

Studying at Colby, in the U.S., helped Omatseye in ways he didn't foresee when he was on Mayflower Hill. Many of the companies coming in to work the oil fields are American, and it has been easy for him to work with them.

"The kind of people I'm dealing with now, in the shipping industry, I relate to them more, though I didn't think about that at the time. Colby is well known. Sometimes I'm talking to these guys, and I say yes, I went to Colby. And they say, 'Oh my God, how did you get there?'"

When Omatseye "got there" in the 1970s there were only a handful of other Africans on campus and fewer than two dozen African Americans, he said. The whiteness and the cold came as a shock. But in his four years he came to love the College, and he still keeps in touch with people from his class. Still, while at Colby, he had no intention of staying in the U.S.

"As soon as I came back to Nigeria, I went straight home and joined the family business. Not like my [African] friends. The majority of them stayed back [in America]. I wanted to come home."

Over the years, even though Colby is several thousand miles west, in some ways it has seemed not so far away. Once, in the mid-1980s, two of Sonny's classmates showed up on his doorstep in Warri after trekking across the Sahara. There was the Professor Maisel spotting. And Omatseye is in his office every day by 7 a.m.,a relic of his early morning swim class at Colby. He even named the three ships his company owns after the school: Colby Swift, Colby Glory, and Colby Victory.

"Colby has a lot to do with everything I do," he said, "I will never lose my connection with Colby."

,Frank Bures