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A lifelong love of Africa

[caption id="attachment_6246" align="aligncenter" width="1289"] Ken Lohrentz is to the far right of the four teachers in the front row. The photo was taken on the occasion of the school dedication, Sept. 1, 1962, two weeks after Ken’s arrival as the first American teacher. Students are smartly dressed in their “double whites.”[/caption]

In the 1960s, Ken Lohrentz taught English in Tanzania for two and a half years. This summer he returned to the continent to see old friends, reconnect with former students, and soak up the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, the culture, and the people of eastern Africa.

“I think it’s terribly unfortunate that many people have the impressions of Africa that they do. The idea is that it’s all a place where violent acts and nonfunctional governments are found, and that it’s all a dangerous place. That’s not true,” said Ken, a resident of Lawrence Presbyterian Manor.

“My biggest takeaway of the whole trip is that we here in the U.S. get a very skewed view of what life in Africa is like. We only hear about the problem areas -- the violence and unrest that are occurring, and the poverty and hunger. We don’t hear about how wonderful the people are. They are so friendly, hospitable, kind and open to visitors.”

Ken graduated from Bethel College in North Newton, Kan., in 1962 with a history degree. The Vietnam War was escalating, and Ken was a religious objector to the war. His search for an alternative form of service that would satisfy the draft board led him to the faith-based Teachers Abroad Program of the Mennonite Church.

Two months later, he was headed to a boys’ boarding school in Kigoma, Tanzania. For the next few years, he taught English to high-school age boys, mostly from rural villages. They grew up speaking their tribal language, and most also knew Swahili.

This year, as Ken went to retrace his steps in Tanzania, the reunion began before he even landed in Kigoma. On his flight from the major city of Dar es Salaam, Ken noticed one of the attendants had the same last name as one of his former students. He asked if he was related to a Jonathan Mdadila. “He said, ‘Yes. He is my father.’ He was very successful, and I was really, really pleased to hear this was the case for quite a number of my previous students,” Ken said.

Jonathan had gone to university and had become a senior agriculture official with the Tanzanian government. He has six children; five have gone to college (the youngest is still in secondary school). Ken said it shows how education can lift up future generations. “Once a student like that is able to position himself in a very successful job within the academic, professional or economic elite, he is in a position to carry his own family along. I came across a number of examples like that,” Ken said.

Ken said he doesn’t think he was quite prepared to go so far from home when he did, but neither does he regret it. “That was a huge jump. I would have to admit now, in some ways, it was probably too big for me,” he says. “Sometimes we have a vision that gets a little ahead of us. It takes time for parts of us to catch up.”

Back in the U.S., Ken taught high school for a while and later became an academic librarian. From 1984 to 2006 (and again from 2012 to 2015), Ken was the bibliographer for African studies at the University of Kansas.

Ken also returned to Africa in 1998, when he went to Senegal, West Africa with a KU exchange program. As part of that trip, he completed a five-week book-buying trip in five countries for the KU libraries.

In 1984, Ken was delighted to make the acquaintance of Walter Bgoya, who was a book publisher and distributor from Tanzania. They met through the years since then at professional conferences in the U.S. and Canada. Ironically, Mr. Bgoya had been a student at KU from 1961 to 1965, at the same time that Ken was teaching in Tanzania. They became good friends, and Ken was able to visit him on this trip.

Exploring the world as a young man, and again in retirement, has had a tremendous influence on Ken’s worldview. “It opens up your mind and consciousness of others parts of the world. It was extremely educational to me. In so many ways, I was probably learning more myself than I was teaching,” Ken said.