First Posted: 3/15/2013
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a two-part series. Here’s a recap of part one: Joe Sylvanovich, who grew up in Exeter and graduated from the old Exeter High in 1964, joined the Peace Corps in 1972 and was sent to teach chemistry at a high school in Kenya.
He helped the school build a national reputation for the sciences. Two of his Kenyan students who eventually built successful careers in America, talked about how he changed their lives.
In 1975 Sylvanovich’s Peace Corps hitch was up and he went back to Exeter. In 1977 he took the Kenyan school up on a standing offer and went back to teach as a private citizen.
In 1981 he was murdered near the school under mysterious circumstances. No one was ever arrested for his murder.
Mark Johnson, a teacher from Minnesota, joined the Peace Corps in August of 1976 and was assigned to St. Paul’s School in Amukura, Kenya where he met and befriended teacher Joe Sylvanovich from Exeter, Pennsylvania.
In an email Johnson said they hit it off because they had similar personalities.
”We both were, by nature, loners. We got along well with others, but didn’t need close contact with others. Joe had his philately (stamp collecting), and I my books to keep us company.”
They shared an house on the school campus for about two years in 1977 and ’78. The living conditions were primitive by USA standards, but pretty good for Kenya in the 1970s.
“We lived in a poor and isolated part of Kenya. There was no phone service and only the headmaster had a car, which was often broke down due to the poor quality of the roads. We had no refrigerator and electricity only from about 7 p.m. in the evening to 10 from the school’s generator. This was mainly for the students benefit to provide light for study. We also had kerosene lamps. Our stove was powered by propane, when we could get it. We also used a small jeeko, a charcoal burner.”
The Peace Corps and the school paid minimal wages by USA standards, but with an exchange rate of eight Kenyan shillings per dollar Johnson and Sylvanovich made enough money to employ a houseboy and a cook.
Johnson and Sylvanovich employed the houseboy, who was a student, more for him than for themselves. Sylvanovich, in his typical fashion which endeared him to many of his students, paid the boy’s school fees and other expenses.
After dinner on a typical school day Sylvanovich and his friend John Simiyu, a math teacher, would walk to the market and drink a few Tusker beers at a place called Anyango’s. Johnson said he joined them on occasion and he described them as close friends.
Three years later that close friend Simiyu was alleged to be involved in Sylvanovich’s murder near that same market where they drank beer together.
Sylvanovich was murdered on May 27, 1981. By this time Sylvanovich’s students — Edward Omolo and Joseph Alila, who were interviewed in part one and considered Sylvanovich a mentor — were in other parts of Kenya and did not hear about his death until well after the fact.
Both were surprised because, they said, Amukura was a peaceful area. ”It was not the kind of place where you would be afraid to walk alone at night,” Alila said.
It took two weeks for the body to get back to Exeter and then to Wyoming where the funeral was at Bednarski’s Funeral Home on June 11. Rumors flew. Max Marcus, a high school buddy, heard Sylvanovich had been hit on the head with a lamp by intruders who broke into his apartment. Another friend recalls hearing the words, “brutalized, savagely beaten.”
At funeral home this week, Lyn Bednarski found a journal from 1981 with an entry about Sylvanovich. The cause of death reads: “Died of a fractured skull inflicted by an unknown assailant.”
Sylvanovich’s cousin, Carolann Sylvanovich, said Joe’s mother told her Joe had been stabbed 40 times and found in the bathtub at his house and that his watch and passport were missing. She also heard the murder may have been political and somehow connected to Ugandan Dictator Idi Amin. While Amurkura is near a major border crossing into Uganda, it is not likely that Idi Amin had anything to do with the murder, though politics of a different sort, tribal politics, which trump government, likely did.
Meanwhile Johnson, his Peace Corps hitch up, was back in Minnesota where he got this letter from a friend in Kenya reprinted misspellings and all:
I’ve very sad news for you:
Joe is at the point of death. He was attacked near the market on 20/5/81 at about 7.30 a.m. He was rushed to Busia and was later refered to Kakamega Hospital. Pancras (the school headmaster) contacted the embassy and plans were underway to wheel him to Nairobi. He had four major cuts at the head.
The intention and the attacker is not yet known but police are carring out investigations but rummor has it that Simiyu his closest is involved. In fact students couldn’t allow him to address them on parade (morning assembly) yesterday.
When the students heard the bad news, they ran to the shopping center and looted shops and beat up some people. Police are also investigating the case but six boys have already been picked up by police for possessing comodoties suspected to be from the looted shops.
The situation is very tense here and Pancras had to shed tears on parade yesterday,
A women teacher who accompanied Pancras to see the sick (Sylvanovich) had to collapse when she reached the sick bed.
I’ll go to Nairobi tomorrow 24/5/81
Based on that letter, a letter Johnson got from Sylvanovich about a month before his death — when he talked about his frustrations at St. Paul’s and that we was considering transferring to a different school — and based on what he leaned on a three week visit to Kenya in 1985, Johnson believes Sylvanovich’s beer drinking buddy John Simiyu, the math teacher, was involved.
Money, a school power struggle and tribal loyalties were the likely motives. Jobs were scarce and a teacher like Simiyu would be expected to support, not only his family, but an extended family. It was known Sylvanovich loaned Simiyu money. It didn’t help that Simiyu lost money on a sugar cane deal gone bust.
In December of 1980, Simiyu was promoted to Deputy Headmaster at St. John’s. “It is here that I think the conflict between the two started,” Johnson said. “Joe may have been badgering John to repay his loans, and John would have been under stress financially and from being a new deputy headmaster.”
Johnson’s theory: “Some Luia students, perceiving the stress which John Simiyu was under, attacked Joe Sylvanovich with pangas, machetes used in clearing brush. These people were quickly whisked away before the police investigation began, most likely by John Simiyu, but perhaps by others of his people. I can well imagine an elder of his tribe, the Luyia, giving the orders.
“The student’s response clearly shows Simiyu could no longer be at St. Paul’s. Where he was transferred, I do not know. I only know he was deeply affected by it, and if he did not explicitly sanction the murder, he felt the moral responsibility for it.”
Edward Omolo also went back to Kenya in the 1980s. “When he was killed he was in hiding because of tribal politics. Rival tribes wanted to head the school. The police were bribed. That’s what I was told.”
Joseph Alila, whose tribe is Luo, the same as President Obama’s father, said the tribes handle things their own way. “There’s not a hunger for an eye for an eye. If someone kills they are sent away. They don’t take another life, because someone else died.”
An eerie and, Alila believes, spiritual, postscript to the story developed in the 1990s. In 1993, with the blessing of his wife and five daughters, Alila left Kenya to attend the University of Alberta in Canada. In 1995 he applied several American grad schools. Several accepted him, but wanted him to wait. SUNY Binghamton wanted him to come immediately. He accepted and when he got there was in for the surprise of his life.
“I said, you’ve got to be kidding me. Here without even knowing it, I landed in the very same building where Sylvan did his masters.”
Alila— who is a novelist with 13 novels set in Kenya, one of which is a teaching tool at Brown University — said through him, Sylvanovich is the “grandfather” to scores of Kenya students who went to Binghamton after Alila. “The first was a student of mine when I taught in Kenya. Since then there has been a wonderful stream of chemistry students from Kenya every year. Soon the other departments caught up.
“I don’t know whether it’s mere coincidence because I applied very many places, and wound up in Binghamton. When I think of my historical connection to Sylvanovich, I don’t think it’s an accident that I wound up there. I think maybe his spirit took me there, and I am proud.”