Cameroon-Born Librarian Finds Passion and Immigration Secrets in Stacks
BUSHWICK — As he clasped the cover of his Chinua Achebe book in the basement of Bushwick's public library, Boniface Wewe lit up sharing the recently deceased Nigerian author's proverb that helped guide his life.
"I cannot live by the banks of the river and wash my hands with spittle," Wewe recited by heart from the novel "Things Fall Apart." "In other words, when there's so much abundance you have to make something of it...I feel like that in America."
Wewe, who grew up in Cameroon to an overnight security guard-father who had 16 children and two wives, has found forms of "abundance" since he was a child — and often he's encountered them in books. Now the supervising librarian for Brooklyn Public Library's Washington Irving branch, Wewe discovered compassion, filmmaking talent, and even his own route to permanent U.S. residency in the stacks.
"Destiny sent me to the library. I love it," said Wewe, 51, who first came to the country in 1989, on a Fulbright scholarship for a masters degree in library science at the University of Pittsburgh. "I read the immigration manual from the library and prepared my own case...Sometimes I have to tell people the beacon we are, the gem that they're missing."
Wewe, who zealously speaks out at local community board meetings and at other Bushwick forums, also realized his own calling as a filmmaker and writer about Cameroon and other African countries while he was in the Brooklyn library, he said.
"I noticed a real dearth of materials on Africa, apart from Chinua Achebe. Someone came and asked for a film on African dance and there was none. It was a real shame. We Africans need to be proactive," he said. "So I went to Africa and shot a dance documentary...and the library bought it!"
After that realization in 1999 (while he was based at Brownsville's library branch, where he was until 2005), Wewe became both a prolific filmmaker and writer. He has self-published a few books including the popular "African Sex Education" that coaches African men to be more romantic pursuing their partners, and is completing a book called "Welcome to Cameroon," he said.
"I'm a librarian by profession and an artist by design," said Wewe, who has worked in branches throughout the borough the past 20 years.
It was not only the books — or lack thereof — that brought Wewe epiphanies while in Brooklyn's libraries. So did the clients.
"I saw so many kids with no fathers when I worked in Brownsville...they called me 'Pops,'" he said. "I was going through a divorce then and I fought like a lion to keep my only child."
Now Wewe, whose only daughter Barbara is a 17-year-old junior at Brownsville's High School for Medical Professionals, said he is raising her with a mix of values drawn from Cameroon and the U.S.
"Even though my dad had 16 kids he made sure to send us all to college...he was very thrifty, cultivated crops and invested in the bank. He sacrificed a lot," said Wewe. "I just took [Barbara] to visit Cameroon and there we have so much family support, from uncles to her grandma who's 92, and when we came back [Barbara] was depressed...There you have so much family support."
For now, Wewe hopes to be a type of familial support for the children who visit his library, just as he said his college's president in Cameroon was for him.
But in a few years, he said he plans to go back to where he started — with a transformed vision.
"I'm building my retirement home in Cameroon...In three to five years I'll return there," he said. "I came here to discover the world, to learn new things, and for greener pastures. I'm not the same person who came here 20 years ago."