When I was in the fifth year of elementary school, an African young man came to stay with us for a few months. His name was Alan Osenbei. Every Japanese can remember his family name, Osenbei, immediately with a sense of familiarity because Osenbei is the general term for rice crackers in Japanese and is a soul food for us. No matter how many years pass, I will never forget his name, Alan Osenbei.
Alan was a young man who my father traveled together in West Africa. My father was totally fearless in his 40s, and he often went on adventures just like Indiana Jones. In fact, he flew over to West Africa where Ebola hemorrhagic fever was spreading, only because he wanted to see the place Annubias naturally grew. Alan was the interpreter the Japanese Embassy introduced him at that time. Alan came from Gabonese Republic and was early 20s then. He was one of the rare local people who were able to speak English, and fortunately or unfortunately, he was to go along with my father’s lethal adventure. The natural habitat of Annubias located in backland of jungle where even local people had fear to enter. Pygmies, the people of the forest, were the only ones who could act as a guide in the jungle. Although Alan’s original role was to translate their language to English, being young and sturdy, Alan became also a reliable porter. And thanks to his sweet personality, my father immediately came to like him.
“You should come to Japan to study one day”, my father told Alan. He was delighted and made a promise to my father, “Yes, one day, I will surely come.” The one day actually came soon. He was doing very well at school and accepted as an international student by a national University to study in Japan for a few years. My father invited him to our town. Not knowing such circumstance, I was extremely nervous about meeting an African young man for the first time. He was actually the first person from different countries who I had contacted with. Although I was very shy with new people back in those days, surprisingly, I opened up my mid right away with Alan. Within a few months, he improved his Japanese enough to understand everyday conversation. He spoke to my sister and me in awkward Japanese with a gentle smile.
Alan was supposed to help my father’s work for a few months. My father had found a flat for Alan at the other side of the small park located in front of our house. We invited him for dinners and he ate with all of our family every night. It was my sister and my role to pick him up. We walked through the park to get to Alan’s flat, and rang the bell, “Dinner is ready.” Then, three of us walked together about 100 meters from his flat to our house. I remember Alan was always walking slowly behind us. My mother tried to get a little creative with the menus such as cooking meat in western style, which she usually hadn’t done. “It is tasty,” Alan ate anything and a lot. We, kids, were happy to have him because we had a feast every night thanks to him.
During every summer vacation, we used to make a family trip, and that summer was no exception. At that time, my older siblings had already entered troubling puberty, and they would rather play with their friends than travel with the family. So, five of us went to Towada-Hachimantai National Park: my father, my mother, my sister and I, and of course, Alan. Situated among one of the Ou Mountains, there are bogs and ponds around the beautiful highlands. Alan said that he was told by his mother to be careful being in countryside of Japan because there would be Ninja. We first thought he was joking though, he was laughing that his mother was seriously worried about it.
In Hachimantai, there is a boardwalk along the hiking trails that we can walk around in a few hours. As always, holding a camera and a tripod, my father was walking slowly on the trail to take photographs. Alan was helping my father. My younger sister and I got bored with his slow pace and complained that we wanted to go faster. We walked further and further while we were innocently fooling around. We sometimes looked back but soon three of them disappeared from our sight. On our way, we got to a fork. To the right or to the left? – I was unable to make the decision. Although we decided to sit down on the stone and wait until our father caught up with us, there was no sign of those three to appear. All of the people who came after us turned to the right. Being intolerant any longer, we started walking on the path toward the right. No matter how far we walked, however, we won’t find the entrance of the trail – quite the contrary, it seemed like we were going into the mountains. By the time we started noticing something might be wrong, it was almost sundown. We started getting more and more anxious and didn’t know what to do anymore. When we were wondering whether we should turn back or not, we saw somebody rushing toward us at lightning speed. He was running through the forest lightly as if he had got wings. It was Alan. As soon as he recognized us, he gave a small smile to us and said one word in awkward Japanese,” everybody is worried about you guys.”
Being relieved from bottom of our heart, we followed after Alan to go back the way we came. We should have turned to the left at the fork. The path toward the left led us to the starting point immediately. As we got there, our parents were waiting for us, and our mother was getting weepy. She was so worried about us. Both of them thought that we went missing and they were about to report to a searching party. My father thanked Alan over and over. “I wanted to run to find you guys too though, Alan dashed off,” my father said.
I wonder whether I thanked him properly or not on that day. To be honest, I don’t remember. My 27 years old younger sister still sometimes says, “Alan was very cool at that time.” Alan Osenbei. The reason why I can’t forget his name is not only because it is easy to remember. The gentle and smart young man showed us his true face in the mountain. Perhaps Ninja was actually Alan. No matter how many years pass, I will never forget his true face.
text & illustration by Sayuri Amano
English translation by Megumu Ogata