Sylvie Bello

Why Would A Black Family Get An Aquarium Membership?

-In defense of my African Maritime Heritage

By Sylvie Bello*


Sylvie Bello
Sylvie Bello

In celebration of Black History Month and the Cameroon’s National Youth Day observed on February 11th, I found myself battling stereotypical arguments. Interestingly, a membership to the Oklahoma Aquarium that I had acquired for my 4 year-old niece led to comments from some of my friends and associates that I was acting ‘White’.

“How is an aquarium membership acting white?” I found myself pondering aloud.  It came as a surprise to them that my decision to get the Oklahoma Aquarium membership was rooted in part because of my deep African Maritime Heritage.

My niece Kayla Bello, lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is not only an ocean away from our native Cameroon in West Africa. Tulsa has no beaches and has very little aquatic environments. My family on other hand has a strong maritime background and it was my desire to pass that heritage to my only niece and to future Bello grand kids and descendants.

My African Maritime story?

Considering that Cameroon is named after River Wouri makes for an interesting historical reference. Briefly, the colonial oppressors upon seeing the multitudes of shrimps in the Wouri named it “Rio dos Camarões” (River of Shrimps). River Wouri runs into the city of Douala, the economic capital of Cameroon.

I was born and raised in Douala. Growing up, I enjoyed family time at the century old Ngondo Water Festival, the Yupe fish market, had my secondary school graduation picnic at the seaside Base Elf, we visited the Douala Maritime Museum and participating in many boating events in Douala. During Christmas vacations in my paternal village of Mbem in the North West Region of Cameroon, we enjoyed many aquatic activities from bathing and washing clothes in the river, fetching water, and water drumming. Anyone who has had that unique joy of spending time in an African village will know what I am taking about!

My secondary school was spent at the prestigious Saker Baptist College, an all girls boarding school in the coastal town of Limbe in South West Region of Cameroon. Our family loved the black sand beaches of Limbe, which CNN recently praised in an extensive coverage.

My Dad, Tah Ndi Majang Amos Ngaben Bello studied Geography and Hydrology at the University of Yaounde in Cameroon and at The Hague in Holland. He was an Administrator at the Sea Ports in Douala. Dad was born in Mbem Village in Donga-Mantung Division (on the Cameroon/Nigeria borders), which has with many rivers such as the Mantung River. Dad’s father did fishing and farming. Grandpa Ngaben talked of our ancestors freely swimming into present day Nigeria, this was before the ‘Scramble of Africa’ and the separation of families to form African ‘countries’.

My maternal grandfather Papa Christophe Bienvenue Ngassa worked as a government delegate in charge of fishing and hunting licenses in Obala Cameroon’s rainforests. I look back and fondly remember grandpa Ngassa’s visits to Douala with gifts of all kinds of fish and meats.

Today, a third generation of Bellos are continuing to explore and thrive in the Maritime field. Unlike the males of our family’s maritime past, this generation of Bellos in maritime are …women! Starting with me, as a teenager, my very first job was as a summer intern at ONPC now known as the Ports Authority of Douala. I returned to ONPC for many summer internships during my high school years. My sister Rita Bello did her university thesis on Sea Port Administration in Cameroon. While another sister, Manuella Bello has a Bachelor’s Degree in Maritime and Transportation Management and is a seasoned professional in the maritime industry.

So, though the desire to share our family’s maritime heritage was a strong motivation, a book on Black scientists sparked my niece’s curiosity in aquatic life.

You see, last December, my niece Kayla and I, participated in the annual Tulsa Kwanzaa Celebration organized by Ms. Latimer of the African-American Resource Center at the Tulsa Public Library. Several books were given out as favors; one of the books on Black scientists caught Kayla’s eyes.  Astonishingly, of the five scientists highlighted in the book Kayla was most fascinated by the story of the great Black Marine Biologist Dr. Ernest Young. Amazing Kayla too may have caught the Bello aquatic bug!

After reading the book, we ventured to the Tulsa based Oklahoma Aquarium.  I mean, where else in the frigid winter can one show a child fishes and other maritime life? Where else can a child have dreams of being a marine biologists or a veterinarian? Furthermore, consider fishing as a recreation?

To our great dismay, the Oklahoma Aquarium has never had a Black History Month event, even in its 10 years of existence. Additionally, its gift shop has zero books on Black scientists not even Dr. Ernest Just, who while a biology professor at Howard University, co-founded the 100+ old Omega Psi Phi Fraternity.

With the national cry of Black children and low outcomes of not graduating high school, let alone majoring in college sciences, how can these STEM related institutions that get tax dollars, get away for so long with little or no outreach and culturally sensitive programs for the Black community?

Its a good thing that Kayla’s interest in aquatic life was sparked by a Kwanzaa Book donation at the library and her family’s heritage. What about other Black kids who couldn’t get books on scientists or who may not have family members to nurture such interests? They depend on our tax dollars to reach them, and aquariums, that do not have Black History Month events and Black themed books in their gift shops, I believe  are failing such kids and failing America as a whole. Thus we as a country cannot fully fulfill President Obama’s wish to out-perform and out-innovate the rest of the world, when (some) scientific institutions are not actively engaged in African American outreach and inclusion.

Makes me wonder, how many other aquariums across the US will not have Black History Month Events in 2014. What motivations does the Oklahoma Aquarium need to celebrate African American heritage?

Ironically, could it be that my associates were right? Do aquariums not cater to a diverse base? Should obtaining aquarium membership be only for White families? Hmmm.

*Sylvie Bello is Founder and CEO of the Cameroon American Council, the leading national African Immigrant Advocacy Organizations in the USA. She was recently recognized by the Cameroon Association of Tulsa for her  outstanding community work. When Sylvie is not advocating on African immigrant priorities in immigrationhealth, education,and food policies, she is a volunteer at the Walters Arts Museum, the Shakespeare’s Theatre Company and the Ford’s Theatre. Sylvie’s eclectic post-college life includes being an Interior Decorator, Accounting/Finance Manager, , Presidential Campaign staffer, TV Reporter, Non-Profit Executive and Leadership roles on the boards of her sorority Omega Phi Chi Multicultural Sorority and the board of her boarding schools alumni (Saker Baptist College and CPC Bali).Sylvie splits her time betweenTulsa, New York City,and Washington,DC.

Sylvie Bello can be reached via email: ,Twitter: @CamAmerCouncil






  1. Interesting, reading about your families’ maritime history. Thanks for sharing! Dismayed that someone had the audacity to question such an innocent activity done in the interest of exposing and enriching your niece, much less label it ‘white’. Who even does that anymore?! I would just spit those comments out along with the people – excuse my disgust. Not even worth a response. Happy for your niecey though. I love it when family history, good books and access to great field trips come together for a multidimensional learning experience. Yay! #winning!

  2. AWWWE, Sylvie is lovely, “u bi pikin fo water”. i enjoyed your story…

    • Ha! Good thing you no tok say mami!!! I wonder why Disney’s mermaid stories can be hmmm ‘enchanting’ and our African underwater stories are not so endearing.

      We a good PR for our African maritime/aquatic stories!

      Again thanks Winifred~

  3. Great job Sylvie…you are an inspiration to many around you-keep up your good works. God bless!!

  4. Wow!! Miss Bello, so much good history and tradition I was not yet familiar with. Love the way you write. It’s very conversational. Would love to read more please. Your dad had so many names, 5 not counting Tah lol.
    Sadly some African will remain in a limited mindset until a new generation or breed of African children will grow to change that box mentality. Glad you are sowing those seeds in your niece because it is what will bring about the kind of growth and development we need from an administrative and infrastructural perspective.
    Thank you for sharing this,

  5. I am truly glad to know there is much more about Douala that i am yet to know as far as the maritime is concerned. The way you speak of it picks my interest and will get me looking for more. Another thing is that these libraries may not be neglecting black history and its books as much as we may assume, but we should ask ourselves how much efforts we put into marketing and advertising these books to reach the people that we want it to get to. You should also remember and not be biased of the fact that our history is still unfolding in the western world the struggle is not over but it was hidden or mostly suppressed and unknown. Our efforts, especially the efforts you are making with CAC to put it out there is what will change things come 2020 and better yet 2030.
    I will forever be grateful to CAC for giving me the unique opportunity to meet, shake hands and speak with the President of the United States in that regard, but the responsibility for such changes lie in our day to day efforts. We are busy trying to impress people or to make people see how much respect we deserve and sometimes neglecting to nurture the single power that can make that difference in the near future which is our kids. What you did for your niece, and the response you got is not a surprise but I am mostly glad that it did not stop you.

    I believe that the future holds much for us. We have seen dark days as much as will see days with plenty of light if we do not stop at nay. Look at how they treat these young boys in Florida? It’s not only putting more fuel to fire but killing the little hope that other hound kids may have to make an effort that might be wasted with one bullet or a word of discouragement,
    Africa has beguiled the world, but we need to do our part to focus on progress, remember our pain but quit looking back because looking back does nothing but take us back and slows our pace.

    Thank you Miss Bello, You write very well.

  6. Gladys Happi

    Awesome Sylvie. I love the article. I’ve taken my boys to the aquarium in Baltimore and Orlando a few times and they love it. I would consider a membership,why not? Great article.

  7. miss Ziwa kelly Bello

    My dearest sweet sis, you are really a wonderful story teller. Truely I enjoyed myself reading through the line.Giving me fresh good and loving memories of past.Hahaaa!! remember those times of
    christmas,when daddy will ask us all to go to bed early, and tell us that father chrismas is coming,so he will place our gifts under the chrismastree.”that was so cute “just the perfect way I would love to received any gift.With spiecy surprises”

  8. miss Ziwa kelly Bello

    Love you much sis Sylvie Bello.Spread my love to all especially Baby Kayla and sis Rita’s Raissa.Take care, Mama and anunty Manu says Hi

  9. I am from a landlocked African country and currently reside in a western country. This story has touched me immensely. I wish all black children would have membership to the aquariums and aquatic places/events in their towns so as to encourage even those who have no history with the sea to acquire knowledge and to have fun learning about aquatics. Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a child from say, Zambia, Central African Republic or Zimbabwe grow up to study marine biology or become a leader in maritime safety, aquarium management or other oceanic careers?

    The argument that some things are for white people only is obsolete. When we take stands like that, we diminish the prospects of our children enjoying the full benefits of being global citizens. Just because a child grew up in the village and could only beat the African drum does not mean that that child should not learn how to play the violin or learn how to ice skate!

    Thank you very much for your article.

  10. Christine Barker

    Sylvie, I thank you so for this share. Is it “white” to embrace your culture, is it “white” to have intellecutal curiosity, is it “white” to be smart? No! It is beautifully, wonderfully you! please teach all of our children, white, asian, hispanic and african american that message. So happy our paths have crossed today.

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