Kimberly Paynter | NewsWorks.org
East Oak Lane resident Doug Oliver is searching for his father, who may still be in Philadelphia—or as far away as Africa.
A Philadelphia man is searching for his long-lost father, who could be as far away as Africa or as close as Germantown, around the corner near his old neighborhood haunts.
East Oak Lane resident Doug Oliver said he didn't even know something was missing until one night a few years ago when he was tucking his son, who was 6 years old at the time, into bed. The boy looked up and asked, "Why doesn't your dad tuck you in?" Oliver was caught off guard.
Oliver, now 38, got all the support and guidance he needed from his mother, aunts, uncle and grandmother. He hadn't thought to look for his biological father. But with his young son's prodding,
Oliver set out, curious to find the father he'd never met.
Memorable, but mysterious
Oliver's mom, Terri Oliver Crabe, met Oliver's father in the 1970s when she was living with her parents in Germantown. "His name that I knew him as was Diallo Ssengendo, and he was very charming, and he had a beautiful French accent—that's what I thought it was anyway—and I said,
'OK, let's just see where this goes.'"
Crabe was rebelling against her religious upbringing when the couple got together. The relationship didn't last long, but, as she points out, "it doesn't take very long to get pregnant."
She said she was frightened by Ssengendo's response when she told him she was expecting. "He said, 'If I thought this was my son, my child, then I would take him back to Senegal'—that's where he was from. 'I would take him back to Senegal and have him live with my grandmother and have her raise him.'"
Crabe said it wasn't easy for her to be a pregnant, single, African-American woman from a religious family. Plus, she worried the father really would kidnap the baby and take him back to Africa.
After Oliver was born she started looking for his father, but he had disappeared, leaving only dead ends. So she moved on. "My desire to find him never died, but I wearied at some point," she said.
Even decades later, Diallo Ssengendo stands out in the minds of people who knew him. Jonathan Pinkett, one of Ssengendo's old friends from his days in Philly, said of him, "The general belief was that he was an African prince from an African country from an African tribe."
Pinkett, who now owns an art gallery in Manayunk, said Ssengendo stood out in Philadelphia back then. "[He was] very lean, very dark and obviously very African. But he always wore an all-white suit, with loafers, white shirt, blue tie. I mean he just looked like a diplomat or something, although he was, I guess, basically just a student."
Pinkett said he can't remember which school Oliver's dad attended and isn't sure what country he came from.
A burglar stole the only photo Oliver's family had of his biological father, so he said it meant a lot to him when Pinkett told him, "Oh man, you look just like your Daddy!"
"And to hear those kinds of things," Oliver said, "I didn't need the picture anymore." Oliver said while the stories his dad's old friends tell may seem insignificant, to him they're not. Every detail he learns about his dad helps him paint a picture of the man he's never met.
A series of dead ends
Oliver didn't have his dad in his life, but he has had success: He spent time as Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter's spokesman and now works for Philadelphia Gas Works. In his search for his father, Oliver said a lot of the clues he's tracked down led him to Germantown.
"I know more about my dad than I ever did," he said, "but I never felt further away from finding him than I do right now, just because people's recollections get foggy. And I worry that he'd probably be 67, 68, and at some point he's off the radar. But the fact that he could be in Philadelphia still, bothers me."
Oliver's not even sure if he knows his father's real name. His mom recalls Diallo Ssengendo from Senegal. The surname Ssengendo isn't common there, but it is common in Uganda. The old friends are not much help. Most only knew him by the nickname "Bayou."
To make matters cloudier, a test showed that Oliver's DNA on his father's side traces back 100 percent to Angola. Oliver said he's checked records at various colleges people said his dad attended, but he's turned up nothing. He even hired a private investigator.
Oliver's son Ifanyi said he didn't expect the search would be so difficult. What will the 10-year-old do if they find his biological grandfather? "I'd probably just run and hug him, say 'I love you, Grandpa,' or something. I'm not sure yet."
Doug Oliver said he's not angry and he doesn't want to chastise his father, but he would like to hang out with him, maybe have a beer. "I'd like to go break some bread," he said. "I'm not even saying we need to be friends. I mean if we could, that'd be great, but if he doesn't want to, I don't feel any need to connect with him as a person more than he wants to."
Oliver said he'd like to go to Africa to try to track down his father, or at least siblings or cousins. He said his son keeps asking when the trip's going to happen. He's unsure, but is driven to keep searching.