Into Africa

In Nigeria all roads lead to Lagos. In South Florida all Nigerians take the road to Sam's place in Opa-locka.

In the darkness the warehouses along Opa-locka Boulevard all look alike. Flat, one-story boxes strung in a line, they offer no welcoming fluorescent signs, no explanatory billboards. Rarely are people seen on the sidewalk. Parking lots stretch out like vast asphalt plains. But six nights a week interior lights illuminate a small store in one of these nondescript concrete conglomerations.

Inside the store, Sam Jack, a heavyset black man bearing stacks of dried cod, lumbers cheerfully from a row of metal grocery shelves to a hand-built cashier's counter. Nigerian "high life" music, an energetic blend of pelvis-grinding African rhythms and Western-style pop melodies, blasts from a portable tape player. A tiny television above the counter shows a video of three dancing black women. They've tied strips of bright orange cotton around their chests and waists, and they're twisting their hips and rolling their bare shoulders as if their limbs were made of soft wires.

Sam is the owner of this African grocery and cosmetics store -- Specialty International, Inc., according to the small white sign over the door. More commonly it's known simply as Sam's. Dropping the fish on the counter and moving around it to the cash register, he snaps his fingers and shimmies.

A dozen men, some of Sam's 200 or so regular customers, sit at two long card tables or huddle around a checkerboard at the front of the store. A few of them sway with the music. One man dances in front of the other patrons, turning his feet in and out while sliding across the floor. He could just as easily be in a nightclub in Lagos, Ibadan, or Benin City, and the men sitting and watching him could just as easily be playing checkers under a baobab tree on the outskirts of one of these Nigerian cities.

Sam's inventory includes every variety of traditional West African vegetable that can be dried, canned, or frozen for shipment: powdered white yams, fufu mix (made from the tubers of the arrowhead plant), and garri (pounded and dried cassava root that can be boiled into a paste and used in making goat meat stew). Sometimes on a weekend afternoon, Sam and his wife Fabia buy a goat and prepare a feast of traditional pepper soup -- goat meat cooked in broth seasoned with black pepper and pungent seeds called kukrakao, or atari.

But the men who play or watch checkers on this cool autumn evening also feed on memories. Now in their late 30s and early 40s (Sam himself is 43), they remember when they were students in Nigeria and their large extended families offered them advice, financial assistance, and unconditional camaraderie. They came to America with dreams of success and prosperity in a culture they had been told was superior to their own. Most still dream of returning to their homes as "been-to's" (Nigerian parlance for people educated abroad and a play on the word Bantu) or "wabenzis" (a recent African coinage that describes a new social class wealthy enough to drive Mercedes-Benzes).

The few men at Sam's who are not Nigerian share this dream: Kossi Asare, a 37-year-old engineer and former professional soccer player, plans to visit his home in Lome, Togo, this Christmas. "In my country they will treat me like a king," he predicts.

Dreams are only dreams, though, and most of Sam's customers must spend their days dealing with the reality that they cannot move back home yet. Trained in Western universities as engineers and businessmen, they cannot return to Africa to improve the infrastructure of its cities or manage its industries. Shaky governments have destabilized African economies, and in Nigeria a succession of military regimes has built up the armed forces at the expense of peacetime industries. Of Dade's 3600 African nationals, the 440 Nigerians represent the second-largest group from sub-Saharan Africa; South Africa is first with 521. But the community is geographically scattered. "When you go to the Haitian community or the Cuban community, they have a place," Sam explains. "Africans have no place -- there's no Little Africa, like Little Haiti."

During the early Eighties, when a number of Nigerians owned businesses in Opa-locka, there was some discussion of creating a commercial consortium there, says John Agbayegbe, executive director of the Nigerian Association of South Florida, an economic development organization based in North Dade. "It was an idea that's been talked about, to make Opa-locka our own Little Lagos, but there hasn't been a real effort," Agbayegbe says. "There weren't enough businesses in the area -- they are spread throughout Dade and Broward counties."

From Dade and Broward, African nationals travel as far as 40 miles to visit Sam's, where the aroma of cod, the prickly scent of peppercorns, and the buttery fragrance of palm oil conjure up images of their homeland. Though women occasionally drop by, the clientele is mostly male. "This is the only place that resembles a beer parlor in my country," explains 37-year-old Eric Woods, a Nigerian whose business is helping people get building permits. "A beer parlor is a place for men to hang out. Women stay home and prepare dinner." Sam, the consummate host, presides over all, offering credit as needed, managing conversations, trading in gossip, and conducting business. Much of his time is spent learning about shipments of goods from Africa or Jamaica to the Port of Miami or Miami International Airport. "Sam is a culture broker of sorts because he's so incredibly accomplished in negotiating between cultures," says Brent Cantrell, a folk-art expert who has spent several years in West Africa, including a recent stint at a Nigerian university.

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