Into Africa

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

Businessmen weren't the only ones hurt when the country's political problems overpowered its economy. When Eric Woods left Nigeria in 1985, he was already a successful television journalist, at the age of 25. Woods planned to earn a degree in broadcast management in Miami and hoped eventually to run a television station. "But the country I left wasn't the same country I would have gone back to," he laments. For journalists and other writers, this is something of an understatement. In 1995 the world looked on in horror as Gen. Sani Abacha ordered the execution of author and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa after what was widely viewed as a show trial. The leader of a minority ethnic group known as the Ogoni, Saro-Wiwa had demanded that Shell Oil compensate his people for the destruction of their farmlands. He became a cause celebre, but he was by no means the only victim of the Abacha regime. Eight other men have been hanged and four journalists have been imprisoned, including the manager of a radio station sentenced to fifteen years in prison for broadcasting the Ogoni anthem.

Today Woods cannot discuss his nation without bitterness. He summons up the past glory of his home -- Benin City, a southern Nigerian metropolis known for its brass and ivory sculpture -- and dismisses it angrily. "You see how great it was," he says. Still, Woods says that the political trouble in Nigeria is secondary to the economic instability. "Whoever is in power, I don't give a damn," Woods growls. "Reports are coming out that people are looting money, sending the money out. It's not political, it's economic. People are stealing the treasury."

The first game of the Marlins-Indians World Series plays on Sam's television to a small crowd. The men aren't overly excited about it, but they're eager to show at least a modicum of interest in America's national pastime. Sam collects food containers from the back of the shop and stacks them neatly in the cooler at the front. He opens a freezer full of hunks of goat and fish and counts wrapped packages of meat. When he finally sits heavily in front of the television, he is bewildered. "I don't understand it," admits Sam, who was captain of his high school soccer team. All Sam's customers are soccer fans, and in comparison to that game's complicated choreography, baseball appears to be devoid of strategy. "What I'll do, I'll keep watching it," Sam says. "That's how I picked up American football."

On the screen a Cleveland batter fouls away a pitch. "Why didn't he run?" inquires Lateef Adigun, a Nigerian social worker who now works as a private contractor.

"Because it was a foul," explains Eddie Agbonze, a diminutive man with a professorial countenance. The Benin City native holds a bachelor's degree in finance from the State University of New York in Buffalo as well as a stockbroker's certificate from New York University. He has been in the United States for sixteen years. During his time in New York, he lived in the Bronx and had to pick up some basic baseball knowledge in order to get along with Yankee fans.

"Because it landed in back of him rather than in front?" asks Adigun.
"Yes," answers Agbonze emphatically, and then launches into a lecture on how players' salaries are skyrocketing. He paces while expounding, raising his voice frequently. Agbonze's formal Nigerian English, his shaved head, and his wire-rim glasses accentuate his academic manner. He has memorized many players' salaries and he recites the numbers -- four million, seven million, nine million. "Why do they make so much?" Sam asks.

Money isn't the only thing that makes the expatriate Nigerians, whose average yearly income in Africa is about $260, feel alienated. "It is very lonely here," admits Aiyegbeni. "We are not used to the life here. People come home, close their doors. Over there [in Nigeria] you know your neighbors."

At school Aiyegbeni learned the American states and their capitals, wrote essays about the U.S. slave trade and the Revolutionary, Civil, and World wars. But he's dismayed to find out how little Americans know about Africa, and he recalls an encounter with the mother of a Miami woman he had dated. "She said, 'Is it true that Africans live on top of trees?'" Aiyegbeni recalls. "I thought a dumb question deserves a dumb answer. So I said yes. She said: 'How did you get here?' I said, 'I jumped from tree to tree, hopping from island to island.'"

Another of Sam's regulars, Izzy Wordu, learned early on that America's opportunity comes spiked with prejudice. When he arrived here at the age of twenty in 1979, Nigerians were listening to American country singers such as Kenny Rogers. So when Wordu and a friend stepped into Randy's bar (which now serves mainly a Haitian clientele) in North Miami, they were delighted to hear country and western tunes and to see couples dancing to the music. But as the two black men approached the dance floor, the crowd began to thin. "My friend asked a woman to dance, and she refused. Then I asked a woman to dance and she too refused," relates the 40-year-old Wordu. "We decided we had better go. When we got to the door, I asked the man what had happened and he said that they weren't used to seeing black people in this bar."

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