Into Africa

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

Several of Sam's customers report similar experiences, and the mere mention of the subject of race provokes a series of angry anecdotes. "Don't ask me about racism," says one of the men, a Fort Lauderdale architect. "I can't drive to Coral Gables without getting pulled over by the police. Racism is life in the United States." But while they can't deny their skin color marks them, their presence in the United States testifies to the opportunities available, and they are determined not to let prejudice get the better of them.

Outside Sam's, in the parking lot, a group of young black men linger idly, smoking cigarettes. They are there most weekday evenings. One of Sam's customers points at the young men and says, "If you were a black American, you'd end up like them."

"No," counters Okaa Chima Ajoku. "The Lord helps those who help themselves." Ajoku, whose business card describes him as a Nigerian king, says he doesn't feel limited. "I can do anything that a white man can do," he asserts.

Agbonze, who learned a thing or two about American race relations while absorbing baseball in the Bronx, chimes in: "White people in this country have much more opportunity. The opportunities for blacks were lost when they were very young."

If Sam Jack's role as a "culture broker" and one-man support system tires him out, he's too busy to complain. When he opens the shop on a recent weekday, he already has a long list of chores to do. One of them concerns a regular customer who suffered a minor stroke while at work at a Miami pharmacy. To complicate matters, the man's wife is in the late stages of pregnancy. So Sam has offered to deliver some powdered yam, palm oil, and dried, shredded greens for soup.

But it's past two o'clock before he finally gets into his Nissan Pathfinder and heads to the customer's Miami Shores home. Arms laden with paper sacks and plastic bags, Sam knocks on the door and a slender man answers. He talks to Sam for a few moments and then invites him in to see his wife. This is the Nigerian-American dream: The man has his job at the pharmacy, his wife is pregnant with their first child, and the couple owns its tidy one-story home.

That dream is not easily realized by most Nigerians in America. Aiyegbeni, for example, dated black American women for his first nine years in Miami. When one of them invited him to her home and casually asked her mother to bring them beverages, he was horrified. "In my place, you do not call your mother to get you a soda when you bring home a man," he says. Children serve their parents in Nigeria, not vice versa.

In addition, the relative independence of American women is disconcerting to Nigerian men, who try to forge lasting relationships while still maintaining the paternalism that is so important in Africa. "We have matured into this society," says Aiyegbeni. "In our culture, no matter what you think, we respect women. Because of that, here they think we are stupid. We're not. We try to give and give and give." Eight years ago Aiyegbeni met and married a second-generation Nigerian American. Now he proudly shows off photographs of his month-old daughter. When he leaves Sam's at eight o'clock, he takes home a packaged meal so his wife won't have to prepare dinner.

Not all of Specialty International's regular patrons have worked out solutions to the differences between them and their American wives. Kossi Asare came to Miami in 1988 after playing with Togo's national soccer team; for five years was a forward with the now-defunct Miami Freedom pro soccer team. He and his American wife have a three-year-old daughter, and he beams when he utters the child's name: Zhane. But he doesn't always understand his wife, nor she him.

"I want to do things the way I do in Togo and she wants to do things her way," he says. In his country, he'd solve the argument with his fists: "You have to beat her, and then you reason." That's the way his father solved disputes with his mother -- one of his eight wives, Asare explains. "My father was the toughest man," he says. "If he wasn't, I wouldn't be in this country today." Asare knows that his father's methods of resolving arguments won't succeed in the United States. "I don't touch my wife," he says. Instead of getting rough, he gets out. Sam's is his refuge.

Even Sam, whose wife is Nigerian-born, sighs heavily as he considers the constant responsibility of maintaining a family. He and Fabia have three children, ages fourteen, twelve, and eight, and raising them correctly is sometimes a struggle. "I don't pray for a breakup," he remarks, "but if we did, I'd remain a bachelor. I know what it is like to be married." Still, he's committed to his marriage. Nigerians rarely divorce -- though the number is growing as the nation becomes more developed -- and traditionally, when a man and wife quarrel, the extended family helps the couple resolve its problems. The frequency of broken marriages in America saddens Sam. "In my country, we're told that everything is great here," he remarks. "Whatever I get from here is never good."

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