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.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is a teeming nation of 110 million people in an area just larger than Texas. When Nigeria earned its independence from Britain in 1960, the country was a tense union of Arab-influenced Muslim states in the north and traditional African kingdoms in the south. That union nearly shattered during a civil war that began in 1967, when eastern Nigeria seceded as Biafra. After three years of fighting, the Nigerian army crushed the famine-weakened Biafrans, and the country has been ruled by military governments ever since -- with the exception of a short-lived federal republic in the late Seventies and early Eighties.

Despite its political upheavals, Nigeria has produced many noteworthy figures, in culture both high (Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, novelist Chinua Achebe) and low (basketball center Hakeem Olajuwon, singer Sade). But the country's real story is an economic one. The largest petroleum exporter in Africa, with plentiful oil fields in the southeast and delta regions, Nigeria exports 22 million barrels daily and has reserves estimated at 20 billion barrels.

But the oil revenues have not been invested in improving the nation's infrastructure, according to Mike Fleshman, human rights coordinator for the Africa Fund in Washington, D.C. Twice since 1988 specially appointed auditors have investigated oil revenue expenditures. But when they concluded that a total of $21 billion was unaccounted for, their reports were quashed. The political corruption and resulting economic slump have prompted massive departures from the country. Fleshman says, "Part of the great tragedy is this: When you look at the incredibly rich human capital and the depth of its resources, Nigeria should have been the first real superpower to emerge from Africa. It still has that potential, but it has been squandered."

Sam Jack grew up in Port Harcourt in the south-central Niger River delta region, where the British Petroleum Company built Nigeria's first refinery in the Fifties. Even the history of the oil economy is a tragic one: To transport this liquid gold, multinational corporations laid pipelines through small villages. Over decades the pipes have rusted and leaked, and some rivers and streams in the delta have become so polluted that some of Sam's minority Ijaw tribe can no longer make their living fishing, as they had for generations. His own father worked as a police officer.

By the time Sam earned a bachelor's degree in business from the University of Miami in 1980, Nigeria's first elected civilian president, Shehu Shagari, had been in power for a year, and outside analysts predicted a period of prosperity. "During the time of the oil boom of the Seventies and Eighties, the whole drive [among Nigerian expatriates] was to go back home," recalls Carol Boyce-Davis, director of the African-American Studies program at Florida International University. She earned her doctorate in African literature in 1979 from Ibadan University in southern Nigeria. "People worked hard and got their education, and when they got home they were assured nice positions at a high level. There was a time when you got a position in government and you automatically got a car. It was an amazing time."

Sam decided to remain in Miami, where he could buy industrial chemicals relatively cheaply and export them to the continent at a profit. The trade remained vigorous until Gen. Ibrahim Babangida took power from the military (which had overthrown Shagari) in a 1985 coup; the economy began to deteriorate and Sam's business suffered. "I lost most of my Nigerian customers because they couldn't get lines of credit," Sam recalls. "In 1986 the naira was devalued and no one could afford to import anything. Now they make their own resins and pastes."

When Sam realized that his export business was faltering, he opened a shop in Fort Lauderdale importing African products. Not only could he sell to West Africans but also to Haitians, Jamaicans, and even Cubans, for dried cod (bacalao) is a part of Caribbean culture as well, and some Nigerian products are used in Santeria rituals. But Sam needed a large staff to operate the Fort Lauderdale store. He says he couldn't manage them effectively, so he shut down that business and opened the grocery.

Like Sam, many of the men who frequent Specialty International have decided to stay in the United States rather than attempt the almost impossible task of succeeding in Nigeria. Sunday Aiyegbeni completed his training as a pilot at Burnside-Ott Aviation School, the Miami arm of a Pensacola military contractor, but the national airline had stopped hiring. "The market for commercial pilots was saturated with people more qualified than I," he recalls. So he remained at Burnside to earn credentials as a flight instructor. Before he could finish, Burnside-Ott was purchased by a larger company in 1986 and closed down. "I was stranded," he says.

Aiyegbeni and another Nigerian aviation student pooled their resources and started to export high-tech equipment and spare parts to the Nigerian government. (The country's oil revenues and loans from international banks helped the government stay afloat while the economy worsened.) His partner's brother remained in Nigeria to negotiate contracts with officials. The export trade has not made Aiyegbeni or his partners rich, but it has provided Aiyegbeni what his own country could not: gainful employment.

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."

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."

It's a long drive to Sam's next stop -- a container warehouse on the edge of the Everglades. After that he must visit a ranch a few miles farther west; he needs two goats to slaughter for weekend meat sales. Using English and a few words of broken Spanish, Sam exchanges pleasantries with the ranch hand.

For a decade Sam's world has worked this way -- a little business here, a little business there. "All your life depends on sales," he observes. "You have to make sales." In a good week, Sam can gross as much as $4000 selling and delivering goods. But not every week is a good week. When his friend Brent Cantrell still worked at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, Sam was sometimes invited to prepare food for conferences and meetings. The money -- as much as $1500 per event -- helped him weather the slow days. Now he's dependent on the store's earnings alone, and on weekdays sales can sometimes fall below $200. Saturdays are his safety nets, for he can gross between $1000 and $2000. The family doesn't work on Sundays.

Sometimes Sam talks about saving enough money to return to Nigeria, build a house near Port Harcourt, and start over again in a town where the pace is more relaxed. He does not want a mansion or a Mercedes. After nearly twenty years away from home, he just wants to be near his relatives. "I miss my brothers and sisters, my cousins," he says. "When I went back home for my father's funeral, I felt so much better."

If he can't return, he would at least like to send his children to a boarding school in Nigeria. He frets about the effects of Miami's fast-moving culture, where the young grow up too quickly and drugs and gang violence confront them daily in school. "There are lot of people who think that because of crime, it's not a good place to raise children," he muses. "Right now [my children] are disciplined, but who knows down the line when they mix with their high school friends?"

At the end of another World Series game, the crowd at Sam's has dwindled to about four, and Sam is ready to leave. Izzy Wordu strolls to his well-worn Audi, but it won't start. For a few minutes he struggles alone in the dark, holding a flashlight.

Then the group comes out of the brightly lit store. "What's the matter with your old jalopy?" asks Lateef Adigun. "Did you pee in it?"

Wordu chuckles: "Maybe that's what I should do."
Before long it's clear the car is not going to cooperate.
"Do you need a ride somewhere?" Adigun asks Wordu.
"No, Sam must pass by my place. I'll go with him."

As Wordu waits, Sam grasps a chain connected to his shop's retractable metal door and pulls it shut. He then walks around the store a few times, checking that the freezers are closed and the tables are clean. After he has inspected the place he stands in the doorway, arms folded, and surveys his domain. When he turns off the lights, darkness envelops the parking lot.

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