Out of Africa

Agnes Essien left Nigeria three decades ago, earned a Ph.D., and ended up minding a market

The beep of the money-wiring machine is almost nonstop, the line is growing, and Agnes Essien is working harder than she expected during the last days of August. If the customers don't want to send cash to loved ones, then they're bringing in payments for the electric company. Or they're scoring a phone card, a bottle of beer, or a pack of cigarettes. Some look at the exotic foods and ethnic hair products neatly piled on shelves.

Agnes is afraid to say how much money she's made today. She doesn't want to give would-be robbers any ideas. But it's clear she's done well despite the fact that the waning days of each month are generally slow. "It's these days that make you feel as if you didn't waste the whole day sitting here doing nothing," Agnes howls with glee. Clad in her usual, loose-fitting T-shirt and body-hugging leggings, she sits cross-legged while talking with a visitor. Often customers come in for beverages, smokes, or a piece of candy, and ask if they can pay for it later. Her friends occasionally borrow five or ten spots from the meager cash in her register. Though profits are sparse at the year-old store, Agnes doesn't mind. She's only glad to help her visitors, offering free advice along with the merchandise.

Agnes's place, West Indian American Grocery, is as nondescript as its neighbors in a strip mall located in Tamarac in the 4900 block of State Road 7. Crowded on the front windows are signs of all kinds. A neon light declares the business open while it glows some 13 hours a day, 7 days a week. Slick color brochures taped to the window tout phone cards, 1-900 numbers for lonely men hoping to chat with lovely ladies, and travel packages to Caribbean islands. Homemade placards carefully printed in black magic marker offer cleaning services run by mercenary maids. There are so many of these announcements that, from the outside, one can barely see the proprietress within.

Yet Agnes is usually there beyond the posted 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. hours of operation. She comes in at 7 a.m. and leaves at 10 p.m., commuting by bus because her car was totaled in an auto accident this past May. The customers arrive in just a trickle most days. Folks from the nearby International House of Pancakes, Reflections beauty salon, and Southeast Insurance Agency come in for cigarettes. Caribbean immigrants, mostly Jamaicans and Haitians, check out the food, hair extensions, and toiletries from overseas. Most of the time Agnes sits at her computer, which is perched atop an office desk so dilapidated she has to warn visitors not to lean on it.

The 45-year-old's face, capped with zigzagging braids courtesy of a Jamaican hairdresser friend, is round, smooth, and almost always smiling. She is at once contemplative and warm; one does not immediately notice that her left eye is made of glass, the result of a childhood accident. Her body, barely five feet tall, sometimes stoops as a result of numerous medical problems; three mornings a week she sees a chiropractor before opening the shop for another long day.

Sometimes, though, Agnes gets bored. "When the store's not busy, you can see her walking up and down the sidewalk as fast as she can -- she just wants someone to talk to," says Alissa Hauser, an easygoing, blond, 24-year-old agent at Southeast Insurance Agency, next door to Agnes's grocery, who stops in often for cigarettes or conversation. "She's cool, and she's so great -- always has something to talk about, always saying "please' and "thank you.' She's very educated, too."

Indeed the struggling shopkeeper has a Ph.D. in education from North Texas State University, as well as master's and bachelor's degrees in the same field. Agnes is a study in contrasts. She's proud of her education, but is loathe to admit her academic achievements to her largely underprivileged customers. Though she's black, she claims she has been subject to racism from African-Americans born in the United States, who hear her heavy Nigerian accent and think, she's not one of us. She speaks passionately about the children she once taught, yet she has no desire to return to the profession. She treasures family above all else, but she lives thousands of miles from her husband, Joseph Akpanikat, and nine-year-old son, Ebe. Finally, though the store consumes almost all of Agnes's energy and has tested her spiritual limits, it is only a means to achieving her goals -- to be self-sufficient, bring her child and sisters to this country, and provide a steady income when she begins medical school.


Ikot Abasi. The phrase means "people of God." It is also the name of the southeastern Nigerian village whence Agnes hails. When she describes her birthplace, her voice lowered to barely more than a whisper, her face is radiant with memory. "Where I come from, you can feel the presence of God. It is a blessed land." As she speaks, she writes out words and sketches maps on a piece of scrap paper, just like a teacher presenting a lesson. The rural area where she was born includes several individual farms, about five acres each, and has temperate, 70-degree weather year round. Like the prairies of the American West, the land is flat -- "clear so you can see each other" from one house to the next, Agnes says. Her family lived simply, manually pumping water from an outdoor well. Everyone grew their own produce: plantains, yucca, tomatoes, peppers. "My mother never bought peppers in the store," she says proudly. "Right from the farm, we cooked all the vegetables." A big river nearby yielded all the fish anyone could possibly eat. People also walked to a salt-water lagoon down the road, collected the brine there, and then hauled it back home to boil down to salt crystals. "You could have a lot of children and not have to spend a dollar on them," Agnes says. "It was very self-sufficient."

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