Out of Africa

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

The low cost of existence ("We only paid for the clothes we wore.") was conducive to another traditional way of life: raising a huge brood of children. Agnes was born in 1956; her mother, Amaeka, was 13 years old at the time and her father, Dominic, chief of the Essene Ikot Abasi tribe, was age 18. At birth she was named Ekaete, meaning "mother of my father," then baptized as Agnes a few days later. She was far from being an only child. When asked how many siblings she has, Agnes pauses and says, "Do you want to include stepbrothers? Then 64."

At the time polygamy was essential. "It was a way of waging war against anybody that comes to overtake you," Agnes says, explaining that an army of sons could defend a man's property. The extended family (Dominic was technically married to four women, though several more came and went over the years) lived in an 11-bedroom house that Dominic built himself at little cost; the sand needed to mix cement for the walls and foundation was plentiful. Despite the quantity of women and children in her father's families, Agnes insists it was an idyllic lifestyle: "No one ever fought; no one was jealous."

Balancing this ancient African lifestyle was an extremely Catholic upbringing. In the 1950s, missionaries, who mostly hailed from Britain, entered rural enclaves like Ikot Abasi to teach school to children, and to instruct adults in farming and health care. With the missionaries' help, Dominic and Amaeka, who weren't college-educated, were able to open a health clinic that was commonly known in the village as "the dispensary." These soldiers of the Catholic faith taught the Essiens to care for the sick, donated start-up money to build the dispensary, and brought in medicines. Says Agnes, her eyes shining like a child recalling favorite heroes, "We really respected them, for caring about people who do not look like them and for coming to live in such a low condition in order to help another repressed group of people."

Agnes Essien keeps her year-old store clean, orderly, and well-stocked
Michael McElroy
Agnes Essien keeps her year-old store clean, orderly, and well-stocked
West Indian American Grocery offers many 
specialty wares
Michael McElroy
West Indian American Grocery offers many specialty wares

Agnes, who was brought up speaking both English and the local Ibibio dialect, was the product of missionary schools, which employed methods she still believes were the best. "When it was time to learn, you learned 100 percent. When it was time to play, you played 100 percent." Agnes was adept at running the 100-yard dash; other extracurricular activities included basketball and dance. She didn't have as much time as other kids for such diversions, though; her parents hired a private tutor for Agnes and her three brothers -- Emmanuel, Augustin, and Essien (in African culture, Agnes explains, it's common to give a special child the family surname as his first name). "My parents made one important rule: No child of theirs would be without education," she explains. "Believe me; they regarded education more highly than the people at school!"

It worked. Agnes graduated from high school at age 16. But she could not attend a Nigerian university for two reasons: First, all entering students had to be at least age 18. Second, her parents couldn't afford the required bribery. "It didn't matter if you passed this or that test; all that mattered was that you had the money to pay the registrar to put you on the list!" she says, her voice rising in excitement at the injustice, which still stings today. "A simple registrar, who only does this [pantomimes typing] all day, you have to pay them $1000!"

So Dominic Essien asked friends who had traveled overseas to keep an eye out for a school that his daughter could attend. One of these travelers brought back an application from the University of Central Arkansas. Agnes filled it out and sent it off, only half-heartedly thinking she had a shot.

"When [the acceptance] came, I thought it was a joke," Agnes recalls. "It was a real surprise. I was so shocked." There was no time for second thoughts; her father told her she was going. Before she knew what was happening, Agnes was on a plane to Arkansas, where the painful and continuing process of integration proved a rude awakening.


It was a long and lonely jet ride from rural West Africa to the Ozarks. Agnes was overwhelmed by her adventure, but others looked out for her. "There was a car from the university that was waiting to pick me up at the airport," she recalls. "My father had taken care of everything -- I was too young to even understand that I would be all alone on the plane." The dorms didn't open for several days after Agnes's arrival, but university officials allowed her to stay alone in the massive freshman living quarters. At least that's what she figured out later; at the time, Agnes, educated by the British, could not decipher a word of Southern-American English. The morning after her arrival, people from the admissions office visited to tell her where to shower and get breakfast. Then she took a taxi to a Wal-Mart to buy new sheets and decorations for her room. For the next few days the admissions office sent folks to wake Agnes and take her to breakfast. "Someone was always telling me when it was time to eat, because they know you are wacky when you get off the plane," she recalls.

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