Out of Africa

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

On sunny days, she would teach math, picnic-style, outside on the grass. She would teach the kids songs from her childhood. And sometimes she'd cajole the principal to buy pretzel dough for the students to form into dinosaurs and bake, while playing country music on a record player ("good words, not like the crazy songs children listen to today," she says) for them to dance to. She cooked African food in the classroom, which the children gobbled up while learning about ethnic cuisines.

Agnes's initial success could have been predicted by past employers, whose reference letters are in her school board file; they touted her professional behavior and vouched for her affection for children. Joel Keiter, the North Andrews principal who hired Agnes, offers fond memories of her. "She was a very fine person, as I recall, and loved her students," says Keiter, who retired in the mid-'90s and lives in Pompano Beach. "And she got along really well with her students' parents. She was a very intelligent young lady." Indeed every annual review in Agnes's personnel file is positive; they are full of "satisfactory" marks and comments like "Great job!" and "a dedicated second grade teacher" -- which makes the events of her last year teaching particularly disturbing.

During the 1996-1997 school year, Agnes's world came crashing down. It began with a botched pedicure, she says; her toenails were so badly mauled she couldn't wear shoes for a week. The day she decided to resume footwear was the day that Santa Claus visited the North Andrews library. Unstable on her feet, Agnes had trouble maneuvering around St. Nick's display and suffered a nasty fall. That night she began feeling pain in her abdomen and soon had to undergo surgery. Doctors removed what they said was a cyst; they also took out her fallopian tubes, which contradicted her express wishes and cultural beliefs. The emotional torment was compounded by a physical one, she adds.

Insurance agent Alissa Hauser often stops by the store for a pack of smokes and conversation
Michael McElroy
Insurance agent Alissa Hauser often stops by the store for a pack of smokes and conversation

Around that time, Agnes recalls, she and her husband, who have lived apart for several years so each could pursue a career, started having marital problems (though she emphasizes that they now have an amicable relationship). Most hurtful of all, though, were the conflicts Agnes started having with her colleagues and supervisors. Even now, four years later, the wounds sear her soul. Agnes tries to laugh at some of the things others said about her, such as allegations that she believed some students were possessed by demons. But the more she speaks about it, the more upset she becomes. Tears fall from her eyes as she grips her head in grief and her voice rises in rage, then in sadness falls to almost a whisper. If not for her exemplary record otherwise, one might think her tale too bizarre to believe. She was exiled from her beloved North Andrews Garden Elementary to perform study hall duty at a high school. She was put on administrative leave, then quit before the case was resolved.

Agnes didn't want a typical nine-to-five job anymore, so she did odd jobs around her Miami home. It took her years to decide what to do. "I loved the children, but I hated how people who didn't like you could do this to you," Agnes says in a calmer moment. The school experience soured her so much, she decided she wanted to be her own boss -- just like her parents. "I honestly don't like other people telling me what to do," Agnes says. So she borrowed money from Dominic and Amaeka and rented the store a year ago. She decided to sell something she knew well -- ethnic groceries. It would become a way for her to earn her keep and -- she hopes -- bring her son and sisters to America.

Agnes is an enthusiastic tour guide, as eager to describe her native foods to a visitor as she was to teach them to second-graders. She starts at the shelves near the entrance to her shop; every item is a new and exciting stop on this journey into ethnic epicurism.

There's the Jamaican fruit bun, a "hot seller" catering to the local demographic of Caribbean immigrants. There are cans of sardines, similar to those Agnes ate as a baby, and pigeon peas. The Venus de Milo soap, wrapped in black and white paper that's marked "Made For Nigeria," is great for removing dead skin and smoothing the body, she explains. Carbolic Germicidal Soap is what Agnes's mom always used after working on the farm, with no hot water readily available -- "You want to clean your body with this before you allow your children to touch you," Agnes explains. Jamaican jerk seasonings, similar to the spices used in West African cooking, come in two sizes and several brands. Strawberry syrup for ice cream and pancakes, and a vanilla corn drink offer more exotic treats. Jamaican-brand sodas come in unusual flavors like pineapple. What looks like sticks of kindling in hamster shavings are actually yams -- real yams, not the sweet potatoes North Americans are used to. "This yam, it tells a story -- of how the black people came to the New World from Africa and planted their food."

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