Out of Africa

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

The freezer is filled with meats of all kinds -- goat, lamb, and various African fish including maniyak, onognko, and etabum. Agnes has plans for currently empty shelves in a back corner -- she'd like to stock dried vegetables imported from Africa like ntrong, melon, etidot, afang, okro, editan, afia,and ileon efere.

The shop is so small, there isn't really a storage room. Instead, a pile of broken equipment in the back makes a handy spot to keep two kinds of floor cleaner. No matter how many customers visit, Agnes makes sure to mop at least every other night. The aroma of disinfectant is permanently present in the air, and the chemicals have left a permanent mark on Agnes's hands, which are rough and dry around the cuticles. One suspects even Venus de Milo soap won't help them.

Agnes says it was God, not business savvy, that led her to the Tamarac storefront. "I just drove up here (from Miami), and suddenly found this empty place," she says. It took only three months for her to locate the space and set up shop. Agnes cites affordable rent (though she declines to say how much) and the constant presence of police as two reasons she chose the strip mall, which is located just north of Lauderhill. The area is known for its large population of people from the Caribbean, people whose cuisines are similar to that of Africa. Up and down State Road 7, there are jerk restaurants, Haitian and Jamaican botanicas, dance clubs like Soca City, and, yes, other groceries that sell products from the islands. It's typical of Broward County, where the number of Caribbean natives has almost tripled in the last decade to 154,714.

"I remember Agnes was real nervous when she first opened," Alissa Hauser recalls. A year later, survival is still a struggle, especially when long periods of inactivity are interrupted only by the sale of one bottle of beer or a pack of cigarettes. But Agnes offers more than just convenience items and comfort food for new immigrants. "I try to help people, like I wanted help when I was a foreigner just coming here," Agnes says. "They ask me things like where the immigration office is, how to drive there, what to do if they have to fill out a certain kind of paper. A lot of them have even asked me, "Where do I go to get a GED?'"

Agnes sometimes must deal with people who encounter a woman with a foreign accent and presume she's ignorant. During a recent afternoon, Agnes spoke with Damian, a 25-year-old, unemployed, high-school dropout who comes to the store a few times a week to grab a bottle of beer, sometimes without paying until the next day. Damian felt the need to wile away several hours telling Agnes how to run her store, despite his own lack of experience, knowledge, or skills. His patronizing attitude clearly upset Agnes. But she managed to remain upbeat, proclaiming: "It is the Catholic way, to be humble."

Other patrons do appreciate Agnes's knowledge. Candy, a stylist at Reflections, a beauty salon in the strip mall, often buys soda, phone cards, and aspirin. With her hip, short hairdo and gold hoop earrings, Candy looks more sophisticated than some of the immigrant customers. But the thirtysomething woman, who declined to give her last name, says she looks to Agnes for guidance. "She's been telling me a lot about small-business programs. I want to open my own business someday, and she gives me good advice."

After a long day Agnes studies receipts and ponders whether to mop immediately or wait until the following morning. She seems tired, but her eyes are bright as she looks at a two-foot-long book with cardboard pages that feature colorful descriptions and illustrations of various animals. A Post-it note says, "Ebe." Agnes explains that she sent her son to live with her mom in Nigeria last year when she realized she and her husband were not able to give him a stable home together.

"I want him to bring [the book] to school, so the teacher can use it in class," Agnes says, with a smile. "It's big, so all the children can sit around it and read in unison."

Agnes pulls out a faux-leather-bound Bible, stroking it over and over as she ponders her future. There are certain psalms she tries to read every day, depending on her spiritual need at the moment, but Agnes fears she doesn't devote enough time to God. She blames this partly on the store, which requires her to work long hours for low profits. "This place has taken a lot out of me. I haven't prayed as much as I used to," she admits.

Soon she hopes to make another change by fulfilling her long-ago ambition to become a doctor. She's already made plans to attend medical school, and is in the process of placing the grocery in the names of her sisters, 19-year-old Grace and 23-year-old Stella. Agnes wants to fly to Nigeria this December, then return with her sisters and son. Ebe will likely live with his aunties, who will provide a more stable home for him while she attends classes next fall. "[My son] is going to stay here, and I am going to hit the road!" Agnes says. Her infectious cackle fills the now-dark store, her smile lighting it up.

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