Out of Africa

Michael McElroy

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."  

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, 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.

Students and teachers were mostly nice at first, Agnes recalls. The presence of many enthusiastic, mature high-school kids who were getting a jump-start on a university education helped the 100-pound teenager from Nigeria to feel a little less out of place. Everywhere she went, Agnes carried a tape recorder so she could replay lectures and conversations in her room, and slowly learn the new dialect. She even used books on tape to study her lessons. "I was a special student," she laughs.

Other aspects of life in America were a shock. She had never seen a heavy winter coat, much less knew to get herself one. "They should tell foreign students about them when they come here, so they don't catch pneumonia," Agnes muses. The first time she saw snow falling, she squealed in terror and tried to take cover from the bombardment. People laughed as she cried: "What is it? What is it?"

Other moments were less mirthful in a region that had been in the center of racial clashes during the 1960s civil rights movement. Though people like her were no longer prohibited from lunch counters, a subversive attitude practically barred her from obtaining the medical education she originally sought.

"Think about how Arkansas was [30] years ago. Arkansas was going through a big transformation. I'll be honest with you -- there were professors who would sit in their classroom and make you feel really bad, saying, "Oh, where are you from?' Some of the professors were so brutal publicly, saying in the classroom that "a black person cannot earn an A in my class,' because they just did not believe we could comprehend that much." Professors would grill her when she'd show up to biology class, sure that she was there by accident. She'd try to talk to science and health department instructors, hoping to pursue her dream of med school, but their callousness and curt, fake smiles put her off. The only people who were nice to her, she says, were in the education department. And that's how Agnes, who wanted to surpass her parents' forays in health care, ended up majoring in elementary education. "I wanted to be like the nice people I'd met."

Agnes managed to graduate in two and a half years. "Believe me, I wanted to leave there as quickly as possible," she says, "wanted to dive in and get the heck out." She attended summer school and took larger-than-usual course loads every term. She also decided to pursue further studies that might help her become a better teacher. After earning her undergraduate degree, she attended Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma, and earned her master's degree in education. Living in Oklahoma was, by far, Agnes's favorite experience in America. "There were more people who shared [my] view, who were foreign-born or newly immigrated. There was integration of faculty, people with new ideas, not 1950s ideas. And it was in the middle of Indian country, so there was a little bit of a different [mindset]. There, they are cool and calm, and when you say something they listen to you. Not like in other places, where they think, "You are already from a lower place, so we don't want to listen to you.'"  

After completing her master's degree in 1980, Agnes went to Texas to be with her long-time boyfriend, Joseph Akpanikat, whom she had met in Nigeria as a youngster. The two, who emigrated separately, had been visiting each other at school. Joseph was studying medicine, and Agnes decided to pursue her Ph.D. in education at North Texas State University.

Agnes enrolled in classes on and off for the next several years. In the mid-'80s, she and Joseph returned to Nigeria and she tried to sort through what she wanted out of life. "I played with my sisters, whom I missed terribly. I ate real food from the farm. I got closer to my mom and dad. And I got married." Agnes and Joseph returned to Texas, where she taught in Dallas. "It was really a test of what you want to do in life. I realized that maybe I made a mistake." The foul language of second-graders there -- "Bitches! Motherfucker!"-- upset her Catholic school sensibilities, though when she complained her colleagues laughed and said kids were just that way in America.

Believing there were better job opportunities in Florida, Agnes made her way to Miami in 1988. The volatile community and politics of that city's school system bothered her. So did the attitudes of some African-American parents who didn't cotton to a foreigner teaching their kids. "Some mothers would come with the curlers in their hair, slippers on their feet, in their nightgown, and say, "Who do you think you are, telling me about my child?'" The following year, she applied to the Broward County school system and was hired to teach second grade at North Andrews Garden Elementary, then a predominantly white school in Fort Lauderdale. For the next eight years, Agnes would find much joy in her students, but it wouldn't last.

At first Agnes enjoyed presiding over the classroom. Her heart went out to her kids; once, a boy asked her for new socks, saying his family was too poor to buy them, so she bought an entire package and let the whole class pick out pairs. The children were better behaved than in Dallas and Miami, she says, as were the parents. Agnes did not allow her students to get away with horseplay -- but she made school as fun as play. "It's all about your personality and how you approach them. I think they liked me because I had an accent and was different," Agnes says with delight. "I could jump up and down in the classroom like the kids. I could climb the playground equipment like the kids."

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.  

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."

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.

Agnes picks up a pencil as she starts to describe her plan to build a hospital in Nigeria where children of all walks of life will be able to get treatment. She hopes to make it a teaching facility where doctors from around the world can practice. "I will build it on my father's land," Agnes says, while scratching out diagrams of her plans on a sheet of fax paper. For the moment she is once again a schoolteacher, sharing her knowledge with whomever wants it. Then, when she finishes the drawing and puts down the pen, she decides it's time for the scholar to revert to janitor. She can't wait until the morning to clean, so she prepares the bucket and mop. She won't run the store forever, but for now Agnes wants it to be spotless.

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